Column: Throwing tortillas isn’t a racist act — until it is
Everyone who attended the June 19 boys’ basketball game between the Coronado High Islanders and Orange Glen High Patriots knew it was going to be a classic, the kind of matchup prep dreams are made of.
It was the CIF San Diego Section final. Coronado High was the richer, whiter high school from an affluent beachside town. Orange Glen was the working-class squad from majority-minority Escondido, a school that has always punched above its weight in hoops.
The two teams had met just a week earlier, for the city section championship that Coronado won — 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 gritted out a 60-57 victory in overtime with a buzzer-beating three-pointer.
There were heated words during the game by the young athletes, and after the final buzzer between their adult coaches. That wasn’t such a surprise.
What wasn’t expected were the flying tortillas.
Videos show Coronado players heaving corn tortillas toward Orange Glen players and coaches. No one was hurt, and onlookers initially seemed more surprised than angry. But you’d think former San Diego Mayor and California Gov. Pete Wilson himself had fired off a couple dozen with a cannon the way people responded afterward.
Police have announced they had identified the adult who had brought a pack of tortillas and distributed them to students. The Coronado Unified School District board of trustees immediately released a statement afterward that “acknowledge[ed] these acts to be egregious, demeaning, and disrespectful” and “fully condemn[ed] the racism, classism, and colorism which fueled the actions of the perpetrators.” Yesterday, they fired Coronado High head coach JD Laaperi over the matter.
The Coronado Unified School Board voted to fire their head basketball coach, days after someone threw tortillas at an opposing team Saturday night.
San Diego-area Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez tweeted, “Teach your kids not to be racist…Tortillas are for eating, not throwing.” California’s Latino Legislative Caucus issued a news release that cited the incident as further reason to mandate ethnic studies in the state’s high school.
On a private Instagram account devoted to Coronado’s hoopsters, the author described the l’affair tortilla toss as “similar to throwing confetti at parties or a cap at the end of a graduation” and denied any racism. Critics scoffed at the wide-eyed claim of innocence. League of United Latin American Citizens President Domingo Garcia was outraged enough to proclaim “throwing tortillas was meant to perpetuate the worst kind of racist reaction against innocent athletes, their coaches and their families.”
This is where I’ll put on my tortilla-historian sombrero and say something you might find unbelievable: Tortilla-tossing has a long, strange history in California that’s almost never racist — until dopes make it so.
Tortilla-tossing contests have happened for decades at Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day festivities in barrios, and at county fairs from the Sierras to Southern California, where the L.A. County Fair held them as recently as 2002. Hurling tortillas at floats and marchers is a mainstay of Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade, the anarchic step-cousin to the dowdy Tournament of Roses. At UC Irvine and Stanford, graduating senior zipped them at each other during commencements into the 2000s.
People usually throw tortillas for the simple fact that they can — and because tortillas, unlike other comestibles used for food fights, are cheap and plentiful and fly far. They’re not 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 favored for their cheaper cost, but flour tortillas travel a longer distance because their dexterity allows them to catch a draft, like a flying squirrel.
The phenomenon has especially taken off at sporting events — you know, that gathering of humans predisposed to find an excuse to throw something, anything, at opposing players no matter their ethnicity.
The earliest-known attempts happened at Angels games in Anaheim during the 1980s, where fans in the cheap seats rained them down at the pricier sections during the seventh-inning stretch. “The whole thing’s exciting,” 19-year-old Eric Andrade told the Associated Press at the time. “It’s not just a fad anymore. It’s becoming a tradition. It’s something you won’t see anywhere else.”
The scene got so chaotic that security booted 20 people during a 1984 game, and the Anaheim City Council approved an ordinance that threatened anyone who threw items at the stadium with a $1,000 fine and a misdemeanor. The law remains part of the city’s municipal code.
The trend took off from there, especially at colleges. And especially at UC Santa Barbara. Fans still fling them onto the field every time the men’s soccer team scores a goal. Before that, they haunted men’s basketball games, where the masa showers were so heavy during the 1990s that the Gauchos made the lowlight reels of ESPN. During one game in 1997, referees even punished the team with two technical fouls before the game began, leading then-coach Jerry Pimm to unsuccessfully plead with fans over the loudspeakers to stop throwing tortillas.
All of the above came and went as the harmless fun that it was. But put Latinos on the receiving end, and tortilla-tossing suddenly takes on a different, darker meaning.
An entire generation of Latinos who grew up in Southern California during the 1990s and 2000s can tell you how offended they were at seeing the spectacle unfold whenever their high schools played a whiter, wealthier high school — like, say, when my alma mater Anaheim High would play Brea Olinda High. Or when UCLA frat boys pelted Chicano students with them when the latter protested the former for hosting stereotype-packed parties. It never bothered me much, but I can tell you Mexicans back then didn’t suffer such indignities with the same grace as Orange Glen.
Before the Coronado-Orange Glen fiasco, the most notorious Southern California tortilla-tossing tempest was at a 1993 football playoff game between Newbury Park and Montebello high schools. Followers of the former had pitched tortillas onto the field every time the Panthers scored a touchdown that season, which was fine when they played similarly wealthy-and-white schools in the Simi Valley.
Things changed when they played super-Latino Montebello.
Newbury Park head Coach George Hurley fielded dozens of angry phone calls. Fans of their next opponent, Bell Gardens High, showered Newbury Park players “with jeers and obscene gestures before the opening kickoff,” according to a dispatch by this paper, and waved the Mexican flag.
“I felt like I was the Ugly American in a foreign country,” Hurley told The Times, using the same I’m-the-victim excuse that Coronado High employed nearly three decades later.
These new culprits can’t claim any ignorance of what it meant when they threw tortillas. San Diego County high school sports has suffered a rash of racist incidents in recent years. The Coronado Unified School District has featured squabbling over students who want their schools to be anti-racist, and community members who dismiss such actions as critical race theory hogwash. Did the Islanders squad really think Orange Glen — where the student body is more than 80% Latino — wouldn’t feel disrespected?
Sometimes — most of the time, really — a tossed tortilla is a tossed tortilla. But even if the Coronado players didn’t have malice in their hearts, what they did was awfully dumb. (Though not as dumb as the person who brought the tortillas: 40-year-old Coronado resident Luke Serna. The UC Santa Barbara graduate told the Coronado Times there was no racism intended yet railed against “racial opportunists” who thought so).
Besides, let a bunch of tortillas fall to the ground? What a waste of potential tacos and quesadillas.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.