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Originally published Saturday, February 22, 2014 at 6:10 AM

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Desert California town in hot water over Arab mascot

Riverside County, Calif., residents say the Arabic themes of their area and of their annual date festival honor a culture for which they feel great affinity, but one symbol has come under fire: Coachella Valley High School’s sneering, crooked-nosed mascot, the Arab.

The New York Times

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INDIO, Calif. — Riverside County is having its National Date Festival, an annual tribute to a local industry that began in the Middle East. The Feb. 14-23 event, inspired by “A Thousand and One Nights,” features a grand ensemble of midriff-baring women in gauze and sequins and men in shiny, billowy pants and turbans dancing on an elaborate stage with an onion-domed castle.

In addition to the corn dogs and Ferris wheels of a typical county fair, there are date milkshakes and camel races.

The motif extends beyond the festival: In an area where less than 1 percent of the population in 2000 was of Arab origin, according to a Stanford report, streets have names like Bagdad and Arabia, and there are towns called Mecca and Oasis.

But while residents say these names honor a culture for which they feel great affinity, one symbol has come under fire: Coachella Valley High School, in Thermal, negotiated with a national anti-discrimination group to redesign its mascot, the Arab, after objections to the sneering, crooked-nosed figure.

While many schools and sports teams, such as the Washington Redskins, have faced pressure to change names and mascots that many say perpetuate ethnic slurs and stereotypes, those names usually have origins in historical populations (or enmities). But in the Coachella Valley, the Arab reflects imagined ties.

Decades before people transformed this desert landscape with golf courses and swimming pools, they planted rows and rows of date-palm trees. Today, about 95 percent of dates grown in the United States come from the Coachella Valley, roughly 40 million to 50 million pounds per year, according to the California Date Commission.

Hot, dry summers combined with a deep underground water supply make the California desert ideal for growing dates, because most of the fruit is ready for harvest in the fall, in time for the holidays, said Nick Nigosian, who was 7 when his father bought a ranch in Coachella.

Dates can be grown in Texas and Florida, said Nigosian, 65, but their cooler, wetter climates mean the dates are not ready until March — long after the Christmas rush, when the sweet medjools are particularly popular.

The National Date Festival has been held intermittently since 1921, and originally had a cowboy vibe. But in the late 1940s planners seized on the Arabian theme to highlight the dates and desert setting.

The history of the Arab mascot goes back even further, to at least the late 1930s. But late last year, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee was made aware of the school’s carpet-riding mascot, and objected to stereotypical portrayals that included a belly-dancer entertaining the mascot during sporting events.

“Coachella Valley High School’s gross stereotyping cannot be tolerated,” the group wrote in a petition, demanding that the school eliminate the mascot.

“A lot of us were confused, shocked, a little angry,” said Chrystabelle Ramirez, the high school’s senior class president, “because it’s like you’re taking away our mascot, something we take pride in because we all grew up in this community.” Ramirez, who is a member of the committee to redesign the mascot, is the official Princess Dunyazade of the festival, one of three winners of the Queen Scheherazade pageant. She spoke from the bleachers in a stadium on the fairgrounds, where she had gamely chased an emu around a racetrack while wearing a costume reminiscent of Princess Jasmine’s in the Disney movie “Aladdin.”

“It’s not like we just got it out of nowhere,” said Ramirez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who began their lives in the United States picking dates. “We have so much history with our streets, with our festival and with our date history.”

She added, “It’s brought in so much work for so many Hispanic families around here.”

But Ramirez plans to move beyond the date farms and use the $3,000 scholarship she won to help pay for a computer science degree.

In a compromise with the anti-discrimination committee, the school will keep the Arab name but make the figure appear less menacing. The mascot’s new look will most likely be ready in April, and Ramirez said the committee will be invited to teach students about Arab culture.

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