Anyone paying attention to San Antonio’s local media knows an incident occurred at Taco Haven last Friday. Much of the publicity began with a Yelp review I wrote after I went to the restaurant in search of breakfast tacos.
Over the next week, a number of reports emerged, most written without contacting me for confirmation of details. Nearly all the stories included my name. Some suggested that I called for protests and boycotts, and others diagnosed me with “paranoia” because of comments I made about a chalkboard advertising “straight shots.” At this point, I want to clarify that day’s events, especially after this Friday’s release of an official statement from the Torres family, the owners of Taco Haven.
Shortly before I got to the restaurant, my girlfriend arrived and texted me that a group of people were in front gathering signatures to recall Councilman Diego Bernal and Mayor Julián Castro.
Upon arriving, I was handed a paper that asked, “Did you know Mayor Castro and city council passed SOR (Sexual Orientation Regulation) disguised as the NDO (Non Discrimination Ordinance)”?
They held posters and said things to passersby that intentionally misconstrued the fight to stop LGBTQ discrimination with the effort to allow men to dress up as women so they could molest young girls in public bathrooms. The message was clear: support for Bernal and Castro meant support for an anti-Christian, pro-gay, pro-molestation agenda.
I was surprised by the protestors’ presence. I had always seen Taco Haven as an open and accepting establishment, long treasured by San Antonio residents. Although I supported the NDO, I had not taken part in any dialogue with recall campaigners – nor am I publicly active on gay rights issues.
My brother is gay and I have always supported him personally. A decade ago, I marched alongside him in Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade. I had never spoken to a business about its homophobic stances. My girlfriend, too, has little history of gay rights activism.
After hearing the protestors and looking at their literature, I went inside to ask the manager what was happening. He pointed to a table across the street that advertised the recall effort. I asked if he supported it, and he said he did, especially the effort to keep men from dressing up as women so they could go into girls’ bathrooms. I then told him that the NDO was not about bathrooms at all. Rather, it was intended to stop housing, employment, and service discrimination against San Antonio’s LGBTQ residents and visitors. I asked if he thought a business should be able to fire my brother simply for being gay. He expressed little enthusiasm for that notion, but still voiced support for the recall activists. He also said it was a public sidewalk and he couldn’t do anything about the protestors.
I then asked the manager about the infamous chalkboard, which stood directly inside the main doors and advertised that day’s special on straight shots. The word “straight” was in all caps, and it was underlined — it jumped out to me. I told him that because of the anti-gay pamphleteers in front of his restaurant, customers were interpreting the chalkboard as agreement with their cause.
About 10 feet from the chalkboard, the protestors told us that gays and liberals want to outlaw Christmas, and that, thanks to them, it is no longer legal to be a Christian in the workplace. When I asked them how many predatory men have used the NDO or laws like it to invade girls’ bathrooms, they couldn’t name a single case. They in turn asked me for cases of anti-gay discrimination. I told them that my brother had been viciously beaten multiple times for being gay. They told me that I was lying, that I had no proof and that hateful gays are the real bashers.
When I asked the recall group why they were in front of Taco Haven, their answer was simple: “We were invited.”
After hearing these incredibly deceitful and insulting words about the NDO —as well as the protestors’ claim of Taco Haven’s explicit support — we couldn’t see anything inside the restaurant as we would on a “normal” day.
My girlfriend was the one that noticed the “straight shot” sign and she came to a very sensible conclusion: it was meant to be part of the anti-gay display shoved in customers’ faces. I told the manager that even though the sign may have been “innocent,” customers such as my girlfriend were interpreting it as support for the protestors. He laughed and told me he wouldn’t change it.
At that point, I asked to speak to the owners, and he said they weren’t there. I told him I would go home, write an online review detailing my experience, and tell my friends about it. I also told him I wouldn’t come back. He shrugged his shoulders. He made no effort to connect me to the Torres family. Our whole conversation occurred inside the restaurant, in front of a line of paying customers.
After the Yelp review went up, and after I contacted friends who are active in San Antonio’s media and gay rights community, things went in a number of directions. I honestly expected Taco Haven to issue an immediate mea culpa. At the very least, I thought they would reply to my Yelp review. After all, that’s part of the site’s purpose, to create a dialogue between owners and aggrieved consumers.
Instead, Taco Haven took counsel from a lawyer who is openly affiliated with anti-NDO efforts. They also waited an entire week before saying anything – though a few of their comments found their way to a conservative blog post, which did little to calm the situation. During this time, the recall protestors posted comments on the Taco Haven Facebook page thanking the restaurant owners for their active support and agreement. The page seems to be unmonitored by Taco Haven staff, as the last update was on July 8, 2011.
Am I glad that Taco Haven finally issued a statement? Definitely. To hear them say they did not agree with the manager’s position was a true relief. Also, to hear them proclaim that they welcome and “embrace” all of their diverse customers was music to my ears.
During the past week, I had heard that some Torres family members had even donated to the Bernal campaign. In addition, I heard that Taco Haven has allowed the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center — one of San Antonio’s most vociferous pro-LGBTQ organizations — to publicize their events with advertisements inside the restaurant. Clearly, this is a restaurant owned by a large, diverse, and complex family.
I also think it’s important for everyone—and especially business owners—to realize that the recall activists lie and manipulate. I tried to engage them in calm, rational dialogue. It was impossible. I’m not sure how aware businesses are of what these people say to customers. I am more than willing to imagine that if some members of the Torres family heard what I heard that day, they would’ve told the protestors to move as far away from Taco Haven as possible.
I am not gay and I can’t claim to know what it’s like to be the object of persistent fear and discrimination. People in the community feel hurt and betrayed. They want an explicit apology from the restaurant, and they deserve one. They want the Torres family to speak for itself, and to reject representation by a lawyer who has a long history of anti-gay positions. They want Taco Haven to invite a real dialogue on the NDO and related issues. They deserve this conversation.
Hopefully, the Torres family will learn from this incident, as will the rest of us. San Antonio is an old, proud city. I’m hoping that the event turns out to be little more than a growing pain. Personally, when all concerns are addressed, I’m more than willing to update my review and become a Taco Haven customer, once again. We all make mistakes, and we all deserve to be recognized for the genuine efforts we make. But, first we have to make those efforts. I hope that process has begun. Surely, similar incidents will occur in the future with other businesses, and it’s important to gain as much insight from this one as we can.
Michael Cepek teaches anthropology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. A native of Chicago, he works with indigenous people in South America on issues related to human rights, environmental conservation, and the oil industry.