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Last week, Coachella Valley High School in California came under fire for the name of its mascot, the Arab. The Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee sent a letter to the school complaining about the way the mascot depicts people of Middle Eastern descent. Now, just how did the school get this mascot, a man with a beard and hooked nose wearing an Arab headdress? Sam Sanders reports on the controversy.
SAM H. SANDERS, BYLINE: It's game day at Coachella Valley High School. But instead of getting ready for kickoff, students are stopped by a camera crew as they leave campus. One by one, they defend their mascot.
SERGIO ORTEGA: It's pure pride, you know? It's been over generations - generation for generation.
SANDERS: Sergio Ortega is a freshman at CV High. He plays on the school football team. For him, the Arab mascot is all he knows.
ORTEGA: My parents, my grandparents, they've been Arabs, you know, and I don't see nothing wrong with it. It's just to show us that we're strong, you know, we're strong Arabs.
SANDERS: But they're not Arabs or even Arab-Americans. Ninety-nine percent of the school district - and most of the entire region - is Latino. So how did this school get this mascot? Rich Ramirez is the Coachella Valley High School Alumni Association President. He's out talking to the cameras as well. Ramirez says they weren't always known as the Arabs.
RICH RAMIREZ: We were called the date pickers, the desert rats...
SANDERS: But after one big win, they got a new name.
RAMIREZ: Officially, October 16th, 1931, during a game that we had against Hemet High School in football, it was penned afterwards in the sports section, the galloping Arabs.
SANDERS: Ramirez says the mascot isn't meant to be insensitive. But people outside the community say it is.
ABED AYOUB ARAB-AMERICAN ANTI-DISCRIMINATION COMMITTEE: He looks very angry, very mean.
SANDERS: Abed Ayoub is the director of legal and policy affairs at the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, the group that came out against the mascot.
COMMITTEE: One mural has an Arab on a magic carpet with a, you know, with a woman next to them. And then, you look at their halftime show and they have a belly dancer that comes out dancing for the Arab male.
SANDERS: Where did all of this come from? Well, if you dig a little further, the mascot's roots go back to a fruit found in the Middle East - the date. Sarah Seekatz is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside. She's studying the history of dates in the Coachella Valley.
SARAH SEEKATZ: Around the turn of the 20th century, the United States Department of Agriculture sent agricultural explorers to the Middle East and northern Africa to bring back dates. And they found that the Coachella Valley was one of the best places to grow them in the United States.
SANDERS: So, dates came to California. But there had to be a push to make Americans want to eat this new, exotic fruit.
SEEKATZ: In order to boost date sales and also to boost tourism to the region, they decided to tap into the romance around the Middle East.
SANDERS: In spite of the fact that few Arabs ever moved here.
SEEKATZ: The date festival. The town of Mecca. There were other towns: Arabia, Oasis, Thermal. The streets are named Cairo and...
SANDERS: That date festival has camel rides and girls dressed up as Arabian princesses for a pageant.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND)
SANDERS: At the big Coachella Valley High School football game Friday night, the recent controversy didn't seem to change anything.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
SANDERS: Catalina Rojo is the belly dancer for the night. She was there in full gear, proud of her mascot.
CATALINA ROJO: Every time you seen an Arab, they scream. They don't say boo or anything. We're not trying to make them feel bad or anything. We're just trying to represent our school.
SANDERS: Rojo, and pretty much everyone else at the school, wonder why all the fuss now? Seekatz thinks they have a point.
SEEKATZ: Coachella Valley is a poor school district and they don't always get the fair playing field. And so, I think that they may feel like they're being unfairly targeted, especially with the other mascots that are elsewhere, and especially since they didn't choose the mascot.
SANDERS: The school superintendent says he's open to changes for the mascot. The Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee is coming to a meeting with the district later this month to talk. Neither side has said the name Arab has to go. Oh, and in case you're wondering, the Arabs won Friday night's game against cross-town rival Indio High School. Indio's mascot? The Raja, an arms-crossed, turbaned Indian prince. Sam Sanders, NPR News.
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