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He Spoke About Racism His Kids Had Faced in Michigan Schools During a Community Meeting. ‘Then Why Didn’t You Stay in Mexico?’ a Heckler Asked

4 minute read

What was intended to be a community conversation about race and diversity in Saline, Michigan on Monday night devolved into a heated discussion between a crowd of parents and one white man who interrupted a speaker to ask, “so why didn’t you stay in Mexico?”

Adrian Iraola, a Mexican immigrant and father of three children who attended Saline area schools, spoke up during the meeting to describe instances of racism his now-adult children had experienced. Iraola is a former architectural engineer from Mexico City, according to The Michigan Daily, who now owns Chela’s, a Mexican restaurant chain with three locations in Saline.

He shared examples of his kids being called “nacho” or “enchilada” while in school. Iraola later told The Washington Post about an incident during which a Spanish teacher knocked the daughter’s books out of her hand and said “You’re Latina. You should know better.”

At the community meeting, he also detailed the impact these incidents had on his children.

“I remember when I went to his bedroom to say goodnight,” Iraola spoke of a moment with his son, “and he was crying because of the abuse that he was enduring in this school system.”

That’s when a man — later identified as Tom Burtell by local media — interrupted. “Then why didn’t you stay in Mexico?” he asked.

Iraola and Burtell did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment.

The crowd quickly erupted, with some immediately asking Burtell to leave the meeting. “That is disgusting,” one person said. “That’s indicative of what our kids are experiencing,” one man added.

A Facebook post purportedly written by Burtell’s son, Matthew, called the actions “deliberately racist.” “His views of hate in no way represent my own,” the post says. “I stand in solidarity with the refugees and immigrants of the world.”

“It’s of vital importance to call out racism wherever you see it,” Matthew Burtell told MLive.com in an interview. “We can’t stand idly by — as children, as brothers and sisters, as friends and as people interacting with each other in daily life — when someone says or does anything racist. It’s all of our responsibilities.”

After a period of crosstalk and a moment when Tom Burtell was offered the microphone to speak further (he declined), Iraola continued. “He asked me a question, why didn’t I stay in Mexico? Because this is the greatest country in the world,” he said.

“But you’re complaining about being here,” Burtell responded, while the rest of the crowd applauded Iraola.

The district superintendent Scot Graden had convened the meeting in order to address racist comments made in a Snapchat group created by several Saline High School students. On January 27, Graden had sent a letter to members of the community after an investigation into the social media postings, calling them an “act of racism that created harm to all our students, especially students of color. Hate, prejudice and racism have no place in our schools or our community.”

Graden then organized a “Community Conversation” meeting to discuss diversity and inclusion, which resulted in the exchange between Iraola and Burtell.

Hate, prejudice, and racism have no place in our schools or our community,” Graden says in a statement provided to TIME. “The Saline Board of Education and administration take the issue of student and adult behavior seriously. We are striving to ensure a welcoming, inclusive, and safe environment for all students and families, regardless of their race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender identity, or any other identity. This is an opportunity for us – the staff, students, and community of Saline Area Schools – to stand for anti-racism, respect, and inclusion of all students.”

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Write to Jasmine Aguilera at jasmine.aguilera@time.com