Panelists (left to right) Nicole Chase, David Herrera, Jhenine Cordero and Ruben Rodriguez. (SFVS Staff)

As a prominent and seasoned Mexican marketing and business leader on both sides of the border, David Herrera knows the power of words in advertising. But he never thought that a Spanish pet name he used fondly for his grandchild would prompt a somewhat serious conversation with the child’s mother.

Herrera calls his grandchild “bicho,” which literally means “bug” in Spanish.  One day at the child’s school in Burbank, a teacher learned of the nickname and expressed concern about calling the child by the nickname, considering it “offensive.”  

However, what may have gotten lost in the translation was the fact that in Mexican culture, nicknames are often used and calling someone a “bicho” or “bichito” (bug or little bug) is purely affectionate in Spanish.  The word can be used in multiple ways including to describe a mischievous kid. For Herrera, “bicho” is a term of endearment. 

“We Mexicans don’t take ourselves too seriously,” he said. However, now here in the US, the Mexican immigrant grandfather found himself scrutinizedfor his verbal affection.

Herrera shared his experience at a recent community discussion and panel titled “When Is Language Misunderstood or Propagates Hate?”

The public event, held at the city of San Fernando public library, was the first of an ongoing series organized by the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol newspaper with support from a grant from the California State Library.

The grant aims to build public awareness of the Stop the Hate Program administered by the California Department of Social Services following a wave of hate crimes against the Asian American Pacific Islander community. 

Asian Americans became the target of increasing racial attacks during the COVID pandemic, which broke out first in Wuhan, China in 2019 and later spread worldwide. As outbreaks started to appear in the US, racist language, some often coming from politicians, fed anti-Asian sentiment among Americans that resulted in an explosion of xenophobic attacks, according to Filipino activist Jhenine Cordero who was a panelist at this community event. 

She pointed out that then-President Donald Trump used to call the coronavirus, which causes COVID, the “China virus.” From the presidential bully pulpit flowed other terms like “Kung flu” and “Chinese virus.” Also, other members of the Trump administration repeatedly referred to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus,” linking it to the Chinese city where the virus reportedly first appeared. Critics warned that such language could lead to anti-Asian attacks. Those worries proved prescient.

“Since the start of the pandemic, we saw a 150 percent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes,” said Cordero, adding that many of them “escalated to physical violence.”

At least one anti-Asian hate crime took place here in the San Fernando Valley. Last summer, Cordero was among members of the community who  protested a racist attack against a Filipino-American family in North Hollywood last May in which a man verbally and physically assaulted a father, mother and their daughter at a fast-food drive-thru restaurant

The suspect made racial slurs mimicking an Asian accent and threatened them. In a previous interview with the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol  19-year-old Patricia Roque, said the assailant told them, “You’re so Asian … Ching Chong” and “I’ll kill you.” He attacked them physically and her 62-year-old father ended up with broken ribs and bruises on his arms.

During the panel discussion, referencing local hate crime, Cordero said that hateful language spewed by people including politicians has been “normalized” and community activists and residents must “redirect that language” to help communities and each other through multiracial cooperation. “Language is very powerful,” she said. 

Ruben Rodriguez, executive director of the local nonprofit organization, Pueblo y Salud, agrees. “It (language) can be used to divide,” he said. “It can bring peace without any harm or it can bring hate and violence.” He also criticized and made reference to the long-term hate caused by former President Trump for using other expressions like “China flu” for COVID and “shithole countries” when referring to nations some immigrants come from like El Salvador, Haiti and African nations.  Rodriguez points out that there was “no outcry to call for Trump’s resignation for making racial slurs and disparaging comments” about ethnic communities as there was more recently for comments made by LA city councilmembers caught on a leaked tape.  

