Drama levels drop
Erica Pinto is pint-sized, keeps her jet-black hair cropped short in a pixie cut. When she meets me at the Jamul Indian Village Tribal Office she is dressed in jeans and a red-and-black flannel shirt. She is warm and welcoming. The office is located behind the casino beyond a heavy metal gate. It is situated next to a church and graveyard where many of the Jamul Indian tribe’s elders are buried. Pinto is excessively polite with a humble demeanor. She immediately brews a fresh pot of coffee for the two of us as we sit at a table in the tribe’s boardroom. She wants to know if I take cream and sugar, if the coffee is hot enough, how my drive out was, and so on. Despite being my age, she dotes over me like a mother. I imagine that it is this overwhelming attention to the needs of others that allowed her, in 2015, to unseat her uncle, an elder, as tribal chair. She admits it’s caused some serious family drama but would rather not discuss that on record. Pinto, young (40ish) and a female, was an unconventional choice for the traditional tribe that had previously been led solely by men.
“We are a young tribe,” Pinto explains. “Our elders are 55 and above and we only have about seven or eight elders in the tribe. That is it. The tribal council right now, seven of us, we are all young. My dad is the only elder.”
Pinto and her family moved onto the Jamul Indian reservation when she was a child. She has fond memories of playing on the six-acre piece of land surrounded by mountains and the Otay River.
“Three of my brothers and I grew up here in Jamul,” Pinto says.
She points outside in the direction of where she and her family once lived, and says, “This building was not here. That community center down there, was not here. It was just one building and 17 trailers, luxurious trailers,” she says with a laugh, adding, “[and the] church. I remember my brother put me on a Big Wheel and pushed me down a hill up there. I ran into the back of an old truck. I have a scar to prove it. She lifts her hair to reveal a silvery scar.
Pinto and her brothers attended school in Jamul among non-Indians. “We went to Elk Grove and the middle school here. I was six at the time our tribe earned federal recognition, but our people have been here for thousands of years. When I take you to the casino later you can look out from Loft 94 [the casino bar] and look out over Rancho Jamul Estates. That was our original site, years ago — I don’t even know how many years, thousands. When they built the homes over there, they uncovered our village. I don’t think most people know that.”
The tribe wasn’t able to hold on to any of the artifacts uncovered when the Rancho Jamul Estates were built. Pinto explains, “When people do construction, there is a process where tribes can be part of the construction. Tribes get involved to see if there are any cultural items of significance, stones, or remains. Back at that time, when they built that, that wasn’t a thing.”
Pinto has fond and some not-so-fond memories growing of up on the small reservation.
“Growing up here in Jamul, kids could be cruel and bully a bit. Our homes weren’t the nicest. The [kids that lived in] Rancho Jamul Estates were picked up first by the bus and then we would be picked up. I didn’t even know we were poor until I heard those kids talking about our homes and trailers.”
She says that tension grew when the tribe announced their plan to open the casino. Pinto’s family members who reside in Jamul bore the brunt of that tension.
“I have nieces and nephews who grew up here. They did have to contend with comments [about the casino], even from teachers and bus drivers. Now I would have to say, that it’s not like it was prior to opening. We have a small vocal group of people in the community against the casino, not very many. My brother who lives here sees it on a daily basis, but the drama isn’t like what it was prior to opening.”
When I press Pinto as to whether or not community members make her feel unwelcome, she pauses long before asking, “Did you see the signs when you drove in?”
The signs she is mentioning are the two Jamul Action Committee anti-casino messages placed on Highway 94 when you near the casino. Pinto goes on to explain that in the planning phase of the casino, tribe members and community members butt heads at town meetings. There have been a couple of occasions where Pinto has felt unwelcome.
“One time we had an environmental hearing [for the casino] at the El Cajon Library. It was like when you see things about Trump on TV. It was just like that. They were banging on the [library] doors, yelling and screaming and they held signs up. That was intimidating. Another time at one of their [Jamul Action Committee] functions...my uncle who was the former chair was giving an interview with one of the TV stations and a lady walks by and she goes, ‘Oh, God! Another sob story.’ It’s just little comments like that where you think, Why even say anything at all?”
Pinto also brings up issues they ran into during construction.
“During construction we had people — I don’t know if they were community members or where they came from, who knows, I don’t want to put the blame on these people around here, but during construction, people would throw stuff at our construction people, they would cuss, they would honk their horns, and flip them off. It was crazy. I’m laughing now, but at the time I was, like, what is going on? We have always taken the high road. We can’t really react to all of that, because it has gone on for so long and they continue to do it. It’s a small group of people, and it’s not like it was.”