A viral moment between a white woman and Latino man in Santa Barbara captured on video struck a nerve over the weekend as hundreds flooded the streets to protest what many deemed a racist encounter, emblematic of the rarely discussed issue of racism in the majority-white city.
The video, captured Saturday morning by construction worker Luis Cervantes, shows Jeanne Umana inside a house down the street from her home. Cervantes repeatedly tells Umana that she’s on private property at a construction site.
“Oh, arrest me,” Umana said, walking away.
“OK, I can call the cops,” he responded.
“I live here. I’m American, you’re a Tijuanan,” Umana said.
“Thank you for being racist, thank you,” Cervantes said, following her off the property.
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Umana turned around. “I am very, very much against people who break our laws,” she said, then reached out and appeared to slap or grab Cervantes’ phone.
In an interview Monday, Umana apologized repeatedly for what she called her “inappropriate remarks.” She said the incident began when she noticed a construction truck speeding down her residential street and parked illegally in the middle of the road. She said she approached the property where Cervantes worked to report the incident to a manager — not realizing it was an active construction site.
“And then when someone put the camera in my face, I think that’s when I lost my judgment. My judgment went very, very badly,” Umana said. “I am truly sorry that this got out of hand, and I regret making statements like that, because I said them in the heat of the moment. They were not measured, and whatever I might feel, I don’t have the right to take it out on anybody else. But unfortunately, I lost control.”
Cervantes did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The incident, captured in a 30-second video, spread quickly on social media, drawing people of all ages to Umana’s downtown Santa Barbara residential neighborhood Sunday night. On one sidewalk, twin toddlers sat in a red wagon playing with a phone as adult family members watched the marchers chant, “Arrest Jeanne!” Teenagers clambered onto pickup trucks and garden ledges for better vantage points. Occasionally, cars would stop at the busy intersection and spin their wheels, creating a cloud of exhaust and a lingering scent of burned rubber. Whole families gathered to watch the spectacle.
A few hundred people congregated in front of Umana’s home with chants of “Jeanne Umana, move out!” The group then marched down Garden Street toward the downtown police station, where one person ignited a firework in the street. No uniformed police officers were present outside the station.
Santa Barbara Police Department spokesman Sgt. Ethan Ragsdale confirmed Monday that police were looking into the incident recorded in the “disturbing video” but wouldn’t comment on an ongoing investigation.
“The Police Department does not condone her behavior,” Ragsdale said in the statement. “The video posted on social media understandably stirred emotions and reactions within our community. The Santa Barbara Police Department monitored the gathering and supports the right for all individuals to peacefully assemble in order to voice their concerns.”
Ragsdale also said Umana had no affiliation with the police department. In the original video, she is recorded saying to Cervantes, “I work for the police.” Umana said Monday she meant to say she worked “with the police,” because of her efforts with local law enforcement to curb illegal sidewalk vending.
The march was led by Inland Empire-based activist Edin Alex Enamorado, who is known for his advocacy of sidewalk vendors and his frequently viral videos of racist incidents. He saw the video over the weekend and urged his Instagram audience of 256,000 followers to join him and other local activists to protest.
Standing on the Santa Barbara Police Department steps Sunday night beside a man holding a Mexican flag, Enamorado talked with Santa Barbara Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez about the viral video and the treatment of taco stand owners in Santa Barbara. Following an influx of pop-ups this summer, Santa Barbara has been cracking down on sidewalk vendors who operate without permits, according to the Santa Barbara Independent.
“When the grocery stores sell something that’s expired, they don’t shut them down,” Enamorado said, eliciting a cheer from the several dozen folks gathered in the street.
“We’re just trying to make sure that the businesses operated in our community are being operated safely and regulated,” Gutierrez said. “That’s it.”
Earlier Sunday night, Enamorado confronted Umana outside the police station, where she said she had gone to file a report for numerous death threats and harassing phone calls.
“You sounded like a racist ... and you assaulted him,” Enamorado said to her, according to a video he posted on Instagram on Monday. “Let me educate you since you’re a professor — this is our land. Your ancestors came from Europe, so how about you go back to Europe?”
“I’m ashamed that I don’t deal with this situation better,” Umana said later in the video. “But at my age, you get frustrated and you get really worn down by what’s going on around you that you can’t affect. When people deliberately break the rules, it frustrates me, particularly when a child is at stake. A child or an elderly person could be walking across that street. And if someone is barreling down the street at 45 mph in a 25-mile zone, that’s dangerous.”
“But why involve racism?” Enamorado responded. “Why say that he’s not from this country? You say you’re American, you think you’re more American than him? He is from this continent, he is Indigenous to this continent.”
Umana, a former lecturer at UC Santa Barbara, said Monday morning that she applauded Enamorado for his activism, even as she said she wanted the tumult of the weekend to pass.
“He was advocating for people that were important to him,” she said. “I applaud that, because as a professor, I even taught my students how to demonstrate. … I want to enable people and empower people to feel that they have the right to protest. But this has become ugly and vile and hateful.”
Luis Sanchez, 21, a lifelong Santa Barbara resident, said he was on his way to the gym Sunday when he noticed the hubbub and joined the crowd outside the police station.
“Santa Barbara, I’ve come across a lot of racist s— that’s happened. I’ve had some pretty messed up s— happen to me,” Sanchez said. “Once in a blue moon, [I] get called some racial slurs.”
“It’s not really straight up, it could be like a feeling that you get,” said his friend Brian Geronimo, 23, who also grew up in Santa Barbara but now lives in Long Beach. “They could be eyeing you, you know?”
David and Rosy Gonzalez, a married couple born and raised in Santa Barbara, carried their infant son to the gathering in front of the police station, a short walk from their house. They said they had never witnessed such a large demonstration in their hometown.
“It feels empowering,” said David Gonzalez, 34. “I think it's important that we speak, we hold people accountable. Ten years ago, this might have been different.”
He recounted stories of police mistakenly identifying him as a criminal suspect and pinning him to the ground, and another incident when he was pulled over in his own driveway because he was driving a vehicle registered to a different family member.
“I've had people, like, ‘Go back to your country,’ or just like smart remarks,” Gonzalez said. “And it's like, well, I'm actually Native American Chumash Indian. So I'm Indigenous to Santa Barbara.”
In Santa Barbara — which the U.S. Census reports is almost 71% white and 36% Latino — racism often gets “swept under the rug,” Gonzalez said. His wife said she appreciated that Sunday night’s protest was bringing awareness to experiences like what Cervantes captured in the video.
“If the roles were reversed, you know, would [Cervantes] have been already in trouble? It would have been different if it was the other way around,” said Rosy Gonzalez, 35. “Because she was the one [assaulting], nothing's been done. Hopefully something comes out of this and she does get held accountable for her actions, because that shouldn't be tolerated.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.