By Gustavo Arellano
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Photo by Gustavo ArellanoOutside a massive, vacant building in Anaheim, Meg Waters unloads Mexican produce from a purple Ford Ranger she calls "Barney." Waters' company, the Lake Forest PR firm Waters & Faubel, is hosting a morning news conference for Gigante, the Mexican supermarket juggernaut that ultimately obtained the building Aug. 20.
As Waters arranges pastries, Ruben Smith, Gigante's legal counsel, asserts that the Latino community supports Gigante.
"You've read the letter, right?" Smith asks me.
"The letter" is an Oct. 23, 2001, memo from Anaheim Redevelopment Agency chief Elisa Stipkovich to the building's owner. In it, Stipkovich says Gigante wouldn't make a desirable tenant, that the market would serve only Latinos, not the "wider demographic" Anaheim envisions.
Gigante claims that statement is racist and was the real reason for the city's refusal to grant the supermarket a liquor license, a move that effectively killed Gigante's ambition. City officials say the Stipkovich Memorandum had nothing to do with their decision; there are simply too many liquor licenses in this working-class neighborhood in Anaheim.
Before I can tell Smith I've read the letter, Waters answers for me. From deep inside the bowels of Barney, she says, "He doesn't believe that it says what we've been saying it does."
I don't believe. But I want to believe—want to believe with the PR flacks, the Republican mayoral candidate, the Latino community leaders, union reps, Hispanic chamber types, the faithful press and, of course, Gigante brass, the brassiest in a peacock-blue polo shirt. Surrounded by those who believe that Gigante—the multinational, multibillion-dollar, multi-ethnic, Guadalajara-based Microsoft of Mexican grocers—is oppressed by the seven men and women of the city planning commission.
Today's conference is like a revival meeting, a celebration of Gigante's gentleness of spirit in the face of an evil too great to name. Maybe not that great. Everyone—including former Republican Assembly speaker, now mayoral candidate Curt Pringle—agrees that Anaheim's move to block Gigante is about skin color.
Gigante has already won the press' heart; Waters has taken aim at their stomachs. She has assembled a cornucopia of Gigante produce: multicolored chips with two different salsas and guacamole; various pan dulces, churros and chilled beverages; and amazing chile-covered mango lollipops.
Oh, and this: a stack of the offending Stipkovich Memorandum.
Equally impressive is the podium from which the speakers will decry racism. It's heaped with mangoes, jícama, Gigante-brand jams, dried chiles and soaps. Arriving English-language journalists and their support crews of camera people, photographers, sound men and producers all stare at the exotic produce. In their hungry eyes, you can just make out the incipient breakdown of civilization.
"Did you see the sodas!?" a KOCE reporter breathlessly asks. "They're guava and mango!" She points to a fabric softener. "Look at the interesting name!" she exclaims, and then she utters the syllables like Humbert Humbert at the beginning of Lolita: "Fa-bu-lo-so," she says. "It means fabulous, right?"
Soon, Gigante's officers arrive in a fleet of Navigators and Acuras. Justo Frias, president of Gigante USA, sees Waters' spread and jokes, "Wow! We don't even stock this in our stores!" Pringle pulls up and tells me he supports Gigante based solely on free-enterprise principles. The company is "a good corporate citizen everywhere," he says. "There's no reason why it shouldn't be here." Asked if his vocal support might have something to do with the power of the Latino electorate in his upcoming mayoral race, he fidgets, then replies, "That's not the political calculus I operate under" before fleeing to friendlier territory.
Amin David of the Latino civic organization Los Amigos arrives, shouting in Spanish to no one in particular, "There will be a Gigante market here soon!" I ask David why Los Amigos supports Gigante's quest for a liquor license, pointing out that his group has built its reputation in the war against proliferating liquor licenses. He says those campaigns were aimed at keeping hooch hawkers away from schools. When I point out that two schools—Adelade Price and Westmont Elementary—are down the street from Gigante, that we can almost see them, he says, "Yes, but it's beyond the 500-feet perimeter."
What about Pringle? I ask. Is he supporting Gigante to bolster his stature amongst Latinos? "Is it a political ploy? I don't know," David says. "Is that good thinking? Yes."
Nativo Lopez of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional strides up and wants to talk with me about my last article on the subject of Gigante. In that one, I noted that Gigante's arrival would likely spell the end of several local mom-and-pop grocers. He wants me to know those moms and pops are all union busters. He knows. Their employees seek his guidance, his leadership, his saving powers. "I've interviewed hundreds of them," Lopez says. "They work for substandard wages and are not unionized." Is he concerned that Gigante will wipe out local entrepreneurs? "If the small stores aren't unionized, I absolutely support someone coming from outside who is."
What about Pringle? In 1988, Pringle, then an Assembly candidate from Garden Grove, hired private poll guards to intimidate Latino voters on Election Day. Did not Lopez and David rail against him then? Is he not here today? "This has nothing to do with Pringle," Lopez argues. "Anyone willing to speak out against Anaheim's refusal of Gigante is welcome." But does he think Pringle is with them for his own political ambitions? "Everyone has their interest," Lopez says with a sly grin. "You have to ask him."
The press conference starts, but not before Waters tells Pringle and Lopez to stand side by side for the duration. They suffer as we all do. The conference is a bore, a formality in which a succession of talking heads approaches the microphone to preach the gospel of anti-racism, open borders, diversity, free markets, globalism and cheap prices. David and Lopez accuse the city of racism (Lopez refers to the Stipkovich Memorandum as "market ethnic cleansing"), but Pringle—a Republican, remember—eludes the charge nimbly when reporters question him. "I won't use the same words [as Lopez]," he says, "but I feel the same sentiment."
Frias concludes the snoozefest by announcing that Gigante's CEO will fly in from Mexico to address the Anaheim City Council on Aug. 20. And when he comes, he will teach them that local liquor-license regulations are no match for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But the conference ends, and I'm unchanged, unrepentant, bereft. Even when the cake comes, a monstrous pastel de tres leches topped with cream, kiwis, pineapples and strawberries spelling out "Gigante." The press and preachers descend on it, swallowing cake like they did Gigante's claims of injustice. Pringle shovels a generously sized empanada into his mouth. Waters is suddenly everyone's mother, urging attendees to take food home. And they do, pocketing the produce. A union worker cradles two mangos the size of babies; Lopez stuffs his suit pockets with chocolate suckers.
Waters approaches me, politely offering a slice of cake, which I equally politely refuse. She insists. I finally relent and take the chance to ask her about the media's response to her story of Little Gigante and the Racists of Anaheim.
"I don't have to do a lot of explaining to them—except to you," she tells me. "Everyone gets it except the Weekly."