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Community leaders say Aurora councilmember mocking Mexicans, Muslims, others in Facebook ads ‘offensive’ and ‘racist’

AURORA | An Aurora City Council member filmed himself imitating Mexicans, Arab Muslims, South Asians and other minority groups as advertisements for his sports bar in 2020, drawing scorn from a spectrum of community leaders.

The Sentinel was alerted via a confidential tip to the existence of the videos showing Councilmember Steve Sundberg, who was elected in 2021, promoting Legends of Aurora Sports Grill by performing stereotypical impressions of various groups.

Community leaders shown the videos responded with frustration and disappointment, while Sundberg did not respond to multiple requests for comment and a detailed list of questions sent Monday.

“It’s disrespectful, and it’s insulting to our city. Aurora is a very multicultural city. What’s his intent, just to get people to go to his business? That’s not the right way,” said Lucy Molina, a Chicana mother of two and community organizer who works in Aurora.

“​​I used to run a restaurant and a bar, and I would have never done something like that for bank. It’s horrible. It shows so much bad taste. ‘Mal gusto,’ we say.”

Often described as Colorado’s most diverse city, Aurora is home to close to 390,000 people, around 21.2% of whom identify as foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than a quarter of the city, 29%, identifies as Hispanic or Latino. Around 16.6% of Aurorans are Black, 6.6% are Asian and 10.6% are two or more races.

“Using brash stereotypes of our communities does not respect the many hard working families that live and contribute to Aurora,” said Dilpreet Jammu, a leader in the local Sikh community and executive director of Colorado Sikhs.

“Aurora is one of the most diverse cities in our state, and we value the contributions of all citizens to make this a wonderful and safe place to live.”

Three former Legends employees, who spoke with The Sentinel on the condition of anonymity, said Sundberg came up with the ideas for the videos himself and encouraged workers to take part.

While none recalled Sundberg threatening workers into participating, they said the supervisor-employee relationship between Sundberg and his employees made some feel uncomfortable saying “no.”

Sundberg imitates a variety of accents in the videos while wearing costumes that resemble stereotypical depictions of Mexicans, Arab Muslims and other groups.

In one video, he sits cross-legged on a carpet, dressed in a turban and robe, and brandishes a scimitar after being offered bacon by an employee. He then repeatedly exclaims “haram,” a term referring to behavior prohibited under Islamic law, such as eating pork.

In another video, Sundberg wears a Mexican falsa blanket, folded to look like a poncho, and pretends to be a translator for a kitchen employee, saying in Spanish that the man has “26 girlfriends” and asking if the viewer likes his large “conejos,” which literally means “rabbits.”

Colorado State University associate professor of Spanish Andrea Purdy, who translated the clip for The Sentinel, questioned whether Sundberg instead meant to say the similar word “cojones,” which is Spanish for “testicles.” Sundberg also imitates a Mexican accent throughout the video.

“What is offensive to me about the video is putting in a Latino employee in this situation of seeming to be the person with language dominance and then have the person who owns the business pretend to be a Spanish translator,” Purdy wrote in a follow-up email. “It may be that he thought it was funny, but it has racist overtones nonetheless.”

He imitates a South Asian accent in another video meant to promote the curry sold by Legends as well as in a video promoting the Maharaja IPA produced by Avery Brewing Co.

In another video promoting Legends’ dark lager beer — referred to by its German name, “schwarzbier,” meaning “black beer” — Sundberg imitates a German accent as he performs a skit revolving around the stereotype of Black men having large penises.

The discovery of the videos marks the second time this year that Sundberg’s workplace behavior has been called into question. In October, The Sentinel reported that Sundberg had been investigated for making sexually suggestive comments in the presence of city employees.

In another video, Sundberg dresses as a Viking; jokes about “raping and pillaging season coming up soon;” refers to a woman, apparently a Legends bartender, as a “bar wench;” and asks another if she wants to be his “shield maiden.”

The videos in which Sundberg imitated Arab Muslims, South Asians and Mexicans, and joked about Black men and rape were posted on the Legends Facebook page in 2020 and remained publicly available as of Monday afternoon.

Community leaders reacted to the videos with anger and disappointment. Iman Jodeh — spokeswoman for the Colorado Muslim Society and who represents the district including Legends in the Colorado House of Representatives — said the videos were “clearly not intended to welcome a diverse population to Sundberg’s establishment.”

Two years ago, Jodeh became the first Muslim elected to Colorado’s General Assembly. The child of Palestinian immigrants and refugees who came to Colorado in the 1970s, she was raised in Aurora and is also the first Palestinian-American to earn a seat in the legislature.

“How can diverse communities trust that our government is working for our best interest when our elected officials use cliche stereotypes to mock our heritage, our religious practices, and our struggles?” Jodeh asked in response to the videos.

“I’m not sure what’s more offensive about this pathetic use of trite, racist tropes: his desperate attempt for financial gain at the expense of marginalized people or his blatant disregard of the impact perpetuating these stereotypes has in a community needing to come together, decrease racial tension, and increase inclusivity when he is an elected official in this city.”

Aurora NAACP president Omar Montgomery said that, beyond the videos, he was additionally disappointed by Sundberg’s involvement in council decisions to eliminate unfilled positions in the city’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and in an office created to monitor the actions of police following the death of Elijah McClain.

Sundberg was the first to suggest that the council cut the city’s diversity office and joined fellow conservatives in supporting the cuts to the internal police monitor during the 2023 budgeting process.

Montgomery said videos like those posted on the Facebook page of Sundberg’s business hindered the city in its goal of building trust with residents of color.

“If he wants to make jokes about diversity and things of this nature, maybe he ought to fund that office so it can do the work of educating our city and our council members that Aurora is a diverse city,” Montgomery said.

“We need to do all we can to increase trust, and some of what the council does continues to drive a wedge between communities of color and the city itself. Commercials like these are not a good way of developing trust.”

Qusair Mohamedbhai — a Denver-based attorney and a member of the South Asian community who has represented high-profile Aurora clients such as the family of Elijah McClain — said he believed Sundberg’s mocking of certain ethnicities could open the door for employees to sue him for creating a hostile work environment.

“That costume with the poncho and everything, that’s like Exhibit A for ‘my boss is a racist,’”  Mohamedbhai said. “The fact that he’s trying to advertise his business… I hope it has the exact opposite effect.”

If Sundberg was discriminating against customers on the basis of race, Mohamedbhai warned he would also be running afoul of the state’s public accommodation laws. Mohamedbhai said the videos reminded him of recent debates about the appropriateness of ethnic groups being used as mascots by schools and sports teams.

“It reminds me of that phrase, ‘my culture is not a costume,’” Mohamedbhai said.

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