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MIDDLETON — Heads shook and palms met faces two weeks ago when Idaho went viral. The details — teachers at a Middleton elementary school dressed as Mexicans and made a mock border wall — were new. But the perceived racism behind them sent a familiar message to outsiders: For all the cool Top 10 lists Idaho towns show up on, it’s still a backward state.

But what, exactly, makes the message racist? And are the teachers racist?

“A wall is not racist,” said Beth Hedger, a Facebook user, in a comment on an Idaho Statesman story. “Get a clue.”

Hedger is wrong about that, said several Treasure Valley Latinos who spoke to the Idaho Statesman. They say President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall is a symbol of his and his supporters’ racist desire to keep Mexicans out of the United States.

Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” was written across the wall. School staffers who were dressed as the Statue of Liberty, an eagle and Uncle Sam held it up in one of several photos that the Middleton School District posted to its Facebook page.

The district hastily removed the photos and suspended staff members who were involved, but the damage was done. By noon Nov. 2, news stories about the costumes were everywhere.

The imagery reinforced many Latinos’ belief that white people don’t want them here, said Gustavo Acosta, a deejay for La Gran D, a radio station that broadcasts from a small studio in east Nampa. The fact that pictures of the costumes surfaced a week before Election Day, which was in part a referendum on Trump’s immigration policies, made it even worse, Acosta said.

“I would expect it from a group of young people,” Acosta said. “I would expect it in a private home or business. But I wouldn’t expect it, first, from adults, and second, people with professional ethics.”

Diana Hernandez, a Kuna woman who’s studying to become a Spanish teacher, doesn’t think the people who took part in the Middleton display are racists. But their costumes conveyed an offensive message to Latinos and set a bad example for white students, she said.

“How do you expect our students to respect other cultures, to be inclusive, if their teachers are getting away with this kind of behavior?” she said.

What’s worse — a stereotype or a wall?

A few voices stood out from the crowd of groans that dominated social media after the posts. Some, less strident than Hedger, agreed the teachers’ display was in poor taste but called for calm and perspective.

“People need to grow a thicker skin,” Facebook user Kim Nottingham wrote in a Nov. 4 comment. “I doubt there was any harm intended.”

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Staff from the Middleton district dressed as Mexicans on Halloween.

Representatives of Middleton Heights Elementary School and the Middleton School District declined repeated Idaho Statesman requests for comment on why the teachers were dressed as they were. Some on social media and at a school district meeting Monday said it was for a non-school activity. They said staff members were directed to wear costumes that represented various countries.

“I don’t think a wall represents the United States,” Hernandez said.

“They weren’t dressed as Mexicans,” said J.J. Saldana, a community resource development specialist for the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs. “They were dressed as a stereotype.”

Hernandez has seen that kind of costume before. Born in Mexico, Hernandez, now 31, moved to the U.S. when she was 16. She said classmates at Nampa High School poked fun at her accent and called her “wetback” or “illegal.” Her first Halloween, she saw people in the same kind of costumes the Middleton teachers wore two weeks ago. She was confused.

“We Mexicans, we don’t dress as Americans for Halloween,” she said. “But as the years went by, I found it more offensive. I was like, ‘Well, they’re making fun of us. They’re making fun of our culture.’”

Middleton Heights staff placed on administrative leave over controversial Halloween outfits

Heights Elementary School is in the small town of Middleton, about 20 miles west of Boise.

The wall was more offensive, Hernandez said. Other Latinos who spoke to the Statesman agreed. They said the wall evoked fear of deportation and the trauma — families torn apart, legal proceedings, financial distress — it entails. Saldana said it promoted a stereotype that all Latinos in the United States came here illegally.

“It’s not just the undocumented families that feel this way,” Saldana said. “A lot of these parents are probably here legally, but they’re still feeling very disrespected by it.”

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated the United States’ Latino population last year at almost 60 million. Mexicans living in the country illegally make up less than 15 percent of that number, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates.

Idaho’s reputation

Cinthya Herrera, a community health worker for a clinic in Boise, said she wasn’t surprised to see a racist — or at least racially insensitive — display in Idaho. She said she has come to expect that behavior here.

“Which is very sad, because we should hold Idahoans up to a higher standard than that,” Herrera said.

Like Hernandez, she thinks the Middleton teachers’ display condones — intentionally or not — racist behavior by whites and feelings of inferiority in Latinos. She compared dressing up like Mexicans to whites wearing blackface.

“Not understanding why people would be offended by that ... just shows the level of privilege that many Idahoans have that the minorities do not have the luxury of,” Herrera said.

Margie Gonzalez, executive director of the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said their actions were especially damaging because Latino children are taught to revere and not question educators.

The costumes and the furor that erupted after the photos surfaced have damaged Idaho’s reputation, Gonzalez said.

“We’re trying to take one step forward and when something like this happens, I feel like it’s taking us three steps back,” she said.

Was suspension enough?

All of the teachers and aides involved in the Middleton display are back at work, though Principal Kim Atkinson remains on administrative leave. Acosta, the deejay, said that’s premature. He said they should have been suspended longer to give them more time to contemplate what they did and reflect on their responsibilities as educators.

“This was planned. It wasn’t something that happened one minute to the next, right?” he said. “There was a discussion.”

Whether they’re racist or believe in building a wall at the border or not, Herrera said, the school’s faculty has been tainted by their display.

“Whatever their viewpoint is, I hope that that doesn’t impact their teaching,” she said.

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