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Partying Out of Bounds?

Photo by Kevin ScanlonThe last thing Jesus Cuellar had on his mind, as he and his brother traversed the USC campus on their way to meet up with a friend, was becoming a central figure in the ongoing drama engulfing the school’s Greek system. It was around midnight on a chilly Thursday in January, and their route took them down fraternity row, a stretch along 28th Street from Hoover Street to Figueroa Boulevard. Not surprisingly, the row was jumping with the sounds of fraternity brothers and sorority sisters blowing off steam at the end of a long week hitting the books. Jesus, a quiet, studious type, didn’t pay much mind. To the financial-aid student, the Greek scene felt like a different world, filled with privileged jocks and overindulging rich kids. Still, what he saw when he came upon a party at Alpha Epsilon Pi made him stop. Running along the front entrance of the white-and-blue box-shaped fraternity house was a makeshift replica of the U.S.-Mexico border with barbed wire looped around the top of the rented 6-foot-high fence, topped with a “Danger, Keep Out” sign. Next to the fence was a flashing red light, and a cardboard sign that read: “Welcome to Mexico.” Cuellar couldn’t believe what he was seeing, so he decided to take a picture for posterity. When he asked a female student, who was blocking the sign, to step to the side, she told Cuellar that he should leave because he would never be able to get into Alpha Epsilon. “She said, ‘Why don’t you go back to fucking Mexico?’ and asked me why my accent was ‘ghetto,’ ” Cuellar remembers. He stayed and took the picture. The next day, Cuellar, with photos in hand, approached friends and asked them what they thought of his encounter. “The majority felt the same way as I did,” said the 20-year-old Spanish major. “They were speechless. They couldn’t understand why someone would put up a fence.” On February 1, armed with USC’s newly adopted code of ethics and the backing of his friends, Cuellar marched over to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards and filed a complaint against the Jewish fraternity. As part of the complaint, Cuellar submitted a statement about his encounter at the frat house, called for an apology and requested that the house lose its social privileges. It’s the latest salvo in a battle that has fraternities fighting on two fronts: against students who say the Greek system works against diversity and against the Daily Trojan, which fraternities view as out to get them. When news of Cuellar’s complaint hit the campus, student groups, including Hermanos Unidos, a Latino support group, and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), a campus Chicano group, held a town-hall meeting on February 15 at El Centro Chicano, located on the third floor of USC’s United University Church. “This is straight-up racist shit,” said sophomore Jon Danforth-Appell, a member of the student-led Progressive Alliance, a group concerned with political and social issues on campus, to the 25 mostly Latino students who sat in chairs in a circle eating Domino’s pizza during the meeting. “I am so offended right now. In the past, there have been a lot of racist incidents coming out of the row. There is no reason this should have happened.” The students had plenty of questions. How could this have happened at a school as seemingly diverse as USC? Why are Latino students excluded from the row, which has historically been a symbol of the university’s typically all-white culture? Most of the questions were directed toward freshman Brad Pregerson, one of two Alpha Epsilon members who attended the impromptu gathering. “As a Jewish kid growing up in L.A., I understand racism,” said Pregerson, dressed in a USC sweatshirt and jeans. “We tried to copy the fence, but we didn’t think about the symbolic nature of the fence and what it represents. That is what went on. I didn’t even know the fence was there, and I was at the party.” “No disrespect, but why are you here?” asked 21-year-old USC student Mitchell Tsai, a Progressive Alliance member. “Why didn’t they send the president?” Some Greeks claim the Alpha Epsilon party was conceived with harmless intentions. The night of the party, streamers, a Mexican flag and piñatas decorated the inside of the fraternity house. The actual theme of the party was “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” an homage to the Robert Rodriguez movie. The problem started when the Alpha Epsilon fraternity’s social chairman and its committee members put up the barbed wiring around the fence against the wishes of frat president Brian Fischer, who says he told them to take it down. A few days later, Fischer told the Daily Trojan that he was unaware that his fellow frat brothers hadn’t taken down the fence, because he was in his room