Juan Jasso never knew how telling off a group of three youths for swearing on a tram on a Tuesday morning in Manchester city centre would turn him into an international figurehead for fighting xenophobia in the tense atmosphere around the time of the EU referendum.
After the video of the incident went viral, Jasso was not only interviewed by local and national media, but by the New York Times, and Mexican and Colombian newspapers in Spanish, and even landed a presenter job for a BBC programme on hate crime.
“My life so far since I’ve settled here has been quite stable,” Jasso says. “But it was an unexpected turn of events after that morning.”
Initially he hadn’t even wanted to report the incident to the police. “But 15 minutes later, I was on my train at Piccadilly waiting to get going, and I thought: ‘This is going to bug me if I don’t do something.’”
He called the non-emergency number of the police to report it, but didn’t press charges. “After I did that, I literally forgot about it. I thought, it was just an incident that happened on the tram, I’ve told the police now and I’ll just leave it be, especially because I knew the guys were quite young and a bit ignorant.
“I thought, oh well, it’s down to their upbringing and education, and their home life probably influenced them more than anything else, and I’m not going to change that.”
Jasso has the broad frame of a rugby player. He is polite, calm and friendly, but knows exactly what he wants. He wasn’t scared to confront the three young men that morning – he has worked as a bouncer in Leeds city centre and was in the US army for seven years, even part of a special operations team in Iraq.
That morning on 28 June, five days after the referendum, Jasso, a rugby league coach and lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, could see people were uncomfortable and decided to find out where the trouble was coming from.
“I knew that if I was going to speak up and say something, I was probably going to be alone, but I went ahead and did it anyway.”
Initially another woman had said to them that she was disgusted with their behaviour and their language but then didn’t say anything afterwards.
“I understand that people don’t want to put themselves in danger. I made my way to the back of the carriage and asked these young lads using a lot of foul words to watch their language.”
As soon as he had said that, they started shouting racial abuse at him, threatening him. One of them flicked beer at him from a bottle he was drinking out of.
Jasso speaks with an American accent, but sometimes sounds distinctly northern
“It was a shock to have that happen before work that early in the morning. It was strange because I have only been subjected to racist abuse once, but it was years and years ago and the individual actually came back the next day and apologised.”
Jasso speaks with an American accent, but sometimes sounds distinctly northern. His 18 years in the country, most of them spent in Yorkshire and Lancashire, come through.
In the video, the three young men keep shouting at him, while Jasso tries to talk to them and asks them how old they were. “I kept talking to them, but not in an aggressive manner, just saying: ‘Look, I’ve been here just as long as you’re alive, you know.’
“Afterwards, when I saw the video, I had a bit of a laugh, because everyone on the tram could hear I was American and these guys were like: ‘Go back to Africa’. What? I don’t know where that came from.”
Earlier this month those guys – Aaron Cauchi, 19, Robert Molloy, 20 and a 16 year old who cannot be named – changed their plea to guilty on the morning of their trial for offences including the use of threatening words or behaviour and racially aggravated assault.
The 16 year old was sentenced to a six month referral order and ordered to pay £100 costs and £60 compensation. Molloy was sentenced to 24 weeks in prison and Cauchi will be sentenced on 21 February after being admitted to hospital from court.
Jasso, who received overwhelming public support after the incident – from praise on social media to thumbs-ups in the street – says: “I’m relieved this whole ordeal is now over. I have held faith in the Manchester police force and the criminal justice system’s sentencing and that justice would be done. It isn’t really for me to comment on their sentencing as it is up to the system to decide the appropriate punishment.
“This sort of behaviour cannot be allowed to go unreported or punished.”
“I do hope that the individuals recognise that their actions and behaviour on the day needs to change if they wish to avoid further potential prison or other actions. I also hope that others recognise the need for everyone to report instances of crime in general, but do so when they feel safe. This sort of behaviour cannot be allowed to go unreported or punished.”
Jasso grew up in Amarillo, Texas, and is from a Mexican-American family with a mix of Native Mexican and Native American heritage. Growing up, there wasn’t much for young people and he was a “hothead”, fighting a lot and getting into trouble, before he discovered his passion for sport and won a scholarship to a sports college.
When his mum saw the video, she was proud he didn’t react and lash out at these kids, because when he was young, he was always quick to react without thinking about the situation.
“Because I have moved around so much, my mother hasn’t seen me mature and develop, and she remarked that ‘her baby was all grown up now’”, he says with a grin.
He admits that he was making a move for the youths after they flicked beer out of a bottle in his direction, splashing other passengers while doing so. “My adrenaline was going but I didn’t get very angry or emotional until then. Once they threw beer, I said: ‘This is enough.’”
He put his bag down and was making his way towards them. In the video you can see a woman holding him back and pleading with him, saying: “Please don’t.” The three boys jumped off the tram, still shouting abuse.
Passengers had filmed the incident. “Three hours later my phone just exploded and the battery died really quickly because of the amount of calls, texts, emails, and Facebook messages I received.”
“It was ridiculous. At the end of the day, I think the video had something like three and a half million views, and I was just like: ‘This is turning into a circus.’ It was absolutely nuts.”
The number of hate incidents had increased rapidly in the weeks before and after the referendum and many people with similar experiences have been in touch with him to share their stories. Jasso, who was part of an initiative with Greater Manchester’s interim mayor Tony Lloyd to step up safety on Metrolink platforms, believes people have been freed to express these opinions by Brexit.
“Even some close friends of mine recently have been telling me that at their work there is a racist undertone now,” he says. “And when certain people share their views, everybody laughs about it and they think it’s OK.
“It’s actual racism, along the lines of ‘I’m glad we’ll get these groups of people to leave.’”
Jasso says people tend to forget about their own history. “Every country in the world is built on immigrant labour and immigrants are putting their hard work, their sweat, blood and tears into a country and basically giving up everything that they had at home.”
Jasso, who lives in Todmorden with his girlfriend and his six-year-old daughter, has indefinite leave to remain in this country but is still concerned about Brexit. He doesn’t want his daughter, who is half American and half British, to grow up in a society where people are targeted for the colour of their skin or the way they look.
“My daughter ties me to this country. This place is home for me. I’ve been here a long time and lived here longer than I have anywhere else.”
Photo: Kathrin Ohlmann