and other ramblings social justice

Racist Mystery Tortillas

"Why?" - Mystery Tortilla Database

Recently on the local radio talk show The Joe Show Rosalinda Guillen and Edgar Franx from Community to Community Development (C2C) were interviewed  about recent issues of diversity, racism and response in the Bellingham and Whatcom County communities. It was a great interview and I encourage you to go listen to the podcast.

During the interview a group, and a street art project I hold dear was mentioned (around the 28 minute mark). It was suggested that the over 400 mystery tortillas that have shown up around downtown Bellingham were an appropriation of a cultural symbol, that they may have been racially motivated, and they were likened to burning crosses.

Within the Bellingham Mystery Tortilla Appreciation Society we had a lengthy internal debate. It is truly a group of wonderful people. The thought that mystery tortillas which we have obsessed over for more than a year might be racist was of great concern and much discussion.

"Free Bemused Tortilla" - Mystery Tortilla Database
“Free Bemused Tortilla”

In response, several members of the Appreciation Society contacted the Joe Show through email and the comments section of the podcast. Our initial concern was to address factual misinformation about the group and our involvement with the mystery tortillas. It’s simply not us putting the tortillas up. We are just whimsically amused by the grafitti/art/litter. Additionally, we acknowledged the vague nature of the mystery tortillas and their potential for being seen as targeting minority members of our community.

Apparently our response only inflamed the controversy. The following day KGMI, another local radio broadcaster, covered the “tortilla controversy” (around 15 minutes) by replaying Rosalinda and Edgars remarks but failed to share any of the other issues or advocacy that they mentioned.

So… are mystery tortillas spreading hate? Are mystery tortillas racist?

There is racism in our community. I think C2C is doing a wonderful job of bringing it to light. In many cases C2C is fighting an uphill battle against a prevailing local sentiment that our community is too nice to be racist. Frankly, in many instances we’re too homogeneous to recognize the racism and bigotry in our community and it gets a pass, through complacency.

Having been born and raised in Bellingham, when I moved to Chicago for university at age 19 I thought of myself as a nice person without a bigoted bone in my body. I still think I’m a considerate and thoughtful person but I realize now I was culturally naive.

The campus I attended in 2003 was in South Side Chicago. The area is notoriously known for the housing projects that date from the 50s and 60s for low income black citizens. When I arrived they were nearly a decade into reclaiming the community from neglect and violence and having a very open and honest discussion in the process.

None of this stopped me, a nice white male student from feeling overwhelmed and bigoted the first time I rode public transit and found I was the only white person on the train. It was a fear of an unknown I had never had to confront. At the same time I felt terrible and insensitive for feeling fearful.

This is all to say that if you’ve grown up in a homogeneous community like Bellingham and you haven’t had to confront your irrational fears of the Other you’ve probably let a few racist or bigoted things slide without even thinking twice about it.

So back to C2C and the comments of Rosalinda and Edgar on the Joe Show. In their interview they brought up several issues of racism in our community. Granted some of it may be imported through WWU, but that doesn’t give us as a supportive community a pass. Additionally though, lets not dwell on a thing like tortillas with silly messages, which have a collectively nebulous meaning at best to address the issues of our community. If anything it trivializes and opens up real advocacy to ridicule and continued complacency by those who could otherwise learn and grow.

Furthermore, the Bellingham Mystery Tortilla Appreciation Society has inescapably taken some ownership of the meaning through are interactions with the “tortilla bomber” (aka Mister Tortilla). I think that ownership, however nebulous it may be, can be translated to a force for good and a message of support for the very people Rosalinda and Edgar are concerned that the mystery tortillas target.

Tortillas with Ideas
“Tortillas with Ideas” from the Great Tortilla Conspiracy

I have mentioned it before, and I’ll mention it again. The works of The Great Tortilla Conspiracy are a great examples of how tortillas can be used as a symbol in support of marginalized and oppressed people, in support of workers rights, and a commentary on cultural collectivism vs individualism.

I have made this call before satirically, but I will restate it plainly. I hope to see mystery tortillas in the coming months that speak out against bigotry, oppression, and marginalization, and address the issues of our community in a way that is welcoming and supportive of all members of our community. In the past my satirical position suggested that the mystery tortillas could do this subversively through subliminal messaging. We can no longer rely on the subliminal in the face of real concerns from champions of equality in our community.

Finally, I would like to remind the members of the Appreciation Society that Mister Tortilla set a gauntlet for us by suggesting that “perhaps at 400 tortillas found I will reveal more.” Additionally they gave us the means to self realize that goal stating that “a copy is as valid as an original in most cases.”

I say to all of you, go forth and tortilla.