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Column: L.A. County’s sheriff called me a ‘vendido,’ a sellout. Let’s talk about selling out

Sheriff Alex Villanueva
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva discusses vaccine mandates at a news conference in downtown Los Angeles.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Every Wednesday during lunchtime, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva logs onto Facebook Live to bare his soul.

Villanueva ostensibly does these sessions to inform the public about what’s going on with the largest sheriff’s department in the United States. But he devotes the majority of these chats to trash enemies real and imagined. Basically anyone who questions his actions. It all culminates with a “Heel of the Week” segment that allows L.A. County’s top lawman to rain down righteous fury on some lawless wretch.

On Oct. 20, the heel was I.

That day, Villanueva brought up my Oct. 16 column, where I critiqued his recent move to allow deputies to wear cowboy hats at any time as a macho gesture that was all hat and no cattle. Over the course of 11 minutes, Villanueva read most of my columna interspersed with his own commentary.

He called me a “dishonest soul” who created a “false narrative” with a “woke agenda” to attack him. At one point, Villanueva even pulled out a photo of Tiger Woods with a bad tan and a mannequin’s head with a baseball cap as if he was summoning the spirit of Carnac the Magnificent.

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“You may not like it, Mr. Gustavo Arellano,” the sheriff said as he put aside his props to put on a wannabe Stetson, “but the hats are here to stay, m’kay?”

I giggled while watching the replay, and kept it on in the background as I moved on to more important work. But Villanueva just couldn’t quit me: About 15 minutes after his initial rant, he threw one final jab when he referenced a column I used to do in a previous life called “Ask a Mexican.”

“I have a name for your new [column] if The Times decides to give you a regular [slot],” he said, barely masking the smirk that was about to burst out. “It’ll be called ‘Ask a Vendido.’”

Ask a Sellout.

Among Latinos, to call someone a vendido stings even more than the English translation. It means the individual in question knows how hard Latinos have it in American society, claims that struggle for themselves, vows to champion their community upon making it to the big time, but instead not only forgets their roots but works actively to quash their former comrades.

I thought about the sheriff’s vendido crack again after reading an explosive Times investigation by my colleagues Alene Tchekmedyian and Ben Poston, and former Times reporter Julia Barajas.

Their findings made me ask: Who’s the real vendido?

The reporters found that the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has made more than 44,000 bike stops since 2017 that did little to nab actual criminals. Seventy percent of those incidents involved Latino cyclists, who were also far more likely to be searched even though they were less likely to have contraband on them than other ethnic groups. The bulk of those stops happened in communities like East L.A. and South L.A., not places like Malibu and Agoura Hills.

When I think of people on bikes, two types of people come to my mind. One is of middle-class, mostly white weekend warriors in Spandex riding bicycles that cost more than my 16-year-old GMC Yukon. The ones who zip along streets headlong like Tour de France cyclists speeding across the Champs-Elysees. Those are the cyclists that Villanueva’s deputies admit to largely leaving alone.

The other group is blue-collar Latinos pedaling to work at the break of dawn in their uniforms or with equipment stuffed into a backpack. Because they’re not doing it “for exercise or amusement,” that makes this group suspicious, apparently.

So, turnabout being fairplay, Mr. Sheriff: Maybe that makes you a vendido supreme.

Villanueva strode into office in 2018 in a stunning political upset of incumbent Jim McDonnell by courting Chicano yaktivists and Democratic politicos who wanted ICE out of L.A. County jails for good. There was hope among those supporters that Villanueva — a half-Puerto Rican who speaks conversational Spanish — would usher in a kinder Sheriff’s Department, one with a long, bad history in how it dealt with Latinos.

Let’s just say the Sheriff’s Department under Villanueva hasn’t exactly been Latino-friendly.

The move to institute cowboy hats was an attempt to capture the glory days of the American West — you know, Manifest Destiny and conquering half of Mexico, then taking the lands of those Mexicans who remained. Two years earlier, Villanueva allowed the reintroduction of a logo to the department’s East L.A. station that McDonnell had banned: a boot topped by a sheriff’s helmet and bracketed with the slogans “Fort Apache” and “Low Profile.”

The nickname refers to a John Wayne western about a U.S. cavalry outpost in the middle of Native American lands and dated back to the 1970 Chicano Moratorium — you know, when Chicanos in East L.A. protested against the Vietnam War only to suffer a brutal beatdown at the hands and batons of sheriff’s deputies. That fiasco infamously culminated with a deputy firing a tear gas projectile into a bar that struck former L.A. Times columnist Rubén Salazar in the head, killing him instantly.

Last year, Villanueva called L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis a “malinche” — a sexist Mexican Spanish term for a traitor — during one of his Facebook Live sessions.

In the past year and a half, deputies have shot and killed Latino men like David Ordaz Jr. and Andres Guardado in high-profile incidents. Villanueva did express “grave concern” in Ordaz’s death but called a coroner’s inquest into Guardado’s case a “circus stunt.”

But Villanueva’s worst insult to Latinos involves his approach to the COVID-19 vaccine.

He oversees a department where more than 50% of deputies are Latinos. As you likely know by now, Latinos have disproportionately suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic. Lots of them are essential workers who serve the rest of us by toiling in the kind of jobs you can’t work remotely. Probably some of them, I don’t know, ride their beat-up BMXs and beach cruisers there and hope law enforcement will just leave them alone.

But get this: Just about 43% of sheriff’s deputies are fully vaccinated, which puts the Latinos they deal with, for good or bad, at risk of contracting the disease.

Yet instead of openly decrying those deputies for refusing to get vaccinated and being pandejos — that’s pandemic pendejos, or idiots, for the uninitiated — Villanueva offers them the cover of personal choice and vows to defy L.A. County’s mandate that all public employees get vaccinated.

Throwing your community under the squad car to grandstand? You don’t need a Facebook Live grieve-a-thon; you don’t need a shiny badge to know what that makes you.

That, Mr. Sheriff, is a vendido.


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