Mesa High senior Antonio Barraza heard the racist taunt early in the first quarter.
“Go back home, border hopper.”
It sounded, to Barraza, like a lone voice coming out of the stands at Mesa Mountain View during its game against Mesa on Jan. 13. Barraza didn’t look up into the crowd to see who was yelling. His face remained impassive, as if he hadn’t heard a thing.
“I didn’t want them to think I could hear them,” he said. “Because if I (showed) emotion they’d think, ‘Well, he’s reacting to border hopper so let’s think of more and more things to get into his head.’ I just ignored them.”
Since then, two incidents of racial taunting at high school basketball games became public.
On Feb. 7, several Globe High parents said they were the subject of racist taunts from Queen Creek American Leadership Academy fans. Three days later, a few students from Mesa Red Mountain made monkey sounds toward Glendale Mountain Ridge basketball player Saikou Gueye, who’s black.
The incidents prompted the Arizona Interscholastic Association to release a statement that read in part, “As our member school teams pursue victory with honor, it is important that everyone, including spectators, family and friends of players demonstrate trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship from the stands. Fairness and respect are expected for all cultures represented by our diverse student and fan population.”
“Even one or two incidents like these are an uptick,” AIA Executive Director Harold Slemmer said. “We usually don’t hear about anything like this.”
Neither Slemmer nor school administrators interviewed for this story, however, believe there’s a growing trend of racial insults at high school sporting events.
“This has existed before,” former Phoenix South Mountain football coach Daryl Phillips said. “It’s just more out in the open, I think.”
Mesa Public Schools Athletic Director Steve Hogen agreed, saying the advent of social media captures incidents that in the past might not have been public knowledge.
“There have been things going on at games forever,” Hogen said. “I look back on some of the stuff that happened 20 years ago, and in some ways, it’s far worse than it is now. It’s just that you hear about it now. You see the video minutes after it happens.”
Others believe the current political climate has contributed to the recent incidents. “Sometimes it just feels like a green light has been given to that kind of behavior and treatment of other people,” Mesa Mountain View basketball coach Gary Ernst said. “I don’t condone that or like that at all.”
The culture – both in terms of social media and politics – has led to a heightened awareness among school officials. Upon hearing the insults directed at Gueye, Red Mountain Principal Jared Ryan immediately kicked the offending student out of the gymnasium. Later, after reviewing a video of the incident and interviewing witnesses, three students were disciplined.
Ryan wrote a letter to Red Mountain’s parents in which he said, in part, “Blatant disrespect for others will never be tolerated on our campus or any other in Mesa Public Schools.”
That is the usual procedure at schools across the state. The AIA directive does not establish or enforce policy in these matters; that’s the purview of individual districts.
Dr. Camille Casteel, superintendent of the Chandler Unified School District, said student-athletes are asked to tell a teacher or a coach if they’re subjected to racial slurs. Typically, Casteel said, the athletic director of the school will then conduct an investigation that includes, if necessary, contacting an athletic director at an opposing school.
Although he’s an American citizen, born in Mesa, Barraza said he’s heard racial insults regarding his Hispanic heritage since his sophomore year.
That’s when he first heard a fan tell him to “go home.” When he first heard the term “border hopper.”
“I was very angry,” he said. “I wasn’t used to it. I was born in the U.S., so why would they call me a border hopper?”
A part of Barraza wanted to confront the fans. But his father, Javier, told him that acknowledging their insults would only embolden them. They’re trying to get into your head, he said. Ignore them. Focus on the game.
That’s what Barraza did on Jan. 13. A few minutes after the “border hopper” taunt, he saw several Mountain View students unfurl a big, blue banner that said, “Trump for President,” and heard them start chanting “Trump, Trump, Trump.” One yelled at him, “Trump is going to come after your family and kick you out.” Another said, “Trump is going to put you on the other side of the wall and we’ll be standing there.”
Mesa Public Schools spokeswoman Helen Hollands said Mountain View administrators were not aware of the chants until it was brought to their attention during the reporting for this story. Ernst said he saw the Trump sign but did not hear any chants.
The taunting elicited a different emotion from Barraza.
“It made me want to laugh even more because it’s just a bunch of baloney,” Barraza said. “It doesn’t make me mad at all.”
Not everyone thought it was funny. Barraza said his parents had to explain to his 11-year-old sister Josefina why fans would bring a Trump banner to a basketball game.
“My dad was really ticked about it,” Barraza said. “He was scorched. He said, ‘I take very much offense to that because I’m Mexican and I’ve been through it all, and I don’t want my kids going through it.’ ”
“I was (angry),” Javier Barraza said. “That mentality is so stupid. It’s just ridiculous. But you can’t control everybody else. All you can control is how it’s going to affect you. You can let it affect you in a negative way and give them the power they’re looking for or let it roll off your shoulders and prove you’re better than them.”
Mesa High coach Shane Burcar had a similar message for his players. Burcar, who has great respect for Ernst and the Mountain View basketball program, often tells his kids not to take any insults hurled from the crowd personally.
Sometimes, that’s not easy.
“The dangers of this are alarming,” said Neal Lester, Foundation Professor of English and Director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University. “Keep in mind this is more powerful coming from your peers … Over time it can be devastating and the cumulative affect of it happening can manifest itself in destructive and violent ways. To say ‘sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me’ is blatantly untrue.”
Although Barraza was able to tune out the taunts – “I know they’re trying to get in my head and ruin me for the rest of the night,” – he admitted he was disturbed by the words and the thoughts behind them.
“It’s one thing to make fun of like, ‘Hey, you have a funny jump shot or, hey, way to miss that layup,’ than to say, ‘You’re Mexican. Go back home or Trump is coming after you and your family,’ ” Barraza said. “That’s over the line. There’s always a limit you can handle. That’s just over the limit.”
Barraza has moved on. But he wonders if the teenagers who were taunting him understand how their words and actions could have consequences later in life.
“Soon, we’ll be turning 18 and going into the real world,” he said. “What if they say that to somebody who couldn’t handle it? That’s my biggest concern. What’s going to happen to them if they say something like that?”
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