The Lone Ranger, Tonto, and the Redskins

Photo by Andrew James on Unsplash

“I think the BBC has a typo in this article about Trump,” my husband jokes as he leans over to show me his cellphone. “See here, they wrote Tonto as a name. Someone needs to tell them.”

“Wait, what?” I ask, looking up from my own cell phone scrolling. “Who’s stupid?”

“No, no, the BBC isn’t calling Trump stupid, but they’re quoting him that he said wearing a mask for Covid makes him feel like the Lone Ranger, like from that old show.”

“Ohhhhh, well, then, yeah, in that context, it was the Lone Ranger and Tonto.”

I watch as Adrián digests this information.

Currently, we live in México, but we both still have a fascination for U.S. politics and have recently debated the sincerity (and/or necessity) of suggested changes in common U.S. brand names from Aunt Jemima to the Washington Redskins.

My husband Adrián — who grew up in México but spent the better part of his 20s and 30s in the U.S — plays devil’s advocate and argues that brand names do little to shape the public consciousness.

To make his point, he laments the loss of his favorite childhood snack cake Negrito. These snacks are similar to Hostess Twinkies, but instead of a vanilla cream, they are filled with chocolate cream and then dipped in a chocolate frosting. In 2013, the company re-branded the snack as Nito to the dismay of many Mexicans.

“The new name just ruins the entire snack. I don’t even want to buy them anymore. I bet their overall sales dropped, too,” he begins.

“But did they taste any different?” I counter.

“They did to me. And, really, the only reason they changed their name was because they wanted to sell in the U.S. But the word Negrito for us in México doesn’t have any racist connections. It’s just a color. Just like the last name Moreno means brown, Negro means black. And for me, Negrito simply means a chocolate cake.”

While he has a point, I don’t want to concede it.

For those who speak Spanish, the term negro is pronounced with a soft “e” as in egg, so in all fairness, the Spanish word negro (neh-grow) is simply the color black. And according to the manufacturer, the creation of the snack cake is credited to a worker who was looking at hot dog buns and thought how delicious they would be covered in a little chocolate, in negrito, and suggested the new dessert.

In fact, just the other day, my husband used the exact same term to reference the turning in color of an over-ripe avocado. “Está bueno, solamente se ve negrito cerca el hueso.” (“It looks mostly good, there’s just a little black near the pit.”)

The term negro can also be used to refer to a darker skin tone, so negrito could also mean “little black boy” since it is formed from the diminutive for the color negro. Unlike in English, however, this term in Spanish is not associated with slavery.

But — from my American perspective — the same word pronounced in English (with a long “nee”) becomes a racial slur due to its historical usage. So I can’t quite let it go. I dig in.

“But it doesn’t matter what just Mexicans think. If they want to sell their product in the U.S., you have to consider your market. And the U.S. market would not be okay with seeing a chocolate cake — or anything for that matter — called Negrito. It’s just too close.”

“Fine, then change it for the U.S. but don’t change it in México. What, are they worried that someone from the U.S. will come down on vacation and see the snack in the local OXXO store and report it? That’s ridiculous. Not everything is about the U.S.”

“I still think the company did the right thing. If you change it in one place, change it everywhere. It just makes life easier. In this day and age, we are too connected to not see these things on Instagram or Twitter. It’s inevitable. I think names do affect how we see it. Even if there’s one black person who is spared seeing the package in México, I think it’s worth it.”

“You’re getting too caught up in the name. It’s not like any of these companies make these changes for anything but their own profit. Why not focus on the real important things? Didn’t all of this start anyway with police violence? Why not start there and do something that will actually make a difference. All this changing names is just trivial in comparison.”

“Sure, in that sense, I agree,” I admit. I hate backing down from a challenge, but it’s true.

Even though these re-brandings may only be surface level and profit-based initiatives, I still believe names do have power.

Names do create change. Maybe small changes, but every little bit helps.

Our debate ends, and we move on to another topic. But I can’t shake the feeling that the name is essential.

Days after the Nito name debate, Adrián and I finally find common ground thanks to Trump, the BBC, and a casual reference to Tonto (not a typo).

When quoting Trump, the BBC casually mentioned the reference to the 1950s television character from the once popular black and white series The Lone Ranger.

If you’ve never seen the show, the leading male role is a masked crusader helping bring justice in the Wild West. His partner Tonto is a character modeled after indigenous people from the First Nations of North America.

“Are you sure it’s not supposed to be Tonton?” he asks.

“His name is Tonto, in English, at least. I wouldn’t forget that.”

“But I remember watching that show with my dad when I was a kid.”

