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Just Say 'Basta'

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Suds Symbol: Latino organizers hope their boycott will send a clear-cut message to beer companies who target their neighborhoods and celebrations: the cultura is not for sale.

Photo by Christopher Gardner



Latinos lash out at the beer companies that have targeted their culture, but can their festivals survive without brewery bucks?

By Michael Learmonth

A BROWN-SKINNED diva in a tiny dress sits cross-legged, holding a long-neck Budweiser suggestively by her knee. Next to her, the silhouette of a soccer player is juxtaposed against the colors of a Mexican flag. On another wall hangs a map of the western hemisphere with every country south of the border altered into the shape of a beer bottle.

All three posters hang in stores near the corner of Alum Rock Avenue and King Road in east San Jose and carry the slogan "Adelante con Budweiser."

Felix Jose Alvarez, a self-described "full-time community activist" and director of El Teatro de los Pobres, walked the streets and found 98 stores that sell alcohol within a one-mile radius of this corner, the future home of the $25 million Mexican Cultural Heritage Garden and Plaza Project. Most of those stores and restaurants are papered with advertising pitches to sell booze to Latinos. Alvarez would like the alcohol marketing behemoth to follow its own advice: "Know When to Say When."

BEYOND THE ubiquitous posters and billboards, he says, the alcohol companies have found an even better way to mainline their message straight into the arteries of Latino family life: by sponsoring cultural events like Mexican Independence Day and Cinco de Mayo.

The sponsorship of celebrations, or fiestas patrias, are where Alvarez and an assortment of other Latino community leaders are drawing a line in the sand, calling for a three-day boycott of alcohol over the upcoming weekend celebration of Mexican Independence Day. They also want the American G.I. Forum, a Hispanic-American veterans group which puts on the bash, to refuse money from alcoholic beverage companies in future celebrations.

"We're saying basta, or enough," Alvarez said. He said the alcohol marketing message is pervasive enough in the Latino community without the Bud Girls and Spuds MacKenzie helping make festivals into beer-soaked drink-a-thons.

David Rodriguez, chairman of the G.I. Forum, defended the sponsorships, saying that the three major beer sponsors, Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors, are just a few of many corporate sponsors, including AT&T, TCI, Pac Bell, Sears, J.C. Penney, Safeway and Huggies. As every year, he said, customers will be limited to two 16-ounce beers per concession-stand visit. This year, the festival will feature the "Discovery Zone," an alcohol-free area with child-oriented activities.

Fueled by corporate sponsorships, the Independence Day and Cinco de Mayo celebrations have come a long way since the American G.I. Forum began throwing the parties in 1983. Rodriguez describes them as model festivals, commended by the police and Cultural Affairs departments, and emulated by others.

"We have been successful at drawing blacks, whites and Hispanics," said Rodriguez, who argues that events that cater to "anglos" like Tapestry and Talent also serve suds. "We've done a better job--you can't say it's the booze."

The problem, said San Jose Police Lt. Kenneth L. Christie, who manages police staffing of the celebration, starts after the festival during what he calls the "the second Mardi Gras effect."

"It's the party after the party that creates the problems," said Christie, who expects to add at least 50 officers at city expense to control the usual after-party fracas. "The bulk of the people the police are dealing with are the youth element," he said, "many of whom are not from San Jose."

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Role Model: Beer companies often use sports figures to promote their brew to a targeted audience, but concerned Latino celebrities and sports stars are talking back.

Photo by Christopher Gardner



HISTORICALLY, Hispanic men have had the highest rates of alcoholism and alcohol-related problems in the United States. Raul Caetano, director of the Alcohol Research Group at UC-Berkeley's School of Public Health, found 10 years ago that 35 percent of Hispanic men in the Bay Area had alcohol-related problems, compared to 26 percent for non-Latino whites and 24 percent for African Americans.

In the intervening decade, said Caetano, alcoholism rates among Hispanic men have risen, while those of non-Hispanic whites and African Americans have fallen. But where community leaders like Jesse Jackson have pushed high-profile national campaigns against alcohol, and especially fortified beverages like malt liquor that are marketed to African Americans, the Hispanic community has remained strangely silent.

Nationally, Caetano said, 40 percent of Hispanic men report having one or more alcohol-related problems. A "problem" can mean a drunk-driving arrest, a domestic violence incident, or even a warning at work to stay on the wagon.

"Hispanics have a terrible problem with DUI," said Caetano, who will be conducting a study of alcoholism in the Hispanic community in San Jose this year.

ROGELIO Balderas remembers Cinco de Mayo before it became a corporate-sponsored fixture in beer halls around the country. He had just returned from Vietnam and was a student at San Jose State. "It was a small way that we remembered our culture," he said. Now, the beer companies recognize the festivals as marketing opportunities. "They're ripping off the cultura to sell their products," he said. "It's very disrespectful."

Today, Balderas works for Santa Clara County running alcohol-prevention programs specifically for Latinos. In selling his message to youth, he uses many of the same "targeted marketing" techniques the alcohol industry has mastered. Hispanic celebrities such as Edward James Olmos, Linda Ronstadt and teen idol Esai Morales have appeared in public service announcements.

But the beer companies have by far the most popular celebrity pitch-men. Boxing legend Julio Cesar Chavez has long endorsed Coors. His heir apparent, East L.A.­born Oscar de la Hoya, is now sponsored by Budwieser. Both fighters have taken beer company­sponsored tours through east San Jose. On Chavez's recent tour, Coors promised to donate 5 to 10 cents to educational organizations for every case of beer sold over two months. De la Hoya's tour promoted Budweiser's new temperance slogan for Latinos: Salud, Respeto y Control-- health, respect and control.

"The bottom line is that they are trying to play the part of corporate good guys," Balderas said.

WITH HIS DUI arrest by Los Gatos police last month, San Jose ice skating champion Rudy Galindo may have unwittingly offered his services to the anti-alcohol cause. David Orozco, executive director of the Bay Area chapter of MADD, is asking the district attorney to have part of Galindo's sentence be promoting a new program targeting Bay Area schools with the drinking and driving message.

"Galindo has been very sympathetic," Orozco said. "I saw his last performance; he was flawless. I'm a big fan."

If Galindo receives a first-time sentence, he will likely attend a treatment program for 15 weeks and have his driving restricted for 30 days. A first-time offender's court and program fees add up to over $1,500.

Spanish-speakers who are convicted of drunk driving in Santa Clara County are sent to a county program called Proyecto Primavera and into the hands of program manager David Roldán. If Galindo is convicted, Roldán said, "he will come through here."

Sixty-eight percent of drunk-driving arrests in Santa Clara County are of Latinos. The problem, he says, is especially acute after the festivals. Usually there are 50 to 60 Latinos enrolled in Roldán's program in a given month. After this year's Cinco de Mayo, the program took in 138. Enrollment increases after the festivals have become so routine, said Roldán, the county plans on it.

Nine years ago, it was Roldán whose career in the computer industry was put on hold by a nine-month jail sentence for multiple DUI convictions. Roldán said that other Latinos in his program tell similar stories of the loneliness and inadequacy that drove his addiction nine years ago.

He said many of the Latinos enrolled in the program are also struggling with poverty and a feeling that the American Dream is unattainable. The beer advertising, he said, preys on those feelings. "They know how to reach someone on a subconscious level," he said.

No one believes a boycott alone will kill the deep roots of alcoholism in the Latino community. But its backers argue it will remind festival-goers that alcohol need not be as integral to Latino life as the image beer companies portray. For Rogelio Balderas, it also sends a message: "the cultura is not for sale."

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From the September 12-18, 1996 issue of Metro

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