Unmasking Hate at Halloween

Some costume manufacturers have decided to forgo the typical fright, blood and gore this Halloween, choosing instead to market culturally insensitive and racially offensive masks as their new hot ticket items.

Take "Vato Loco," for example. Members of the Latino community are protesting the bandana clad, tattooed, brown-skinned caricature of a gang member.

Distributed by Massachusetts-based Fright Catalog, the "Vato Loco" mask�s tagline on the company�s Web site touts, "This scary stud can empty out a full house just by walking through the door."

But Latino activists say they don�t see the humor.

"This is an absolutely grotesque stereotype that represents some people�s images of Latinos," said Lisa Navarrete, spokesperson for the National Council of La Raza, a non-profit group established to reduce poverty and discrimination, and improve life opportunities for Hispanics.

"What�s most disturbing is that this caricature is mixed in with ghosts, ghouls and demons and is pitched as being among the most frightening of images -- it denigrates Latinos to being that frightening," said Navarrete.

While Tolerance.org�s calls to Fright Catalog went unreturned, the company�s owner, Mark Arvanigian, recently posted several messages in defense of "Vato Loco" on a message board at GrandeMesa.com, an online community for Latinos.

"I would like to apologize to anyone that feels the mask is racist," Arvanigian first posted. "Our company is not racist in any way and we do not condone any type of hateful actions� In fact, the item is manufactured in Mexico, by a labor force mostly made up of Latinos. They did not have a problem with it when it was manufactured."

Arvanigian stated his company had received only two e-mails from customers claiming to be offended. That, he said, "hardly represents the entire Latino community."

Arvanigian later threatened to put "Vato Loco" on next year�s cover of Fright Catalog, according to a news article published at GrandeMesa.com.

Brent Wilkes, national executive director of League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), said his organization plans to contact Fright Catalog and ask the company to stop carrying the offensive product.

Wilkes noted the term "Vato Loco" translates to "crazy, street tough guy."

"The idea of taking any race or ethnicity and making a costume out of it concerns me," said Wilkes. "But to combine or promote violence along with that ethnic stereotype is even more offensive."

Last year, a Wall Street Journal article titled "A Kinder, Gentler Halloween," named Fright Catalog "best overall" print publication featuring Halloween paraphernalia.

'Vato Loco' Has Company

Latinos aren�t the only ones outraged about offensive costumes this Halloween. Members of the Asian American community successfully pressured Disguise, one of the nation�s largest costume makers, to cease distribution of its "Kung Fool" costume last week.

The Japanese kimono ensemble -- complete with a buck-toothed, slant-eyed mask and a headband bearing the Chinese character for "loser" -- drew a flood of protests from Asian American organizations that called the item racist and said it perpetuated offensive stereotypes.

Groups including the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA), the National Asian American Student Conference, the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, and online portal Yellowworld.org waged a grassroots campaign calling for an immediate halt to the distribution and sale of the Kung Fool costume.

"Disguise apologizes to any group or individual who may be offended by this costume and mask," the company responded in a public statement. "No insult or offense was intended against any race, ethnicity or individual by the sale of this product."

A spokesperson for the company, headquartered in Poway, CA, said the mask was the result of a brainstorming process that included some Asian Americans and was intended to be a comedic parody of a Kung Fu karate character.

The Kung Fool costumes, which were shipped beginning in September to retail giants like Wal-Mart and Party City, aren�t the first blunder for Disguise. In 2001, the company came under fire for a "mental patient" costume that the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill called "demeaning, dehumanizing and humiliating."

Disguise has agreed to accept returns from stores carrying the Kung Fool costume until October 30, but spokesman Chris Wahl said the company cannot require retailers to actually do so. "Once they purchase the merchandise, it�s their merchandise," said Wahl.

Some Asian American groups, however, say the company is essentially "passing the buck" to stores and should take a more proactive stance in getting the merchandise back.

"We are not satisfied with this response and we want Disguise to accept full accountability," said Keith McAllister, spokesperson for the OCA. "The merchandise reinforces negative stereotypes about Chinese Americans, and they should be responsible for getting the merchandise back from retailers."

McAllister said OCA has also approached Wal-Mart and Party City about stepping up "quality control" to prevent store buyers from putting such merchandise on the shelves in the future.

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