Rodriguez grew up in the Northeast San Fernando Valley and is keenly aware of the racial divides that have historically occurred.  Rodriguez has recalled a time when the Black and Brown communities in Pacoima were at odds and racial slurs went back and forth.  The negative images he said go back many years and were encouraged by the images portrayed on television.  “Remember the  Frito Bandito?” he said.  “And how about the damaging image always portrayed of the lazy and dumb Mexican who was wearing a sombrero over his eyes and a sarape sleeping against a thorny cactus under the hot sun.”  Rodriguez pointed out that racial insults have cut both ways and the Latino community has suffered many barbs.

Inaccurate perceptions and misunderstandings continue to occur.

Nicole Chase, president of Boys & Girls Club of San Fernando Valley-based in Pacoima, echoed fellow panelists’ views on the power of words to bring together communities or sow division. She recounted a recent incident at a holiday gift giveaway held at the Boys & Girls Club where Chase called out a Latina mother for making a racist statement that Black families were unfairly getting more presents than those of other ethnicities. Chase said that some members of some ethnicities use abusive language when they feel threatened by less-populous demographics. “I’m not going to stand for that,” she added.  

Chase said that having been raised in a diverse community in the Northeast San Fernando Valley and her personal life experiences have helped her to recognize how language can be used to empower or knock down people. She encouraged people to assess language used at home with their families and partake in community conversations on how to treat others who are different. “Some words destroy our communities,” Chase warned. 

The panel discussion also tackled the infamous recording of now-disgraced and former LA City Council President Nury Martinez who was caught using questionable and racist language during a meeting with councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin De Leon, and then LA County Labor Federation President Ron Herrera. The political foursome was discussing redistricting and Latino and Black representation in City Council. Martinez was a representative for many attending the event and it was the first time this scandal was publicly discussed in an open forum in a community she previously served. 

In the conversation, reportedly recorded illegally and now the subject of a police investigation, Martinez described immigrants from the Mexican state of Oaxaca who reside in LA’s Koreatown neighborhood as “little short dark people.” Of LA County District Attorney George Gascón, Martinez said, “F— that guy. He’s with the Blacks.” 

Martinez also used the Spanish word “changuito” when referring to the Black child of a city council colleague. The word literally translated means “little monkey” in Spanish.

For those in the Black community, the word “monkey” has been historically used pejoratively to compare Black people with Simians and its use caused immediate outrage.

However, some panelists and members of the Latino community in the audience pointed out language and cultural nuances. The word “changuito” does not have the negative connotation that was immediately perceived by the general public. In Mexico, it’s used to describe restless children. Panelist Rodriguez said that the word “changuito” is not racial and that Martinez used it in the context of an active child.

Audience member Enrique Vela echoed similar sentiments and made a distinction between the use of questionable language and actual violence against discriminated minorities.

For her part, Evelyn Aleman of Reseda said she discussed the Martinez recording with her daughter Julia Macias and that both “looked at the leak of the tape recordings very differently.” Aleman, a daughter of Salvadoran immigrants, said she “thought about the nuances” of language, informed by personal experience and closeness to the immigrant experience. She added that her daughter responded that Martinez’s comments were “completely unacceptable.” Aleman said she ultimately agreed with Macias. “I think that we know what our history is and it’s now time to think about the future generations and we have to be intentional about where we come from and where we want to go. And understand that what worked before isn’t working anymore,” said Aleman.

Seemingly, that word’s Spanish language nuance did not matter in a councilmembers’ conversation about race and political power in a nation with a history of racism and brutal treatment of Black people. Ultimately, the controversial recording has exacted a high political price on those involved. Martinez stepped down from the City Council presidency and her district seat. LA County Labor Federation President Ron Herrera resigned. Councilmember Gil Cedillo held onto his post until the end of his term in early December. And Councilmember Kevin De Leon has refused to bow out from his post but now faces a recall campaign.

In response to a question about the impact of the leaked audio tape, Cordero said,  “when our politicians are the ones perpetuating hateful language, we have to hold them accountable. Words matter.”  

The issue of language and its impact will continue to be discussed in upcoming community meetings.  For more information, you can contact The San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol at 818 365-3111.

Funding provided by the State of California