No Mask, No Gear, No Wig

Illustration by Regan Dunnick

On being the headless—and only woman—Quaker. 

By Cristina T. Lopez

My sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania, the Fall of 1994, flyers went up all over campus in the usual neon-pink, -yellow, and -green, asking: “Wanna be the Quaker? Come to our auditions at the Palestra.”

I didn’t pay much attention—until I found one waiting for me in the hands of my roommate and friend, Alyson. 

It took all of her Annenberg School persuasiveness to convince me that this was my calling. She enticed me with several different means of personal propaganda, but the most effective tool ended up being the simplest: She dared me to audition. I took the challenge. 

I went to the Palestra a few nights later. There were only a few people there, and the majority were females. One girl was there because she had a crush on the current Quaker. Another was a gymnast—tough competition, because even my cartwheels were pathetic. There was one guy there, I think, but he was so shy that he didn’t really stand out, much to his disadvantage. We were told to return on a future date with a three-minute routine demonstrating what we would do as the Quaker. I walked out determined to win—except I didn’t know how.

I spent the next few nights playing Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and putting together what is, in my memory, the most laughable routine ever. It consisted of me clapping my hands, jumping around, pseudo-dancing, and throwing balloons into the “crowd”—Alyson and whoever else felt like watching me make an ass out of myself while I rehearsed. 

The day finally came. I would love to say that I rocked the Palestra that afternoon and that the cheerleaders judging my performance cried because I was just so good. But the truth is that the shy boy was too shy to do his routine; having been disappointed the last time, the Quaker fan didn’t show; and the gymnast had a fever, leaving her unable to perform any stunts. Then there was me, jumping, hopping, throwing, smiling, cheering, etc. I really tried to just let myself go the extra mile, embody all the proud characteristics of a Quaker, whatever they were.

When the call came telling me I had been chosen to be the school mascot of the University of Pennsylvania, I dropped the phone. I was so happy. Alyson and I went out celebrating. I had won the bet. 

Then I realized I actually had to do the job.

As many alumni may realize, until very recently the Penn Quaker had no head. There was no mask, no gear, no wig. No big furry animal head to hide under. Just a student dressed like a Quaker standing in front of a giant crowd of fans. Now, put a woman in that role. 

I started at the first game in the new year. It was an away game at Villanova. I had caught the gymnast’s cold and had a high fever. I took Dayquil and met the cheerleaders at the van to be driven to the game. Despite the fact that they had chosen me, we didn’t really interact. They said hello, but I wasn’t one of them. They met a few times a week and practiced. I went out a few times a week with my friends and drank. Our lifestyles did not coincide. I sat back and tried to sleep before the game. 

Villanova was an unfriendly place for a first-time Quaker. I had been sick, so I never was able to gather any props. That was OK, though, because there was no one to hand them out to, since there wasn’t one Penn fan at the game. I was very lonely. I walked around and was booed by the crowd of Villanova students, I talked to the two towel boys who were twins and cute in a “Dumb and Dumber” sort of way, and I tried to hide behind the cheerleaders. 

I could not wait until I had a home game where I could really show my stuff. At a meeting with the athletic-communications people, I announced all of the props and candy I would distribute to the crowd. I wanted to hand out big hats, leis, and noisemakers. I wanted to throw candy and give out prizes. But I was told no. No on every count and for every idea. 

The point boiled down to this: The University was unwilling to support distribution of anything that could be, in turn, thrown onto the court and get Penn a technical foul. 

I grudgingly agreed and made the mistake of going to the game without candy. I was almost lynched by the mob of students hungry for free snacks. Try to convince a crowd of Penn kids that the University doesn’t fund the candy throw, and that you are on financial aid and cannot afford to buy all of them treats. Most people just grunted, some booed, and one ugly senior said, “Can I at least see your tits?” This wasn’t going to be easy. 

Before the next game, I decided to take part of my work-study check and buy candy, choosing the CVS-brand “Party Mix” after becoming outraged at how much a bag of mini-Milky Ways went for. Some people still had the nerve to complain.

There were certainly some good games where the crowd was into it, and I would run around and actually get a reaction. Most games I had my signs, my face was painted, and I would chant and laugh and have a good time. Homecoming was fantastic. The Palestra was on fire that year. We beat Princeton. I brought a fake whip at a party store to handle the Tiger. The crowd loved it. (Actually, a lot of guys loved it too, and more than a few bouncers invited me to places I could not get into as a sophomore saying they’d be happy to “do me a favor.”) 

Other games were harder. A large, fat alumnus told me in a low growl that he was very happy the Quaker was a woman now; he winked at me and asked me for a hug. A few seniors chanted for the old Quaker. Some loudmouth always wanted me to shake my ass. Kids didn’t understand what I was supposed to be. I even made a baby cry once. I was pulled to the side a few times by nameless faces in the athletic department who warned me not to get so close to the other mascots, because of a fight between the Temple Owl and the St. Joe’s Hawk that put a proximity rule into effect for Big Five mascots.

By the end of the season, I was tired. I pretty much knew I couldn’t do this for another year, but I did not want to give up because Penn was going to the NCAA tournament, and I wanted to be there with the team. But the end of the season rolled around and, because only a limited number of cheerleaders were allowed and because I had no seniority on the team, I was told I could not go. I had suffered through the taunts and the jeers only to not be rewarded at the end. I was a sad Quaker. 

The next year someone from The Daily Pennsylvaniancalled me to interview me about being the Quaker. I told my story. The wounds were still fresh and when the story came out, the consensus was that I was a bitter, disgruntled person who felt shunned by the team, the cheerleaders, and the athletic department. I felt betrayed, because I felt that the article demeaned my experience. When I graduated, a picture of another Quaker was in the yearbook, not mine.

By now, I have overcome all of the petty negativity and am really proud of my short time as the Quaker. When I began to read and become part of the 125th Celebration of Women at Penn, I had the idea of interviewing other female Quakers, but when I called the athletic department, I was told that I was the only one.

At first, I was disappointed—I wanted there to be others to share the experience with—but then I forced myself to look at the bigger picture. I belong to a community of women who persevered to achieve their goals—most greater than being the team mascot, some perhaps just as simple. But we all went forward and did what we thought we had a right to do, regardless of what was said or how others made us feel.

To be the first, to be the only, one, is a lonely experience, a difficult journey. Mine may not be the most important one taken at Penn, but I hope it isn’t forgotten and I hope that what I went through somehow made someone else believe that one day they could do that, too.

My experience was different and so much more accidental than what many women at Penn achieved, but I still consider it a special one that enriched me and, I hope, those around me. For a short time, I embodied the symbol of the University. I did it with my own face to the world. I did it as a woman. I am proud to have been the Quaker.

Cristina T. Lopez C’97 is looking for a publisher for her first book “Finding Francis,” and working on her second. She can be reached at [email protected]

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