IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Latino taco stand workers got abuse, racial slurs — just for asking customers to wear a mask

Obscenities were hurled at the mostly Latino employees, who had liquid thrown at them, the management says.
Hugo's Tacos announced Sunday that both of its locations, Studio City and Atwater Village, are closing due to constant conflicts over guests refusing to wear masks.
Hugo's Tacos announced Sunday that both of its locations, Studio City and Atwater Village, are closing due to constant conflicts over guests refusing to wear masks.NBC Los Angeles

It seemed like an idea that the taco-loving masses would get behind with no hesitation: no masks, no tacos.

But even though tacos are a mainstream American obsession, being required to wear a mask in the midst of a pandemic to order from one of two Hugo’s Tacos in Los Angeles allegedly brought out the worst in some.

The mask misbehavior got so out of hand, the employees and the owners had to say “no más" (no more).

Last weekend, the taco stands’ owners shut their serving windows for at least a week, so employees can take a break from the taco troubles. They also launched the #nomasknotaco hashtag to draw attention to what their employees have had to endure and to rally support behind the policy.

“The mask has turned into something it’s not and public health has become political,” Hugo’s Tacos CEO Bill Kohne said.

In its announcement of the closing, the Hugo’s Tacos management said their taco stands workers were “exhausted” by the conflicts and that they had been harassed, called names and had objects and liquids thrown at them.

“It’s an equal-opportunity offender out there,” he said. They even had trouble with food couriers who were told they had to wear masks to pick up orders.

When employees would tell a customer they had to wear a mask or couldn’t be served, some would repeat what the worker said back to them “in a childlike fashion”, Kohne said.

Most of the employees are Latino, and they also endured racial slurs.

The behavior has been bewildering considering that restaurants in California also have to post grades they get from the health department, Kohne said. People go to restaurants with an A grade posted. If the restaurant has a C grade, meaning a health problem was found and has to be fixed and then the establishment must be reinspected, they avoid that establishment.

“A mask isn’t symbolic of anything other than our desire to keep our staff healthy,” the management said in its announcement posted on social media.

After state's mask mandate, an uptick in vitriol

On June 18, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered face coverings be worn as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations escalated in the state and around the country. Newsom, who was the first to institute a statewide stay-at-home order in March, has ordered several counties to shut down bars again, joining Texas and California in retracting their reopenings.

Once the mask order went into effect, it became a health regulation, to be followed just like regulations for cutting chicken or wearing gloves for food preparation, all in place for years to protect customers, Kohne said.

He said the conversation around masks had been going on even before the mandate, but once it became a rule there was a dramatic uptick in the vitriol.

People claimed they didn’t have a mask, or ignored the order, laughed and screamed at workers and said such things as “we are all going to die anyway,” he said, sharing some items from logs kept by employees. Some would dump their food on the ground and then demand a refund.

Things became so bad, Kohne said, he sent a facility manager to the taco stands and in one hour, that manager had four or five confrontations with customers.

Nabor Prado, a chef with Hugo’s Tacos from more than 30 years, told NBC News in Los Angeles, that a customer became upset because an employee told him to wear a mask. The customer threw a cup of water at the employee “which is unsafe and rude,” Prado said. “It’s really sad to see grown up people doing childish things like that.”

All open food inside the truck had to be thrown out for health safety purposes when liquid was thrown, Kohne said.

The shutdown came on top of all the other pressures employees have faced. The taco trucks were deemed essential — few taco lovers would argue against that. But the hours were shortened for workers, who had to make the choice whether to go to work and risk becoming ill. Business also slowed with fears of the coronavirus infection winning out over cravings for tacos.

"It was a stressful first month of something bad being out there, bad and invisible. Then, it seemed like people were taking the rules in stride, cooperating. We actually felt kind of sweet spot out there, people were willing to sacrifice for the good of their neighbor," Kohne said.

In this San Antonio restaurant, a different scene

The experience has been far different in San Antonio at Ruthie’s Mexican Restaurant, where a “No Mask, No Tacos” sign has been posted for two weeks, general manager Nas Valencia said.

“We’ve been around 30 years and a lot of our customers have been around since day one,” he said. The customers are families of grandparents, parents, their children, brothers and sisters who dined in when it was possible. The restaurant is only serving takeout now and the younger family members are doing the pickups.

“This was meant to be humorous, but it really took on a stronger appearance to people and they love it. They feel secure and that we are not just letting anyone in,” he said.

Valencia said he has the right to deny service and does — if they are being racist, they can’t come inside; if they hate law enforcement — which gets support at his restaurant — don’t come inside.

“We say if you are being disrespectful, we got the right to refuse service to anyone. We are all God’s children and everyone is welcome here,”

But he also said, “we are so small, if they don’t like my rules, you go somewhere else and get your tacos.”

Follow NBC Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.