La prensa

PERSPECTIVE: Browning Used Brown Voice to Mock Vargas

Brigette Browning
Author: La Prensa
Created: 02 May, 2024
Updated: 03 May, 2024
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9 min read

Arturo Castañares

By Arturo Castañares
Publisher

A rowdy rally organized by labor leaders outside of the San Diego County Administration Building on Tuesday morning meant to garner support for the appointment of their preferred candidate to become the County’s new Chief Administrative Officer turned into a harsh attack on Board Chairwoman Nora Vargas using Spanish slang words that seemed more like crass cultural (mis)appropriation and not-too-subtle racism.

Among the rally speakers was Brigette Browning, the head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, a group of 135 local unions representing a combined 200,000 workers.

Browning, who is a White, non-Hispanic woman, began her comments with a greeting in Spanish to the group that included many Hispanic workers, but then she used two slang comments that were used to demean Vargas, the first Latina to ever serve on the County Board of Supervisors after Cuban-American Lou Conte became the first Hispanic in 1973.

“Buenos dias, so, I want to talk about our Chair, the Chingona,” Browning said mockingly to open her remarks in front of a large group of union workers. 

Vargas has a wooden plaque that hangs over her County office door that defines “Chingona” as a woman who is “intelligent, fearless, and can get things done.”

The plaque also includes “Boss” or “Badass” in the definition.

Chingona

Ironically, the plaque was a gift from one of Vargas’ friends from their membership in HOPE; Hispanas Organized for Political Equality, a nonprofit nonpartisan group dedicated to ensuring political and economic parity for Latinas.

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Surely they meant that as a term of endearment and empowerment.

But Browning used the slang term in a derogatory and mocking way toward Vargas.

“[Vargas] says she’s here for workers, but she’s making backroom deals with [Supervisors] Desmond and Anderson, and that doesn’t sound like someone who’s supporting workers to me,” Browning added in an increasingly casual tone with a hint of an accent which isn’t part of her usual speech style —a form of “brown voice” where non-Spanish speakers mimic or use mock accents, à la Taco Bell’s commercials with the infamous talking Chihuahua with it’s cringy “Yo quiero Taco Bell!

Browning then criticized Vargas for announcing that San Jose labor leader Cindy Chavez would not be interviewed for the CAO position after La Prensa San Diego discovered and reported that she was the favored —but arguably unqualified— candidate last year as Nathan Fletcher was resigning from the Board amid a sexual assault and retaliation lawsuit.

Chavez, who is finishing her second term on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, previously served two terms on the San Jose City Council and lost her bid for San Jose Mayor in 2022 but has never held an administrative position of the scope of managing the County’s 20,000 employees and its $8 billion annual budget.

Previously, Chavez served as the leader of the Bay Area’s Labor Council, a group representing 90 unions and over 100,000 union members in Santa Clara and San Benito counties, and is a close ally of both former Assemblywoman and now statewide labor leader Lorena Gonzalez and her husband, former County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher.

“You know, Cindy Chavez had my job, she was the head of the Labor Council, and she is a fierce woman who would do anything for workers,” Browning added, giving the impression Chavez preceded her here in San Diego when in fact she had a similar position in the Bay Area.

Browning went on to call the Board’s decision to remove Chavez from consideration for an interview for the position as “some bullshit.”

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Then Browning said she wanted to start a chant among the group.

“No mames, Nora!” Browning started chanting to the group. “No mames, Nora,” she repeated with the group repeating it, too.

“You’re not a Chingona for us, sister,” Browning said to close her remarks.

For non-Spanish speakers, “mames” is a conjugation of the Spanish verb “mamar” which literally means to suckle or breastfeed.

The term “no mames” is very crass slang used contextually in both positive and negative ways and roughly translates to “you have to be kidding me”, “no way”, “stop messing with me”, or even “screw you” and, in the worst context, can refer to performing oral sex, depending on the setting. 

The way Browning used the term to attack Vargas was not only vulgar and unprofessional, but it was weaponized to demean Vargas, a native Spanish speaker who grew up both in San Diego and Tijuana.

