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.
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 Harvard-educated 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.
Next came the tale. He thought back to his college days. His roommate at Harvard Business School 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.
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.
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.”
He also disclosed that La Chingona was owned by mostly non-Latino men.
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A post shared by Josh Karchmer (@josh.karchmer) on Jul 18, 2020 at 9:44am PDT
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.
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BOYCOTT LA CHINGONA. Link in bio. Details in highlights. . #mankinddispensary #latinxowned #familybusiness #sandiego #sandiegocannabiscommunity #oceanbeachsd #dabsociety #socal #sugarskull #cannabiscommunity #cannabisculture
A post shared by Kaya ♡ Pat (@behighbeyou) on Jun 16, 2020 at 11:21am PDT
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.
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SOCIAL EQUITY OPPORTUNITY I am really sorry that you all have gotten such a bad impression of me. I created the stories based on my experiences with strong woman in my life, It was never meant to mislead. La Chingona had nearly $300,000 in orders in June 2020 which was our second full month in operation. In 3 days you have all destroyed the brand and company to the point that I have no interest in continuing. I really love this brand and the concept behind it which is the celebration of strong woman; not just strong Latina woman but strong woman in general. Most... no all of you missed that point because you were so focused on race and culture. If one of you has deep SM reach you should consider spending your energy on building something instead of destroying. Yes it’s harder to build and easy to destroy but much more satisfying. I will give the La Chingona LLC and brand to one person out there that proves to me they will run an inclusive brand with a social mission and has the reach to make this brand a success. I will also mentor you if you like because I have been extremely successful in business and I truly would love to see this brand and you successful. DM me if interested. @mels.stoned,@naturallyjame,@jroe042,@daddydora,@latinarebels,@liquidnowledge,@kissmegone,@deetalley100,@ramongarcia360,@mr_dh408,@valleygirl_shop_,@stoner_tii,@thesilence09,@theblacklistxyz,@thegrasshoppa,@kerrbearsparkles,@lissy_lis,@kissmegone,@sinalaurie
A post shared by @ goodbylachingona on Jul 22, 2020 at 7:02pm PDT
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.”
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.
"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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The true owner of La Chingona Cannabis products went from selling a fake story of 3 sisters, to “this is partially owned by a Latina woman”, to this was always a story and I’m “of Mexican heritage”, to now “this brand is about all strong women, not just Latinas”. Just quit while you’re ahead. @mike_the_entrepreneur, the people deserve to hear from Leticia and you both need to address the public - especially the Mexican American and Latinx community which you continue to hurt deeply. You destroyed this brand, not us. There are strong Latinas who actually exist and deserve to be celebrated. Your continued desire to stand by and defend artwork and a fake story that depict Latin women in a harmful and demeaning stereotype shows how much you value us still. We don’t want your business opportunity and we certainly don’t want your mentorship. Here is our list of demands: 1.A public-facing apology for the damage caused to the Mexican American and Latinx community. 2.Pay severance to all employees let go because of La Chingona Cannabis shutting down. 3.Donate $300k (your total sales as of June 2020) or remaining profits to: @minoritycannabis @lastprisonerproject @drugpolicyalliance
A post shared by Freelance Cannabis Designer (@savinamonet) on Jul 22, 2020 at 10:13pm PDT
“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.”
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To @josh.karchmer & @mike_the_entrepreneur regarding La Chingona Cannabis. Josh, posting a disingenuous public statement on Instagram about leaving La Chingona does not absolve you of your role in this situation nor the disrespect you exhibited. You did not work to operate this brand responsibly and ethically - you did the opposite. Throughout the time we spoke about these issues it was clear that your focus was not on solving the problem but on washing your hands of it at the lowest cost possible. You initially reached out to me via Instagram on May 27, 2020 to be one of the Latinas featured on the La Chingona page. You knew about the deceitful La Chingona narrative and actively sought out Latinas to represent the brand in order to obfuscate the truth about the fictional brand story and the fact that it is primarily owned by Non-Latinx men. When I shed light on the tremendous cultural appropriation issue this brand faced, you called me aggressive and accused me of cunningly looking for a job. Still, I offered my support and kept the conversation going with the desire to educate you on your continual missteps with the brand voice. I attempted to uncover the blindness that drove both your approach to building this brand and Mike’s desire to bring it to market in the first place. I educated you on Mexican culture and the harm in calling Latinas aggressive, and had patience with you when your respect toward me wavered. Initially, it was my desire to support you in the development of the brand with my expertise in the work that happens to be critical for the brand’s survival and growth while simultaneously fulfilling my cultural responsibility as a Latina with roots from Guadalajara, Jalisco, to make La Chingona an ethical and responsible brand. When the inevitable happened and someone posted via Instagram on June 16 calling for public support for La Chingona, believing it was a Latina-owned company, I helped you navigate the messaging to come clean about the fictional story and manage the resulting communication. Continued in the comments. (Big Oil Co. claims to be an uninvolved 3rd party and is not associated with La Chingona Cannabis.)
A post shared by Susie (@susiegreens) on Jul 18, 2020 at 1:22pm PDT