A year ago this week, Chula Vista Mayor Mary Casillas Salas sat down at a posh downtown Mexican restaurant and got ready to eat octopus tacos with habanero salsa.
Shortly after, council member John McCann approached his table. They chatted for a bit, and then McCann admitted he thought the restaurant’s food was too spicy.
Anyone who has dipped a tortilla chip too deep into a bowl of habanero salsa can sympathize. But Salas wanted to be around someone she had known for 20 years.
“So I said, ‘Oh, John, you’re so gringo,'” the two-term mayor and former state deputy told me in a phone interview. “And he started laughing after that.”
Salas didn’t think to say “gringo,” a Spanish word long used in the American West to refer to white people and throughout Latin America to refer to foreigners.
It’s technically an insult, but it’s such a part of life in these areas that its power to offend these days is minimal. “Gringo” and its derivatives are found in the names of small (Gringo’s Fish Tacos in Mid-City) and large (El Gringo in Manhattan Beach) restaurants, in hot sauces (Gringo Bandito, by Dexter Holland of The Offspring), in bad movies (the 2018 “Gringo” bomb that squandered the talents of Charlize Theron and David Oyewolo), in craft beers and even in clothing brands like Old Gringo Boots.
That’s why Salas was stunned when, nine days after meeting McCann, he filed a complaint with the city’s human resources department, alleging racial discrimination by the mayor for his “gringo” stunt.
“I was shocked by her statement,” he wrote, “since it was intended to diminish me based on my ethnicity and race.”
The council member asked Chula Vista to find someone “impartial” to investigate the incident. Two months later, an outside attorney came back with a conclusion: Although Salas’ use of “gringo” was “inappropriate,” it did not constitute discrimination.
“Here, the use of the word ‘gringo’, on one occasion in this informal setting and to describe a person’s attribute of not being able to eat spicy food,” the survey concluded, “n doesn’t reach the level of… creating an intimidating hostile or offensive environment.
The Voice of San Diego broke the story last month and also found out how much this combined plateau of victimization cost Chula Vista taxpayers: nearly $16,000.
“It was much ado about nothing,” Salas says now, “and it was a great waste of time and resources.”
When I contacted McCann for comment, he instead sent a four-page statement in English and Spanish accusing Salas (and her ex-husband, for some reason) of a “long history of using racial slurs towards others and especially John McCann.” He gave just two examples: the one addressed by his complaint last year and a 2000 interview in which Salas told a Spanish-language publication, “The Gringos don’t understand how powerful we Latinos are. .
“By diminishing racial slurs from those in power and defaming people for filing legitimate complaints with human resources,” McCann’s bilingual statement read, it “only intimidates victims into not s ‘Express”.
I wanted to brush off this weak salsa Gringogate as the most laughable local politics. But now there is another case of San Diego County’s studied ignorance of Mexican culture that makes me think there are many more such clashes going on in California.
In January, the California Department of Education agreed to remove a Chicano poem from its ethnic studies curriculum in response to a lawsuit filed by a group of parents represented by attorneys associated with the Thomas More Society, based in Chicago. The conservative nonprofit generally advocates for more religious freedom, not less — but not when it comes to what the lawsuit dishonestly called an “Aztec prayer.”
The writing in question was actually a poem, which discussed pseudo-Mayan philosophical beliefs and mentioned four Aztec gods as a way to inspire Chicano students to discover their Mesoamerican roots.
It’s a serious, monotonous boredom, honestly. But attorneys for the Thomas More Society convinced the California Department of Education that the prose was a violation of the separation of church and state. And besides, according to them, “Any form of prayer and glorification of these beings in whose name horrible atrocities have been committed is repugnant”.
Two of the parents who filed the lawsuit have Hispanic surnames, but hey: Latinos can be gringos, too. Because the “gringo” is more of a mindset than a breed – a philosophy that hates everything Mexican.
And the Californian gringo is now in crisis.
For more than 170 years, they have hit Mexicans at every opportunity, whether through laws, proposals, appropriations, Taco Bell, or just plain racism.
It did not work.
Latinos now make up a plurality of California’s population, and Mexicans make up an overwhelming part of that segment. Gringos are so worried about their future in California that they’re trying to undo aspects of Mexican culture they think are slurs. them.
School boards have banned critical race theory and Chicano studies books, all because they teach an unvarnished history that shows how gringos have mistreated Latinos for decades. Municipalities across the state are waging scorched-earth campaigns against street vendors because brick-and-mortar outlets doing it the “right” way can’t compete with chili-dipped mangoes.
Now the word “gringo” is verboten and heavy pocho poetry is suspect? What’s next: a class action lawsuit against Día de los Muertos because it makes Halloween as exciting as Arbor Day? (Don’t get any ideas, gringos.)
This trend is part of what San Diego State English professor William Nericcio only half-jokingly calls the “ongoing Karenification of the once powerful Caucasian tribe.”
Nericcio studies the continued evolution of anti-Mexican stereotypes in the American imagination and how white people use them not only to demean Mexicans, but also to empower themselves.
Gringos, for example, used “gringo” to refer to themselves almost as soon as they learned what the word meant. (Less than a year after its founding, in 1882, this newspaper used the term to mock the losing side in the Mexican-American War.)
“Being a gringo means you’re not Mexican, and there’s nothing worse in the gringo world than being Mexican,” Nericcio said. “The term becomes a sign of pride – it’s gringo power.”
That’s why what happened in Chula Vista worries him as much as it amuses him.
“If the council member [McCann] was really offended, he would have booed in the restaurant, and [Salas] would have apologized, and it would be over,” Nericcio said. “But what happened during the [Donald] The Trump administration was that Anglo-Americans of a certain persuasion or political stripe were allowed to resist what they perceived as slights with a kind of passionate straightforwardness.
Because of this, the professor believes actions like McCann’s lawsuit and lawsuit against alleged Aztec poetry will become even more mainstream.
“The future gringo minority culture,” Nericcio told me, “will impose this kind of humorless, antagonistic approach to things.”
So relax, gringos. We Mexicans especially love ustedes unless you are angry, which too many of you perpetually seem to be. May I suggest as a stress reliever a gringa, What Type of Taco Appears in Southern California? It has everything you seem to like: cottage cheese and beef.
Los Angeles Times