Browning, who graduated from the private Catholic University of San Diego High School (now Cathedral High School near Del Mar) and UC San Diego in La Jolla, lives in a 114-year-old historic Victorian home in Chula Vista originally built by wealthy banker and civic leader Greg Rogers in 1910. Rogers served on the City’s first City Council after Chula Vista was incorporated in 1911.

And Browning’s husband, Daniel Rottenstreich, is one of the busiest—if not the most connected— political consultants in the region, running the campaigns of County District Attorney Summer Stephan, SD City Attorney Mara Elliott, and even an independent expenditure campaign for Todd Gloria’s 2020 election, to name a few.

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Browning has come under fire —mostly by La Prensa San Diego— for having had a conflict of interest when she testified before the San Diego City Council in support of the Midway Rising development team that was selected by Mayor Gloria to rebuild the Sports Arena site into a $2 billion mixed-use project.

The Midway Rising team had already paid Rottenstreich more than $200,000 before Browning used her labor union clout to push for selecting the developer who had enriched her and her husband without properly disclosing their mutual conflicts.

By the way —and probably not coincidentally— Rottenstreich was also the consultant who ran the campaign which Midway Rising owner Brad Termini gave $100,000 to for Gloria’s 2020 election before being selected for the multi-billion dollar project.

This is a well-connected, wealthy White woman who called a Latina a “Chingona” before taunting her with a chorus of “No mames!”

So is this an isolated case of Browning attacking a rising Latina leader?

Nope. In fact, she went after two Latinas in the same week.

Browning has been making calls to City Councilmembers in National City to get three votes to dump Port Commission Sandy Naranjo who has been battling with the Port since last fall when her colleagues concocted reasons to censure Naranjo just before she was to become Chair of the Port’s Board.

Naranjo has defended her actions as simply asking tough questions about the Port’s in-house lawyer who maintains a law practice and business interests outside of his official Port duties.

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Browning and Naranjo, who have known each other for years, got sideways three years ago after Naranjo met with Browning to tell her she would be creating a consulting firm to help teach people how to organize community support after having worked as a union organizer herself for years. 

Naranjo claims that Browning turned against her and has been behind a move to oust the Commissioner before her term is up in December.

We know Browning contacted National City Mayor Ron Morrison to seek his support for ousting Naranjo, but if three or more members of the City Council agreed through Browning to take an action, that could be a violation of the state’s Brown Act which bars a majority of a public body from agreeing beforehand to take an official action at a future public meeting.

The agenda for next Tuesday’s City Council meeting in National City now includes an action item to review Naranjo’s term on the Port. Browning seems to have succeeded in getting three votes to do as she commands.

That’s two Latina leaders who both grew up in the South Bay under attack by the same White labor leader at the same time. Coincidence?

Browning has become the most powerful union leader in San Diego. She holds the job that was previously held by Lorena Gonzalez, who went on to serve in the State Assembly before becoming the leader of the California Labor Federation in 2021.

Her use of Spanish slang to demean and attack Nora Vargas is wrong, offensive, and uncouth.

Even if the attack had come from a Latina it would have seemed inappropriate in the context of the public discourse about serious public business. It would have looked petty and boorish.

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But coming from an entitled professional White woman who is non-native Spanish speaker, the words she used were offensive and demeaning when leveled against a Latina.

If Browning had invoked language traditionally used by the Black community to attack a Black elected official she would have been called out immediately.

There should not be a lower standard when dealing with Latinos. We are not Piñatas to take swings at for entertainment. 

This was wrong. It should never have happened. Period.

As the oldest Hispanic news outlet in San Diego, we believe Brigette Browning owes Nora Vargas —and the entire Latino community— a sincere apology and we should all remember to disagree, not only without being disagreeable, but without resorting to base personal and cultural attacks on our community. 

Watch video from the rally starting at 14:40 and you decide:

(Correction: an earlier version of this story called Vargas the first Hispanic, not the first Latina. Supervisor Lou Conte, born in Havana, Cuba, served from 1973-1977. The story has been updated.)

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