for most of the party. The party also broke USC campus rules, which forbid social events held Sunday through Thursday to run past 10 p.m. or to include alcohol or loud music. To ease the growing tension, Fischer sent an e-mail apology to Cuellar on February 3 in which he admitted his fraternity’s mistake and apologized for the behavior of the “tactless young woman with the incredibly rude remarks.” The fraternity denied knowing the woman and pointed out that her comments were made outside the house. “We did not think things through, and as a result made some extremely poor decisions,” Fischer wrote. “I assure you that absolutely nothing we did was meant to be malicious or cause insult to anyone.” “There are ‘around-the-world’ parties all the time at USC where different countries are represented and no one ever says anything about that,” said Fischer to the Trojan. The Interfraternity Council (IFC), which is made up primarily of students belonging to the Greek system and which governs the 18 fraternities and 10 sororities on the row, maintains that the party meant no harm. “As Greeks we pride ourselves for having one of the best Greek communities on the West Coast,” said IFC president John Ellis. “I believe that USC students are proud of the diversity of the campus and respectful of the widely different background and interests of other groups and would never do anything to maliciously or deliberately offend anyone. We are trying to make it a better place for everyone.” Tension between the Greeks on the row, who make up roughly 20 percent of the 16,000-plus undergraduate-student population at USC, and the rest of the campus is nothing new. Last February, Delta Tau Delta, whose famous alumni include former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and actor Will Ferrell, hosted a Vietnam War–themed party called “Mekong Delta.” The 92-member fraternity was fined by its national headquarters, which had banned similar theme parties in the past after a 2001 incident at the University of Florida in Gainesville in which the fraternity’s front yard was decorated with sandbags, a grass hut and fake barbed wire. Males dressed as GIs, and women dressed as Vietnamese prostitutes. Other theme parties at USC have included a “White Trash Bash” and a border-crossing party similar to this one. Theme parties have been a staple of fraternities ever since National Lampoon’s 1978 film Animal House made it chic to be Greek again. Many are harmless, like disco parties, or even toga parties, but charges of racially insensitive themed parties on Greek campuses are not uncommon. In 2002, Kappa Alpha Order and Zeta Psi Greek fraternities suspended their local chapters at the University of Virginia after racially offensive pictures, taken at an October 31 Halloween party co-sponsored by both fraternities, were posted on the Web site Partypics.com. The photos depicted several costumed students, including one individual dressed as Uncle Sam with his face painted black as well as two other students, who painted their faces brown and dressed as tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. On another occasion, two Auburn fraternities, Delta Sigma Phi and Beta Theta Pi, were temporarily suspended in 2001 when some partygoers dressed in Klansmen robes and others in blackface staged mock lynchings. In 1999, more than 400 students at Dartmouth University — considered by some the inspiration for Animal House — protested after Greeks hosted a “ghetto party” during which partiers dressed up as poor black people. According to Salon.com, Dartmouth Greeks also hosted a “Miami” party — which invited guests to dress as Cubans — as well as a Hawaiian-themed party with the slogan “Come get leid!” that promised Jell-O shots and “scorpion bowls aplenty.” The Cuban-themed party was protested by the school’s Latino fraternity, while the Hawaii club argued that a luau is a ceremony with a long history of cultural and religious significance. One of the intriguing subplots of the Alpha Epsilon Pi controversy is the bad blood between the Daily Trojan and the Greek system at USC. It wasn’t always that way. For many years the student paper and the Greeks just ignored each other, the paper paying little heed to fraternity row’s philanthropic events and the Greeks choosing not to notify the paper of such events. The cold war turned hot last year when a Trojan reporter went undercover to expose excessive alcohol and drug use on the row. Last September a letter to the editor by a fraternity member attacked the paper for its “National Enquirer–like tactics,” a theme that has been picked up on by the Greek leadership. “[The Trojan] misrepresented itself and tried to get information from members about fraternity rush processes,” said the IFC’s Ellis. “They were begging for news rather than reporting on it. I think that misrepresenting oneself