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Latinas accuse marijuana company of cultural appropriation

The story of the three Mexican sisters who broke into the cannabis industry started out like a fairy tale and ended up like a reality television show gone awry.

Maria was the oldest sister, “the plant whisperer of the familia,” who perfected cultivation techniques while tending her family’s sugar cane fields in Mexico. Sonia was the backbone of the business who learned to heal with plants and herbs as a child while following her abuelita around the family ranch.

Adriana, the baby of the bunch, had the fiery heart. Small but ruthless, she learned the art of negotiation and persuasion selling sugar cane at the market with her father. When the Del Rosario sisters launched their L.A.-based cannabis company this year, they named it La Chingona: The badass woman.

There was one problem. The sisters were the creation of Michael Kaiser, the owner and founder of healthcare and cannabis manufacturing companies. The sisters were at most a composite of the strong women in his life.

The rest was fiction.

Michael Kaiser, founder and owner of La Chingona cannabis.

Michael Kaiser, founder and owner of La Chingona cannabis.

(Michael Kaiser )

Which Susie Plascencia — a public relations social-media marketer who focuses on the cannabis industry — found out to her great dismay.

There isn’t an abundance of cannabis brands focused on women — let alone run by them. So when the 30-year-old stumbled on what she thought was both in a single company, she said, she was intrigued.

“I am a Latina in cannabis and we are not represented,” Plascencia said. “Latinx culture isn’t represented in this way. I go to their website and I saw ‘La Historia de La Chingona’ sisters and I was like, ‘Wow! They’re Latino-owned and from Guadalajara, Jalisco! That’s where my family is from!’”

Non-Latinos have long gone after Mexican Americans’ spending dollars. But for Plascencia, the story of the Del Rosario sisters was more than just a marketing ploy concocted by a businessman to make his way into a profitable corner of the marijuana market.

La Chingona, she said, was deceptive and a blatant case of cultural appropriation. So Plascencia and a friend trained their digital sights on the company.

Kaiser wants you to know a few things. He might look like a white guy, but his grandmother, Sarah Ornales, was Mexican. She helped raise him in East L.A. And she was, indeed, kind of an inspiration for the brand and for the women Kaiser created out of thin air.

The 51-year old purchased Cannable Organics, Inc., a cannabis manufacturing company in Adelanto, Calif., about a year ago. He’d always wanted his own brands, he said, and he started brainstorming.

“Me and my sisters had often called our grandmother the ultimate chingona,” Kaiser said. He wanted a brand that would resonate with and celebrate strong women like her.

“As I thought around that concept, the light went off in my head that La Chingona was such a natural name,” he said.

Making the brand “Latino,” Kaiser insisted, was a secondary thought. “I envisioned that the word ‘La Chingona’ would connect with … women in general.”

Did he think the brand would appeal to Latinos? “I thought it might,” Kaiser said.

I didn’t think that anyone would believe that the legend story, the origin story, was factual.

Michael Kaiser

Next came the tale. He thought back to his days in Boston, Mass. His roommate at Harvard Business School — where Kaiser attended the Owner/President Management program — was “a Mexican guy from Mexico” whose family owned a sugar plantation. He made that the setting of the sisters’ upbringing. As for the chingona trio, Kaiser said, he reflected on the women in his life. Maria and little Adriana were inspired by his grandmother, a fierce green thumb who’d prepare teas and remedies from herbs in her garden. Sonia the healer was a combination of his mother and sisters, all nurses.

As the brand’s look crystallized, everybody seemed to love it, Kaiser said. His slew of cannabis products, including concentrates and vape cartridges, were adorned with Dia De Los Muertos inspired-art and stamped with the tagline “Sinsemilla Mas Fina” and names like “Fiesta Flower,” “Caliente Budder” and “Siesta HCE,” a cannabis extract.

In April, Kaiser and his team published the sisters’ story on their website, just before launching the brand.

“I didn’t think that anyone would believe that the legend story, the origin story, was factual,” he said.

Column One

A showcase for compelling storytelling
from the Los Angeles Times.

The story of La Chingona is filled with demands and counter demands, job offers and threats of legal action. There’s a cameo appearance by a Latina friend of Kaiser’s whom he acknowledged hiring to make the company more Latina; she didn’t last long.

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Josh Karchmer was hired to handle La Chingona’s social media in May, and “almost from the beginning, Josh had a problem with the story,” Kaiser said. It was too realistic, and Karchmer suspected people would have a problem with it, Kaiser said.

Karchmer could not be reached for comment.

