People have been wondering since Saturday night about the motivation someone would have to bring tortillas to a high school championship basketball game in Coronado.
The tortillas were thrown after a Coronado player sunk a buzzer beater, defeating Escondido's Orange Glen High School, and the outrage over the apparently racist act erupted immediately.
After the final buzzer but before the teams from each side shook hands in a post-game tradition, people on the Coronado side threw tortillas at the team from Escondido and – according to Orange Glen’s coaches – told them to get out of their gym.
“The [Coronado] head coach and the assistant coach came over to our bench and kind of said some words that were inappropriate and told us that we should take our kids and 'get the F out' because we were a bunch of losers,” Lizardo Reynoso, assistant coach for Orange Glen High School, told NBC 7 over the weekend.
Since then, the story has garnered national attention, shining a spotlight on the mostly white upscale island community of Coronado. More than 80% of the Orange Glen High School student body is Latino.
The Coronado Unified School District Board on Tuesday night voted in favor of firing Coronado High's head basketball coach J.D. Laaperi following an emergency, closed-session school board meeting.
On Wednesday, NBC 7 became aware that a person named Luke Serna had posted on a Coronado Happenings social-media site, claiming responsibility for bringing the tortillas to the game. Serna, who went to Coronado High School himself, posted, in part:
" ... the Orange Glen team approached the CHS team on the CHS side of the court with the intent of violence against Islander players, fans and anyone else celebrating the win. As the confrontation continued, several tortillas were thrown up into the air in the direction of the Orange Glen team. There was absolutely no racial intent behind that action. Any effort to claim that was the case is a complete and utter FALSEHOOD."
Serna also said in the post that "The tossing of tortillas is used as a celebratory action by the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos at various sporting events including basketball and soccer."
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People familiar with the practice of tortilla tossing at sporting events, however, say the intent is often to distract during games, not as a celebration after a victory, though a search of the Internet did turn up results describing people throwing tortillas after the Gauchos scored a goal.
At a news briefing outside Coronado High School on Tuesday, Enrique Morones of Gente Unida, a coalition of human rights groups, called the tortilla throwing "blatant racism and hate."
“We are not against the military, we are not against the white community," Morones said. "But we are against racism, and racism and hate exist in every community.”
After reaching Serna via text messaging on Wednesday, he declined to speak to NBC 7 on camera, but he did answer a pair of questions. First, he confirmed he had, in fact, brought the tortillas but said his reasoning had to do with a college tradition.
"Yes, I brought them to the game and distributed them to one bench player and to CHS cheerleaders to distribute as a celebratory action if the Islanders won, as is done at my alma mater UCSB," Serna texted.
Serna also confirmed to NBC 7 that he had been contacted by the Coronado Police Department as part of their investigation.
"Yes, that is me," Serna texted. "I had one call with the Coronado PD and they injected RACE into the call and said I could be charged with 'Inciting a Riot'. Not the best tactic to take if you're trying to investigate in my opinion."
Later in the day, Telemundo 20's Tania Luviano was able to contact Serna as well, who told her that he didn’t know the other team was Hispanic and again said he brought the tortillas after the tradition at UC Santa Barbara.
UPDATE: On Thursday morning, Serna sent the following statement to NBC 7: "I realize the tortilla throwing has been perceived as racially insensitive. I do not condone racially insensitive behavior, and that was not my intent. I apologize to all who were hurt by this and hope it can be a teaching moment for us all to become more conscious.”
As the public session of the Coronado School Board closed on Tuesday night, board members said at least three more weeks would be needed to investigate the incident, which is also being investigated by the Coronado Police Department, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) and the Escondido Union High School District (home of Orange Glen HS).
The full text conversation with Serna is below:
It's unknown at this time if any of the players, cheerleaders will face any disciplinary action in the wake of the incident. It's also not yet known if critics' calls to forfeit the game will be answered.
Chris Kelly, a CHS parent who is involved with an organization that sheds light on racial inequities and lack of racial education in the Coronado Unified School District, said whether or not the incident should be labeled as racist is up to the Orange Glen community, and only them.
"If tortillas were thrown at a Hispanic community and they felt it was racist, then it was racist. It's not for us to decide, it's not for us to decide how another race should feel," Kelly said.
Rachel Ricker, a CHS alumna and San Diego High School teacher, said the Coronado school board made the right decision.
"As a teacher, the first thing we teach is to have a strong character, to be kind," Ricker said. "This was a red flag and shows we need higher standards for character."
"We have a lot of work to do to restore our reputation here," she added.