“I went to his bedroom to say good night,” Iraola said, turning to an audience that had been discussing diversity and inclusion in schools. “He was crying because of the abuse that he was enduring in this school system.”
Suddenly, the man behind him interjected.
“Then why didn’t you stay in Mexico?” he asked.
The audience broke into a collective gasp, according to a video captured by MLive.com. Heads turned around to face the man, who later identified himself as Tom Burtell. (He did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post early Tuesday.)
“You need to leave,” one woman in the crowd told him. “That is disgusting,” shouted another.
The exchange, captured on both video and audio, has rocked the town of Saline, a mostly white suburb in eastern Michigan that had already been grappling with an instance of racism between students. In a Snapchat group between high school football players, two teammates had used racial slurs and talked of “WHITE POWER” earlier this year, the Ann Arbor News reported.
Monday’s meeting was meant to address the group chat and explore how Saline schools could move forward. Yet it also provided a firsthand example of some of the issues plaguing the school system, Iraola told The Washington Post.
“We wanted to tell the audience that this [kind of discrimination] was alive and well,” he said. “We were very surprised to see that, right then and there, is the ignorance manifested by those comments."
An architectural engineer by training, Iraola moved from Mexico City to the United States in 1980 “in search of a better life,” he said, having fallen in love with the area during a previous school trip to Ann Arbor. Together with his wife Lori, 55, they settled in Saline, hoping to take advantage of the town’s charm and high-quality school system.
Both parents got involved in coaching sports, he said, and the family went on to fulfill his long-held dream of starting a Mexican restaurant by opening Chela’s, a local favorite with three locations in the area. By most measures, their three kids — now 23, 26 and 28, all of them U.S.-born — reaped the benefits of Saline Area Schools, the school district.
But as some of the few Latino children in the school system, they all struggled with the stereotypes held and offensive comments made by some of their classmates and teachers, Iraola said.
One of their daughters was repeatedly called “Pocahontas” in the hallways. Their son was asked if his dad mowed grass for a living and whether he had swum across the Rio Grande or crossed the desert on foot.
Their daughter’s only teacher of color, her high school Spanish instructor, at one point shoved her folder onto the floor and forced the girl to pick up all the papers. “You’re Latina. You should know better,” the teacher said, according to Lori Iraola.
The district’s demographics have not appeared to change much since the Iraola children graduated. In the 2018-19 year, white students made up more than 85 percent of the student body at Saline Area Schools, according to Michigan state data, while Latinos comprised less than 2.5 percent and black students just under 2 percent.
Last month’s incident drew attention to the schools’ racial dynamics, as a group of white football players added their black teammates to a private group message on the social media app Snapchat. The black teammates were introduced with the n-word, the News reported, and the group’s name was changed to “Racist” with two gorilla emoji.
In a Jan. 27 letter to parents, Saline Area Schools Superintendent Scot Graden denounced that chat as “an act of racism that created harm to all of our students, especially students of color."
Yet that wasn’t enough to assuage the feelings of some parents, who said it was representative of something much larger. “Our reputation as a city is that we are racist,” one mother said at a school board meeting. One student told the News that the behavior exhibited on Snapchat “occurs daily and racist imagery can be found everywhere."
For the Iraola family, news of the messages reopened old wounds, they said. After consulting with their grown children, Lori and Adrian decided to attend a meeting convened by the district as a show of solidarity with current students of color and their parents.
“We didn’t want this to be seen as an isolated event,” Lori Iraola said. “We wanted to tell the story of what we saw through our children’s eyes.”
After hearing a presentation from the superintendent, Adrian Iraola raised his hand to participate in an open forum. He was in the middle of describing his children’s experiences with discrimination, he said, when a loud voice behind made him stop — and then, made his blood boil.
Burtell would later tell the audience that “black racism” and discrimination against white people are a problem and that the district’s diversity efforts were “ludicrous.”
“You’re complaining about situations and this incident where somebody made a little tweet. Nobody got hurt in that, and that was done off campus,” Burtell said. "That doesn’t concern the school system. Everybody has a right to free speech.”
During the meeting, however, Burtell and his comments were condemned almost immediately. At the front of the room, Brian Wright, a black parent whose son was targeted in the Snapchat group, stood up to say that the man’s question was “indicative of what our kids are experiencing.”
In a Facebook post later on Monday, Burtell’s son, Matt, called his father’s question a “deliberately racist” one.
“His views of hate in no way represent my own,” the post said. “I stand in solidarity with the refugees and immigrants of the world.”
During the meeting, however, Iraola tried to give Burtell room to share his thoughts. He gestured to offer the man his microphone, later saying that "if he had something to say, he should say it.”
When it became clear that the man’s interjection was over, Iraola resumed speaking. This time, he addressed Burtell directly.
“He asked me a question,” Iraola told the room. “Why didn’t I stay in Mexico? Because this is the greatest country in the world."