On June 21, the day that Yoenis Céspedes, the Oakland Athletics' top Latino slugger, blasted a game-winning, walk-off home run that completed a sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the A's' front office was headed toward controversy. A group of East Bay Latinos, lead by Hayward Councilman Mark Salinas, had raised objections over a billboard promoting last Sunday's "Turn Back the Clock Day," saying that it was racially insensitive.
"Beware of Greasers," read the billboard on northbound Interstate 880 at the foot of the Highway 238 interchange in San Leandro. The A's said the ad, which depicted outfielder Josh Reddick, was meant to personify the "rebellious youth" of the current club and conjure cultural images of the 1950s in advance of last Sunday's game. To commemorate the day, the A's wore the 1955 cap and jersey of their baseball predecessors — the old Pacific Coast League's Oakland Oaks. "Our ad agency said the theme was more out of the Fifties, in the vein of Happy Days and American Graffiti," said Bob Rose, the team's director of public relations. "The last thing we wanted to do was to offend anybody."
But the term "greaser" is understood to mean something altogether different to those of Mexican, Italian, Greek, and Puerto Rican descent. "It's totally a derogatory term for Mexicans and many other ethnic groups," said Salinas, who also teaches Chicano Studies at Hayward's Chabot College and Cal State University East Bay. "For me, this is a classic example of living in a multicultural society and it shows why we need to be more culturally proficient so we don't make these types of references to racism."
While many consumers of American pop culture have associated "greaser" with John Travolta dancing with Olivia Newton-John in Grease, that image is culturally incomplete and fairly recent. Going back to the 1830s, white settlers in Texas used the term as a pejorative for Mexicans living in the Southwest. The etymology of the word is unclear. Some believe it referred to the similarity in color between grease and the skin of Mexicans, or to laborers who literally greased their backs to facilitate picking up and carrying heavy loads.
Over the years, the term was used to dehumanize Mexicans and portray them as lazy, deviant, and sexually threatening to white women. The California Vagrancy Act of 1855 was also known as the "Greaser Act" because of its obvious intent to slap anti-loitering laws on people of Latino heritage. By the early 1900s, an influx of Italians, like Mexicans, sporting slicked-back hairstyles, added additional anti-foreigner sentiment to the term. In short, greaser, to Latinos, represents nearly two hundred years of racism.
After receiving a photo of the offending billboard from his sister, Salinas, a lifelong A's fan, initially struggled with what to do. So he posted it on his Facebook page on June 22, and a wave of concerned comments followed — mostly critical of the billboard with a sense of disbelief that the A's could have been so culturally unaware.
"A problem in society is that racism is being ignored. Instead we should educate about how wrong it is to call unacceptable names to label people," Elena Rivera, a former Cal State East Bay student, wrote on Facebook. "I want to believe the Oakland A's had no intention to insult a large number of their fan base but perhaps next time they will do a little more research in their marketing and consider cultural awareness."
Eventually, one commenter posted a phone number to the A's front office and urged for the offending billboard to come down. Salinas also used his contacts in county government to apply pressure on the A's. He enlisted the help of newly appointed Alameda County Supervisor Richard Valle, whose appointment last month to replace Nadia Lockyer on the Board of Supervisors was greatly aided by significant support in the Latino community.
In one of his first acts as supervisor, Valle talked to the A's about the billboard. He said team officials were receptive to his concerns and told him the billboard would come down immediately. Two days after Salinas' Facebook posting, the billboard had been replaced by a thick black tarp that stayed up until last week, when a new ad, featuring A's outfielder Coco Crisp, was unveiled. "They said they were sorry," Valle said.
That the A's overlooked the use of a culturally-insensitive slur in one of the most diverse regions in the country is surprising, especially in light of the team's ownership's strong desire to move the club to San Jose, a city with a substantial Latino population. In fact, Latinos are the largest ethnic group in San Jose. "Obviously, someone in the A's front office never took an ethnic studies class in college," Salinas said.
"It's a nice lesson," he continued. "I don't think the A's said, 'Let's go out of our way to offend people,' but I think it's the responsibility of all of us to take some time to understand each other's cultures."