Joe Gomez didn’t listen to his abuelita.
“What did I tell you, Joseph?” his grandmother asked him after Gomez’s mistake made news. “What you’re making is blood money.”
Last year, Gomez, 32, left his job as a radio journalist to take a well-paid gig with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an organization that paints itself as moderate but has been called a hate group.
That’s what worried Grandma.
“She’s not someone you mess with. She’s one of those rough-and-tumble grandmothers,” he said, chastised and repentant.
After months of hoping to prove her wrong, after working in a place where “spic” and “hola hombre” were allegedly part of the workday, he finally told his grandma she was right.
Gomez quit, and last week he filed a complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights over what he described as the toxic work environment at FAIR.
“I was very optimistic, I thought I could make a difference,” Gomez said. “There was change to be made, but I couldn’t do it.”
This is more than a cautionary tale about listening to your grandma.
And it’s also more than a Trump voter with buyer’s remorse. Gomez isn’t Latinx Omarosa. No book deal, so far.
The frightening kernel inside Gomez’s story and the point he wants to make is the septic and contagious polarity of Washington and how little it has to do with the majority of Americans’ thinking.
We are, primarily, a nation of moderates, no matter how flaming your Facebook feed looks. A whopping 42 percent of Americans polled by Gallup last year said they were politically independent. The same poll had 29 percent going Democrat and 27 percent Republican.
But you look at Twitter or get to the District, and it feels like Fort Sumter on the eve of a second Civil War.
Gomez said he did not find a moderate middle at FAIR. Instead, according to the complaint he filed, he found himself in an extremist organization where jabs at people of color — like one woman who offered to smear mud on her face to look more like an immigrant — were more common than rational talk about immigration reform.
FAIR disputed Gomez’s claim that he was treated unfairly.
“At all times Mr. Gomez was treated with dignity and respect at FAIR,” the organization’s communications director, David Ray, said. “He was valued and sent around the country and given high-profile assignments.”
Ray said that Gomez’s formal complaint was the first FAIR heard about any problems and that its own investigation “reveals that his allegations against FAIR are, in all essentials, untrue.”
Gomez said he started getting pushback at the job when he tried to say “illegal immigrant” on the air, rather than the “illegal alien” FAIR used. The bosses reprimanded him for not using their lingo, he said.
He stayed on, though. Not because he was a subversive leftie going undercover for the resistance — he’s a Republican who voted for President Trump.
When he worked as a correspondent for radio stations like NBC News, he talked to people across the country, at the border and in Mexico. And he found most folks had genuinely middle-of-the-road philosophies. They’re not all “round ’em up and kick them out,” he said.
“Ultimately, people do believe in some sort of moderate immigration reform.”
But that’s not what he found in the caustic world of extreme D.C. politics.
“The organizations have polarized,” Gomez said. “Not the people. And the polarizing is very frightening.”
When he showed up at FAIR to interview, the folks there couldn’t believe their luck, he said. A man named Gomez? That would be gold for a place like FAIR.
“In the interview, they told me: ‘You know we’re a hate group,’ ” Gomez said, referring to the designation given to them by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which FAIR disputes.
The group was founded in 1979 and has since had quiet ties to white-supremacist groups, while looking moderate during at least 100 appearances by its representatives to testify before congressional hearings, according to the SPLC.
“FAIR’s founder, John Tanton, has expressed his wish that America remain a majority-white population: a goal to be achieved, presumably, by limiting the number of nonwhites who enter the country,” according to the SPLC’s description.
Growing up in Colorado, with an African American father and Mexican American mother who were both in the military, Gomez said, he was never stung by bigotry and didn’t believe folks could be so extreme. His fourth-generation American world felt pretty colorblind.
Then he got to FAIR. And no matter how many appearances he made for them on TV, no matter how many pro-Trump tweets he sent and no matter how many times he went out for drinks with colleagues, he said they treated him like an outsider.
The harassment got so bad, Gomez said, that he saw a doctor and began taking medication for his anxiety-driven, uncontrollable shaking.
Then, according to his complaint, his bosses made fun of his shaking.
“The bottom line was that my last name was Gomez,” he said. “And no matter how much money I made for them, they still saw the color of my skin.”
Gomez is suing for lost wages. FAIR also takes issue with the money part of the complaint, couching the whole affair as a cash grab. Gomez said that if he gets any cash, he’ll donate it to an advocacy group.
And yes. Go ahead, get it out of the way. He’s heard all the “I told you so’s” one man can take.
“I’ve heard it all,” he said. You lay with dogs, you’ll get fleas. You hang out with vipers, you’ll get bitten. He knows he looked naive when he took the job.
He prefers to believe he was being optimistic.
He went to the West Virginia mountains over the long weekend to get away and breathe. And think. And plan.
Gomez would like to go back to work. But not for a newsroom. And not for a place that says it’s moderate.
“Advocacy. I think I would like to do that,” he said. “Because now I’ve experienced hate firsthand.”
He still believes he can make a difference.