NAU Students' 'Immigrant Mother,' Homeless Vet Halloween Costumes Spark Outrage

An NAU freshman's Halloween Instagram post is sparking outrage far beyond the university's Flagstaff campus.
An NAU freshman's Halloween Instagram post is sparking outrage far beyond the university's Flagstaff campus. via Katie Stiff
A Halloween Instagram post showing Northern Arizona University students dressed as an immigrant mother, a homeless veteran with prostate cancer, and a recovering alcoholic is sparking outrage online.

On Thursday, NAU's president, Rita Cheng, tweeted that the students have since apologized and the university is taking the post "seriously."

The post, widely circulated on Twitter and Reddit, features five young adults with grubby faces and cardboard signs. The signs say things like, "Immigrant mother of 10 — anything helps!!!" and "Veteran, have prostate cancer, God bless."

Katie Stiff, a Gilbert resident who graduated from the University of Arizona in 2018, was one of the first to post the pictures on Twitter. Stiff said the woman dressed as the "immigrant mother" is a freshman at NAU she knows. The post, made by a user named @pajitafajita on October 28, has since been deleted.

Stiff told Phoenix New Times she commented on the Instagram post when she first saw it on October 28, thinking maybe it was some sort of protest. In screenshots of the conversation reviewed by New Times, @pajitafajita responded that it was no such thing, and it was "actually just last minute costumes for a party."

Stiff commented again on the post, hoping to facilitate a constructive conversation. "yikes...I'm sure harm wasn't your intention," she wrote, "but I would definitely reflect on how this could present as a lack of regard for human suffering."

When the people in the photo didn't engage, Stiff decided to tweet the post. Though she only has just over 100 followers, people started responding and sharing it almost instantly. "It's the collective outrage," she said. "It was hard to see how hurt people were by it and see comments like 'this made me cry,' or 'this made me sick to my stomach.'"

The controversy surrounding these costumes follows a trend of offensive and culturally appropriative Halloween costumes sparking outrage on college campuses. The issue has been so widespread, some campuses have issued costume party guidelines for their students.

While Stiff couldn't confirm that all the people in the photo were students of the public university in Flagstaff, NAU's president, Rita Cheng, tweeted about the post just after noon on October 31.

"The recent post by NAU students has been taken seriously," she wrote. "We involved the Dean of Students & Office of Inclusion. The students recognize the seriousness of their actions & apologized. NAU values & supports free speech. Speech demeaning to others does not represent our values."

Several NAU students have also responded to the posts circulating online, expressing their disgust with the costumes.

The Instagram user @pajitafajita couldn't be reached for comment. A call to NAU's student body president, Ronnie Marks, was not answered. The post has been taken down, Stiff confirmed, and @pajitafajita's Instagram page is currently private.

"I thought by 2019 we'd be to the point where people weren't wearing offensive costumes like this," Stiff said. Wearing these things that inherently target underprivileged people, veterans, immigrants, young mothers, it's not okay. It's not just a costume. It's a statement."
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Ali Swenson was an editorial fellow for Phoenix New Times starting in 2019.