I Spent 12 Hours in Twitter Jail

Gustavo Arellano recounts how an online social media war with, among others, Donald Trump Jr., got him temporarily locked in Twitter jail.


I thought I was heading into a typical Twitter war. On Sunday, I published a column for NBC News that argued it was more dangerous than ever to speak Spanish in the United States in the era of Trump. I also added that español, not English, is the all-American language — you know, because it is.

Naturally, the trolls went after me on Twitter. But then David Duke and his white supremacist followers chimed in, insinuating that I’m controlled by Jews (that would explain my love of Yiddish and wavy hair!). Even Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that I was “trying too hard” and my “desperation is palpable.”

Their followers were nastier, calling Spanish an “anal language,” Mexico a “shithole country” and even more valentines like that. I tried to respond to every tweet that came my way, but there were so many flooding my timeline that I mostly reduced my commentary to “SNORE…” or “BOT BOT BOT” (for obvious sock puppets) to a simple “TRIGGERED.”

But then, I triggered Twitter.

A self-described conservative Mexican-American called me a “b***s*** (his snowflake asterisks, not mine) while claiming no one had ever hassled him in his life for speaking Spanish. “Stop inciting a race war!” he whined. “No racists here.”

I responded in the best way a leftist Mexican can to a conservative one: I said he had a “nopal en la frente.” A cactus on the forehead. It’s a class-based insult that ridicules Mexicans who act like they’re better than their fellow Mexicans by pointing out that no matter how hard they try, the entire world can see they can’t completely scrub the Mexican off themselves. And there’s nothing more Mexican in Mexico than the prickly pear cactus — hell, it’s on the flag.

The aphorism is such a “mexicanismo” on both sides of the border that it’s even been turned into a hilarious meme of a serious man in a suit, his face a cactus and a giant cactus paddle growing from his forehead. So I didn’t even think much after I tweeted out that insult against the conservative Mexican-American, adding in Spanish that the “poor [guy] … thinks that conservatives love him haha” despite his cactus face.

But a couple of hours later, I discovered I was in Twitter jail.

The San Francisco-based social media giant accused me of violating their rules against “hateful conduct” for my “nopal en la frente” jab, adding that I could not “promote violence against, threaten or harass” the conservative with my tweet. They demanded I delete my tweet and suspended me for 12 hours after I did so.

A suspension. From a company that let ISIS publish ghastly videos and photos for years. That lets white supremacists target Jews online with parentheses around their names. That did nothing when Roseanne Barr said Valerie Jarrett was an Islamic terrorist ape.


But as I sat in Twitter jail, smiling that my followers were ringing the klaxon about my imprisonment, all I could think about was the political correctness police — not my haters, but Silicon Valley’s own twisted sense of PC. Because if tech companies had any real diversity, this never would have happened.

The tech industry has a notorious diversity problem, and Latinos suffer it the worst. A 2017 study by a nonprofit advocacy group that used statistics from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found Latinos make up only 4.8 percent of employees in Silicon Valley— in a state that has a Latino plurality.

Representation matters, but especially in the world of social media. Tone deafness to diversity issues has gotten social media companies in trouble more often than not — and I’m not just talking about the actions of their users. I’m referring to self-inflicted wounds, like the Snapchat “beauty” filter that actually just whitened skin tones, or the ones that allowed users to “look” like Bob Marley or have buck-toothed, slant-eyed facesstraight out of a Charlie Chan revival. Or the Instagram GIF that slipped in the n-word.

Twitter’s biggest problem has been its users, and it’s trying in earnest to rectify it. Late last year, it purged thousands of white supremacist accounts — and even did the same to David Duke before reinstating him.

So why suspend me? I didn’t bother to appeal because something like this has happened to me before: Late last year, I ridiculed an alt-righter in Orange County for attending Saddleback College in Mission Viejo instead of a more reputable college. It’s an OC joke, I guess. I got suspended for that, too.

But then I remembered I wasn’t the first Mexican with glasses to get Twitter’s ire for a “mexicanismo.”

In 2012, legendary Chicano cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz started a parody Mitt Romney account tellingly titled “Mexican Mitt Romney.” He did it in response to the then-Republican presidential candidate arguing that undocumented immigrants should just “self deport” themselves, the exact same thought Alcaraz pushed in 1994 during California’s Proposition 187 days. Except Alcaraz said it in his satirical guise as a fake conservative Mexican-American.

That bizarre moment of art imitating life made national news. “Mexican Mitt Romney” hilariously imagined the politician as a foul-mouthed ranchero and got nearly 10,000 followers. Alcaraz was prepared to live-tweet Romney’s speech at the Republican National Convention as Mexican Mitt — and then he found out Mexican Mitt was suspended before the speech, then reinstated afterward. Twitter never gave Alcaraz any reason.

Alcaraz remains outraged to this day. “They need bicultural and bilingual Latinos who could accurately determine that ‘nopal en la frente’ is a common Mexican phrase and not some sort of racial slur,” he told me in response to my Twitter incarceration. “Just like Mexican Mitt.”

So what the hell, Twitter? You’re supposed to be the cool cousin, not the weak-salsa Zuckerberg, who thinks people posting the phrase “Men are trash” to protest toxic masculinity is hate speech. Let us Mexican satirists ridicule our enemies with “mexicanismos” in peace. If you don’t? I hear Myspace is kind of a free market of thought nowadays…

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