On May 27, Karchmer offered Plascencia samples of La Chingona products via Instagram in exchange for promotion on social media. The following day they met. Excited, Plascencia inquired about the Del Rosario sisters.

Karchmer “got a little shy,” she said, telling her that they weren’t real. “He told me he didn’t like it … he said that he thought that it was stupid that they made up the story.”

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He also disclosed that La Chingona was owned by mostly non-Latino men.

Plascencia felt she had two choices: “Turn around and watch the inevitable happen [meaning having someone call them out on social media], or I could use my skills and experience to help Josh make this brand what our community deserved — a brand that celebrates [Latinas], respects them and uplifts them.”

She chose the latter, for a while, anyway.

In an email days after the meeting, Plascencia told Karchmer she was concerned about the fictional story:

“From the moment I saw La Chingona’s branding on Instagram, I felt a sense of belonging and representation that had been missing in my years both as a cannabis enthusiast and marketer,” she wrote. “Cultural appropriation is a real consideration for the target audience of this brand, aka my community. We’re tired of seeing our stories and our culture taken from us and profited from.”

Plascencia, who said she never took any pay from the company, offered Karchmer help in rebranding La Chingona and rewriting the story.

Meanwhile, social media cannabis influencers were beginning to praise and promote La Chingona. In mid June, @behighbeyou — which has more than 11,000 followers — posted a photo of a La Chingona product on its Instagram feed.

The initial caption, which has since been edited, read: “We love this brand because not only does it kick, but it was started by some badass Latinx babes! @lachingonacannabis is run by 3 Rosario sisters using techniques passed down for generations.”

Plascencia spotted it. “This is 100% what I saw coming and the fuel of my email,” she told Karchmer in a text. “I’m here for you, let’s get ahead of this.”

She penned a suggested response for Karchmer to send to Kaya Miller and Patrick Ryan of @behighbeyou. It included, in part, this confession: “While not Latinx-owned, we are proud allies to all POC and use our platform to pay homage to both Latinx culture and the cannabis community.”

As word spread, more accounts outed the brand.

During a meeting with Kaiser and Karchmer on June 22 in downtown L.A., Plascencia restated her concerns and offered to help solve “the problem” with her public relations and social media expertise, according to Kaiser.

But he didn’t see any problem. He told her about his Mexican grandmother and feeling connected to his culture. Plascencia told them she couldn’t work for the brand unless it was “Latinx owned.”

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About a week later, Karchmer rang to say that Kaiser was offering her a percentage of the company to help them rebuild the brand “authentically” and have a “Latina” owner, according to Plascencia.

Their offer, she said, was less than 1%.

It was insulting, Plascencia said. At that point, she said, she decided there was no helping the company. She and her friend Savina Monet, a 25-year-old graphic designer, started digging deeper into La Chingona. Part of the effort, Plascencia said, was to counter any idea pushed by Kaiser that she was motivated by financial gain.

Savina Monet, a freelance graphic designer and founder of Cannabis Workers Coalition, co-organized the La Chingona boycott.

Savina Monet, a freelance graphic designer and founder of Cannabis Workers Coalition, co-organized the La Chingona boycott.

(Savina Monet)

“I told her that her behavior could get her sued and I was going to discuss with my lawyer,” said Kaiser in a text message to The Times. “I always from day #1 felt this was 100% extortion.”

Plascencia said that was untrue. She never wanted anything from the company, she said. She just wanted the public to know the truth.

“We really started to double-down on screenshots, email communication, just to show that we were not intending ill harm and we were not trying to get any financial gain,” Monet said. “We were just two offended Latinas who did not want to let this … slip in the cannabis industry.”

The two millennial social-media experts launched an Instagram boycott accusing the company of cultural appropriation.

Plascencia and Monet encouraged fellow marijuana users to urge dispensaries to take La Chingona products off their shelves. Within days, about a dozen dispensaries canceled their orders.

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“It was unbelievable,” Kaiser said. “She created a mob, and the mob didn’t want to listen to anything … they pretty much destroyed what was a really cool brand and company for no real reason that I can understand.”

For the first time, Kaiser publicly confessed that the Del Rosario sisters were made up: “I apologize to those who felt misled and I wanted to take the time to clear up and explain the origins and ideals behind the brand, the company and myself,” he said on La Chingona’s Instagram page.

Days later, Kaiser declared that he was shuttering the brand, although he hopes to revive it.

“Did I ever feel that I was culturally appropriating? Never,” Kaiser said. And “who is Susie Plascencia to be the arbiter of culture?”

Plascencia has an answer for that: “I am a real Chingona, and this is what we do.”

California Corresponsal
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