When a friend in Skye Thomas’s dorm invited her to check out a fraternity party Saturday night, she had no idea there would be a theme.
Thomas, a freshman at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., arrived at the Kappa Sigma party to find attendees dressed in sombreros, ponchos and flower crowns. A bartender had painted his face brown, and two male students were dancing on tables dressed in bright orange and neon green construction vests.
She asked a partygoer about the outfits, and soon learned it was a “Mexican” theme. Others would later say the theme was advertised as “Cinco de Mayo,” or even “Drinko de Mayo,” and “Cinco de Drinko.” Some students would report seeing attendees dressed as maids.
“I was honestly baffled and didn’t really know how to react,” Thomas told The Washington Post. “I was definitely not okay with it.”
Thomas and others at the party started posting tweets and photographs of the costumes, which they described as offensive and racist. One female student, hearing about the party, called it “the most ignorant thing I’ve ever seen.” A male student quickly responded on Twitter: “Party still going, feel free to join the house cleaners.”
The fraternity party drew outrage from students, demonstrations on campus and calls for disciplinary action against the fraternity. Baylor University responded by enacting an interim suspension of Kappa Sigma’s chapter operations, including all fraternity meetings, social events, intramural sports and new member education, “pending the completion of a formal inquiry involving the organization and a culturally insensitive event that took place off-campus,” the university said in a statement.
“The reported behavior is deeply concerning and does not in any way reflect Baylor’s institutional values,” Kevin P. Jackson, vice president for student life, said in a statement. “Baylor is committed to a Christian mission that actively supports a caring and diverse campus community, and we do not tolerate racism of any kind on our campus.”
The national Kappa Sigma organization said the allegations were “inconsistent” with the fraternity’s values, and the findings would be addressed “in an appropriate manner” after investigations are completed, according to statement provided to the Waco Tribune-Herald.
The “Mexican themed” party added the Baylor chapter to a lengthy list of fraternities nationwide under fire for inappropriate party themes, including several focusing on Latino or black culture.
A fraternity at the University of Texas at Austin in February 2015 reportedly held a party with a “border control” theme, with several hundred guests wearing sombreros, ponchos, construction workers’ reflective vests and hard hats, and military camouflage gear. Later that year a fraternity-sorority party with a “Kanye Western” theme sparked protests at the University of California at Los Angeles after some students said the theme and costumes were racist, such as guests who apparently smeared charcoal on their foreheads to darken their faces.
It also came less than a year after a scandal centered around Baylor’s football program roiled the campus. In the wake of an investigation into how the school deals with reports of sexual assault, Baylor’s then-president, Kenneth Starr, stepped down. Art Briles, the school’s football coach, was fired, and Athletic Director Ian McCaw resigned. The investigation by the law firm Pepper Hamilton concluded that the program mishandled accusations of sexual assault accusations against its players, responding with indifference or in some cases hostility to alleged victims.
“I wasn’t surprised that this happened,” Damian Moncada, president of Baylor’s Hispanic Student Association, told The Post. “This is a theme that is happening and keeps happening through the university.”
Last year, a Baylor student government representative reportedly attended a party at another university dressed up as a Border Patrol agent, along with her friend who was portraying a “Mexican,” Moncada said. Students said members of Kappa Sigma, the fraternity that hosted Saturday night’s party, had been heard chanting “build that wall” at a previous campus event.
Of the current freshman class at Baylor, 34 percent are minority students, according to Baylor’s website. Latino or Hispanic students compose about 14 percent of the student body, Moncada said. However, Moncada said, “diversity and inclusion aren’t synonymous.”
“There seems to be a disconnect between students,” Moncada said. Many incidents such as Saturday night’s party stem not from racist intentions, but from a lack of cultural understanding, he said.
“A lot of students and a lot of people here in the United States think it’s one of the most important events that Mexico hosts, and that’s not quite the case,” Moncada said of Cinco de Mayo celebrations. “If anything, the students need to understand they were not celebrating our culture.”
Moncada, along with several leaders of campus minority and multicultural organizations, led a protest Monday in response to the fraternity party.
“We have a lot of students here who are mad, who are furious, and they have a right to be so,” Moncada said into a microphone at the protest. “I hope this is a signal to the administration and to the Baylor Board of Regents that there needs to be diverse and inclusive policies at this university.”
At the demonstration, Grace Rodriguez, a Baylor student who identified herself as Mexican and Honduran, gave a tearful testimony about her parents.
“My dad is a painter and my mom, she cleans offices for a living,” Rodriguez said. “She doesn’t do it because you know, cleaning is great, it’s some type of part of our culture. She does it because she wants something better for me.”
“What happened this weekend is not because of people trying to make fun of race,” Rodriguez continued, “it’s because people don’t understand the sacrifice that is put into us students being here.”