Carlos Mencia couldn't save them

My son is receiving a wonderful education at a Spanish-English immersion public school in Santa Monica called Edison Language Academy. This spring, as an Edison parent, I got my own education: in old-time ethnic activism, outright intimidation and my own naivete. It turns out that the old bugaboo, ethnic humor -- what's funny, in what forum and who decides -- can't be trumped even in the Westside's bastion of free speech, Santa Monica.

It all began with a well-intentioned parent's idea to raise money for our cash-strapped campus. To offset the state budget cuts, our PTA set out to raise $125,000 for the year -- a tremendous amount for a low-income school.

Edison is diversity incarnate -- with nearly 425 kids of all backgrounds attending -- and the politics of inclusion makes the topic of money tricky. Our PTA silent auction was criticized by some because the bids got too high for many of our lower-income parents. Fair enough; the silent auction was gone. Then every family was asked to donate a check for as little or as much as they could afford (the PTA estimates that to cover "enrichment programs" costs about $300 per student). Last year, only 35% of the school's families participated.

So, that well-intentioned parent thought, everybody likes to laugh! Why not do a comedy show to benefit the school? Even better, why not ask a well-known Latino comedian to do it because our school is predominantly Latino?

He contacted comedian Carlos Mencia. The Honduran-born Mencia proudly describes himself as an "equal opportunity offender." Controversy follows him wherever he goes. Critics decry his use of harmful stereotypes about Latinos -- Mexicans in particular. He's one of those comics you either love or hate. But think what you will of him, he draws a crowd.

And it turned out Mencia wanted to do something on behalf of education, in particular for the Latino community. He graciously agreed to do a benefit for our school in January. Knowing Mencia's reputation, we targeted his grown-up fans, not the kids and parents at Edison. And we also asked him to tone down his act because it was, after all, an elementary-school fundraiser.

Now, I understand that the point of Mencia's comedy is turning racist stereotypes on their head. But his brand of humor isn't my cup of tea. At the same time, as a Mexican American, I don't think he's a danger to Latinos. (And neither did the National Council of La Raza when it allowed him to perform at its 2007 ALMA Awards ceremony.) My approach was to be thankful the tickets were selling and to buy two, for me and my husband, even though we would probably not attend.

But, boy oh boy, the very thought of Mencia associated with a Santa Monica public school unleashed the hounds of hell! A small group of local activists, well-versed in interest-group pressure politics, determined that he -- and the PTA -- had to be stopped. They insisted that any child, teenager or parent who heard his jokes would be damaged. Mencia was simply too offensive.

A few days before the event, a flurry of phone calls were made to Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board members. The callers wanted the benefit, which was to be held at Santa Monica High School, canceled. Mencia could not be allowed to say the words "beaner" or "wetback" or to speak in any way disparagingly of Mexicans during his act. They insisted on meeting with the comedian before the show. They threatened to picket and to attend solely to heckle.

With few exceptions, the protesters were Latinos whose children don't attend our school. They bullied and threatened PTA members, saying Edison's Latino parents "sold out their soul" and the white parents were racists. (One of these protesters later sent me an e-mail that began: "I don't know what kind of Mexicana or Latina you are ... ")

We tried to save the show. Mencia agreed to do a public Q-and-A session, but only after he did his act. He assured us he could withstand the heckling. There were frantic talks with the school board. But fearing the protesters could turn violent, and under attack for allowing Mencia in any way to represent a school, the district canceled the show.

It was the morning of the event. About 500 tickets had been sold, some to people coming from as far away as Northern California. The losses were estimated at $25,000.

The parents who'd been working so hard withdrew, shellshocked; the PTA was all but destroyed. And without that $25,000, the PTA will have a hard time supplementing our kids' education with such "enrichment" as teachers' aides, field trips and a summer reading program for kids who need extra help.

At the end of March, the school district held a forum to discuss community standards and cultural insensitivity versus 1st Amendment rights, and the rules that control the use of school property.

This fundamental issue stayed in the background: The days of a free, high-quality public school education are over. Like it or not, parents have to raise money for schools program by program, even in good times. Instead of wasting time and energy policing "cultural insensitivity," we should be raising hell with lawmakers and school boards that control the education budget.

In the end, I don't believe anything in Mencia's act would have been more hurtful to students, parents or the community than what happened: taking money away from educating our children.

Lorenza Muñoz is finishing her first novel.