Column: Throwing tortillas isn’t a racist act – until it is
Anyone who attended the boys’ basketball game on June 19 between the Coronado High Islanders and the Orange Glen High Patriots knew it would be a classic, the kind of prep that dreams are made of.
It was the CIF San Diego section final. Coronado High was the richest and whitest high school in an affluent seaside town. Orange Glen was the working class squad of the majority minority Escondido, a school that has consistently hit above its weight in the hoops.
The two teams had met a week earlier for the urban section championship won by Coronado – their first such trophy in 31 years. Now the Islanders and Patriots faced off for the regional title, and the players didn’t disappoint: Coronado earned a 60-57 overtime victory with a buzzer-beating three-pointer.
There were lively words during the match from the young athletes and after the final buzzer between their adult coaches. It wasn’t such a surprise.
What was not planned was theft tortillas.
Videos show Coronado players lifting corn tortillas towards Orange Glen players and coaches. No one was hurt and the spectators at first seemed more surprised than angry. But you would think that former San Diego Mayor and California Governor Pete Wilson himself fired a few dozen with a cannon, as people reacted afterwards.
Police said they identified the adult who brought a package of tortillas and distributed them to students. The Coronado Unified School District Board of Directors immediately issued a statement thereafter that “acknowledges[ed] these acts are flagrant, humiliating and disrespectful ”and“ fully condemn[ed] racism, classism and colourism which fueled the actions of the authors. Yesterday they fired Coronado High head coach JD Laaperi for the case.
San Diego Area MP Lorena Gonzalez tweeted, “Teach your kids not to be racist… Tortillas are for eating, not throwing away. The California Latino Legislative Caucus issued a press release citing the incident as an additional reason for forcing ethnic studies into the state’s high school.
On a private Instagram account devoted to the Coronado hoopsters, the author described the the case tortilla throwing as “akin to throwing confetti at parties or a cap at the end of a graduation ceremony” and denied any racism. Critics scoffed at the wide-eyed declaration of innocence. The President of the League of United Latin American Citizens, Domingo Garcia, was indignant enough to proclaim that “throwing tortillas was aimed at perpetuating the worst kind of racist backlash against innocent athletes, their coaches and their families”.
This is where I’m going to put on my tortilla historian sombrero and say something you might find amazing: Tortilla toss has a long, bizarre history in California that is hardly ever racist – until the dopes do.
Tortilla-throwing competitions have been held for decades during Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day festivities in the barrios, as well as at the Sierras County fairs in Southern California, where the fair County of LA hosted them as recently as 2002. Throwing tortillas at floats and marchers is a mainstay of Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade, the lawless step-cousin of the lackluster Tournament of Roses. At UC Irvine and Stanford, senior graduates brought them closer together in the early 2000s.
People generally throw away tortillas for the simple fact that they can – and because tortillas, unlike other foods used for food fights, are cheap and plentiful and fly a long way. They aren’t as heavy as pita bread, don’t leave a mess like pies, are more naturally aerodynamic than mashed potatoes, and don’t bruise like a tomahawk steak. Corn tortillas are preferred for their lower cost, but flour tortillas cover a longer distance because their dexterity allows them to catch a draft, like a flying squirrel.
The phenomenon has particularly taken off at sporting events – you know, this gathering of humans predisposed to find an excuse to throw something, anything, at opposing players, regardless of their ethnicity.
The first known attempts were at Angels games in Anaheim in the 1980s, where fans of the cheap seats rained them down in the more expensive sections during the seventh inning. “Everything is exciting,” Eric Andrade, 19, told The Associated Press at the time. “It’s not just a fad anymore. It becomes a tradition. This is something you won’t see anywhere else.
The scene became so chaotic that security evicted 20 people in a 1984 game, and Anaheim City Council approved an order that threatened anyone who threw objects in the stadium with a fine of $ 1,000 and of a misdemeanor. The law is still part of the city’s municipal code.
The trend took off from there, especially in colleges. And especially at UC Santa Barbara. Fans always throw them onto the pitch whenever the men’s soccer team scores a goal. Before that, they’d haunted men’s basketball games, where masa showers were so profuse in the 1990s that the Gauchos made ESPN’s lowlight reels. During a match in 1997, the referees even punished the team with two technical fouls before the match started, leading then-coach Jerry Pimm to begging fans over loudspeakers in vain. to stop throwing tortillas.
All of the above came and went like the harmless pleasure it was. But put Latinos at the reception, and the tortilla toss suddenly takes on a different, darker meaning.
A whole generation of Latinos who grew up in Southern California in the 1990s and 2000s can tell you how offended they were to see the show unfold every time their high schools played a whiter, richer high school – like , say, when my alma mater Anaheim High would play Brea Olinda High. Or when the boys from the UCLA fraternity bombarded Chicano students with them when the latter protested against the former for throwing stereotypical parties. It never bothered me much, but I can tell you that Mexicans back then did not endure such indignities with the same grace as Orange Glen.
Before the Coronado-Orange Glen fiasco, Southern California’s most notorious tortilla storm occurred during a 1993 football playoff game between Newbury Park and Montebello high schools. Followers of the former had thrown tortillas onto the field every time the Panthers scored a touchdown this season, which was good when they played rich, white schools the same way in Simi Valley.
Things changed when they played super Latino Montebello.
Newbury Park head coach George Hurley has received dozens of angry phone calls. Fans of their next opponent, Bell Gardens High, inundated Newbury Park players with “taunts and obscene gestures ahead of the opening kick-off,” according to a report from that newspaper, and waved the Mexican flag.
“I felt like I was the ugly American in a foreign land,” Hurley told The Times, using the same I am the victim excuse that Coronado High employed nearly three decades later.
These new culprits cannot claim to ignore what it meant when they threw tortillas. Sports at San Diego County High School have suffered a series of racist incidents in recent years. The Coronado Unified School District has featured bickering over students who want their schools to be anti-racist and community members who reject actions such as critical racial theory hogwash. Did the Islanders team really think Orange Glen – where the student body is over 80% Latino – wouldn’t feel disrespectful?
Sometimes – most of the time, really – a thrown tortilla is a thrown tortilla. But even though the Coronado players didn’t have malice in their hearts, what they did was terribly stupid. (Although not as stupid as the person who brought the tortillas: Luke Serna, 40, resident of Coronado. The UC Santa Barbara graduate told the Coronado Times that there was no intentional racism yet. against the “racial opportunists” who thought so).
Besides, drop a bunch of tortillas on the floor? What a waste of potential tacos and quesadillas.