“Well, I watched it, too…”

Growing up in the 80s, in fact, I remember watching regular reruns of the black and white series. My older brother often brandished a pistol and would run around the house yelling “Hi-ho Silver, away!” My sister and I would join in the fray, sometimes playing the sidekick Tonto.

And as I grew older and began learning a bit of Spanish, the name Tonto took on new meaning. “Stupid” is the most straightforward translation, but it could also mean “dumb, fool, idiot”.

The indigenous partner of the white male hero was named “Stupid.” Even though the amount of Spanish-speakers within the U.S. were fewer when it originally aired in the 50s, there is no missing the connotation.

Around 8 years old, I inquisitively asked my dad, a first-generation Mexican American, “Why is his name Tonto if it means stupid?”

He paused and replied, “It’s just a joke, Alicia. You see, Tonto is really smarter than the Lone Ranger. Right, so Tonto’s the one always helping get him out of danger and giving him the ideas. So it’s just a joke because he’s really the smarter one.”

“Oh…okay.”

And that was that. We kept watching the show and playing as Tonto, the smart sidekick.

Years have passed and I’ve barely given any thought to this old show. Until now.

To prove that I’m right about the name, I pull up The Lone Ranger Wikipedia page. Clear as day, the character is named Tonto. I show Adrián.

“That’s crazy. I can’t believe they would name a Native American character Tonto. I bet the actor didn’t even know what the name meant,” he says, shaking his head. “I really don’t remember that. I don’t think that was his name in Spanish.”

We sit in silence for a while. I go back to reading my own Facebook feed. But now I’m curious. I type in Google “the lone ranger and tonto names in spanish” and find the following information from Wikipedia’s Tonto entry:

In Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, “tonto” translates as “a dumb person”, “moron”, or “fool”. In the Italian version the original name is retained, but in the Spanish dubbed version, the character is called “Toro” or “Ponto”. Show creator Trendle grew up in Michigan, and knew members of the local Potawatomi tribe, who told him it meant “wild one” in their language. When he created the Lone Ranger, he gave the moniker to the Ranger’s sidekick, apparently unaware of the name’s negative connotations.

I read it aloud to Adrián. Sitting in the living room with my husband in July of 2020, he visibly is disgusted.

“That almost makes it worse,” he says. “Because even if that guy claims he didn’t know the name’s meaning when he chose it, he definitely realized it later.”

“No kidding. Why else would they change the name for the Spanish-language market? And why not even for the Italians?”

“For sure. They should have changed it in English, too. Now, Toro, that’s a strong name. It’s a good name for the sidekick,” my husband replies.

Toro means Bull in Spanish, and it symbolizes strength and bravery, befitting of the smartest sidekick in the American West.

Dah-di-de-dah! The opening music from The Lone Ranger is playing. Adrián has pulled it up on YouTube. I lean over and we watch the series intro in Spanish. “…con Toro su fiel compañero…”

This was the TV show he remembers.

The Lone Ranger and his strong, brave sidekick Toro.

If my dad had grown up instead watching The Lone Ranger and Toro in Wisconsin in the 50s, would that have really mattered?

If I had watched the reruns and played with my siblings using the name Toro in the 80s, would that have changed our childhood?

Would using a non-derogatory name in both Spanish and English have changed global perceptions?

Why wouldn’t they change the name in Italian if Tonto had no racialized significance?

Does using Nito in México really change the perception of a snack cake?

Or does it also have the power to change racialized images?

Should a company change a name based on a small group of affected people?

Are these name changes creating a distraction from the real issues of racism?

Do the name changes even matter if it’s based on corporate greed?

Is global re-branding really worth it?

These are the questions and debates I see surfacing again with the announcement that after decades of pushback, on July 13, 2020, the Washington Redskins NFL franchise has caved to public and sponsor pressure to remove the name and logo.

Can fans move past their personal connections to a name to see the larger significance?

Will the real reason behind re-branding simply be lost amid the corporate shuffling to be on the right side of history?

Do corporations even have the ability to move us culturally and socially in the right direction?

Can a name change really do anything to compensate for a racist history?

Even if Adrián and I may have disagreed on the name Nito, we both agree that perspective matters. Naming can influence cultural perceptions — it just depends on the culture. But as companies move away from these racist images, keep in mind the complexity of the narratives.

Not all people from one group share the same ideologies. Not all cultures share the same experiences. But as we seek to progress…

Let’s make real systemic change in place of simply getting rid of names.

Let’s look at the systemic racism embedded in housing, banking, policing, and education.

Let’s not stop here.

We can do better as we move forward.