is not very ethical.” Nonetheless, the undercover report prompted the IFC to re-evaluate its role during Greek recruitment week, or “rush.” It imposed harsher penalties for violators of the dry-rush policy, and it required stricter enforcement of on- and off-campus parties by IFC members. When the paper followed the undercover report with an article about two fraternities’ racy fund-raisers — one at Alpha Tau Omega that featured young women dousing themselves with water and alcohol during a bull-riding competition, and another at Sigma Chi during which a student took off a thong bathing suit while performing a stripperlike routine — the IFC withdrew its support from the Diversity Encouragement Council (DEC), an interfraternity organization started in 1990 aimed at diversifying the row. The IFC demanded that the DEC faculty coordinator, Amanda Ebner, be removed from her advisory position and apologize in the Daily Trojan for comments she made to the newspaper, which included, “Everybody gets drunk, and then you start having people getting out of hand, girls start disrobing, guys egging them on, and the meaning of the philanthropy gets lost.” Brian Chase, president of Delta Tau Delta, told the student newspaper that because of Ebner’s statements, the fraternity determined that “she was not responsible in her leadership position and there would not be much of a working relationship in the future,” adding that “the IFC is entirely open to criticism, but problems arise when stereotypes are used to depict fraternities on the row. In her comments she made very, very sweeping statements.” At the beginning of the semester, Daily Trojan staff members met with the Greek leadership to talk things out. “The tone of the meeting was friendly. We explained how things work at the paper,” said editor in chief Beth Brotherton. “They put a lot of time into their fraternities and sororities, and that is something they are very passionate about, and when something bad happens they think we are trying to bring them down.” The most recent controversy sparked a wave of Daily Trojan editorials and letters to the editor by members of the Greek community blasting the paper for demonstrating its “blatant anti-Greek bias.” “The Greek system does have a high profile and has made large strides in an attempt to remove offensive activities, but when people can find offense in anything and, in some cases, go out of their way to find offense, sounding the call for reform over the complaints of one individual creates animosity and makes those same Greeks care about your opinions and your paper less,” wrote Delta Tau Delta senior J. Eatedali. Brotherton also denied that Greek-beat reporter Rebekah Sanders was picking on the row when it came to light that the USC journalism student is a member of the Progressive Alliance, one of the student organizations that is calling for sanctions against Alpha Epsilon. “She has left her own feelings at the door,” said Brotherton. “If they actively were against the row and led protests, she wouldn’t be on the beat.” The battle between the two entities hit the news on February 10, when Annenberg TV News, a USC cable channel that is run by the journalism department, broadcast a story about the rocky relationship between the Greeks and the Daily Trojan. In the segment, campus Greeks lambasted the newspaper, accusing it of libel and using unethical journalistic practices to get stories. Sources, however, tell the Weekly that Alpha Epsilon president Fischer, a journalism student, who produces the Thursday edition of the broadcast, also produced the two-minute segment. However, faculty adviser Serena Cha denied that Fischer crafted the broadcast. “They [the segment producers] may give leads, but [Fischer] did not work on the story,” she said. To many on campus, though, the real issue is bigger than the squabbles between the Greeks on the row and the aspiring journalists at the Trojan. For Cuellar, the “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” party hit too close to home. “I found it insulting. My family crossed the border and they almost died. My mom almost drowned crossing the Rio Grande in 1981. They were in a truck, and it was suffocating and they couldn’t breathe.” The Office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards recently determined that the Alpha Epsilon fraternity violated student codes, and has forbidden the house from hosting parties through the spring semester and is requiring the fraternity to attend workshops on border issues. “In a way, it is a short-term success,” says Cuellar, “but in the long run, we really don’t know if the problem will continue or not. I feel that a policy needs to be created to address the issue so that fraternity members in the future will be more conscious about the themes they choose.”

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