A Malden city councilor is facing harsh criticism from advocacy groups after a photo surfaced online of her dressed up for Halloween as an employee of Orchids of Asia, the Florida spa that ensnared Patriots owner Robert Kraft in a prostitution case in 2019.
Ward 8 Councilor Jadeane Sica is seen wearing a bamboo hat and an Orchids of Asia t-shirt standing beside a man wearing a Patriots hat, sweatshirt, and aviator-style sunglasses that Kraft often wears. Another councilor identified the man as Sica’s husband.
More than a dozen groups have signed on to a statement calling on Sica to apologize, including the Greater Malden Asian American Community Coalition, Asian Community Development Corporation, Vietnamese American Initiative for Development, and Chinese Progressive Political Action.
“Our culture, our people, and our pain are not a costume,” the statement said, a copy of which was sent to the Globe Wednesday. “Our youth, especially our young women, should not see themselves represented and mocked in this way by an elected official of our town. This is racial violence: the appropriation of Asian identity for someone’s amusement.”
Some of Sica’s colleagues on the city council, as well as the city’s legislative delegation, issued statements Wednesday denouncing her choice of costume and calling on her to apologize.
Sica said in a statement Wednesday that she “can and will do better,” adding that she’s reflected on her costume choice from two years ago and now sees that donning attire that in any way portrays “another culture can be hurtful.”
The costume was an apparent reference to the prostitution sting at Orchids in January 2019 that led to Kraft and 24 other men being charged with misdemeanor prostitution offenses for allegedly paying spa workers for sex. The charges were dropped against Kraft, in September 2020 following legal rulings that tossed out the footage.
In its statement, the advocacy groups said they objected to Sica’s costume for several reasons, including what they said was the councilor’s use of “yellowface” in the photo, which “historically leads to the dehumanization of Asian people.”
Malden, a city of just over 60,000 people, has a large Asian population that accounted 22.5 percent of its population in 2019, according to census data.
Advocates also voiced objection to the photo’s “hypersexualization” of Asian women, which they said can prompt tragedies like the Atlanta shootings in March that left eight people dead at area massage parlors. Many of the victims were women of Asian descent.
“The choice to wear a bamboo hat to represent the race of the massage worker, paired with a bottle of lotion or sunscreen, is incredibly harmful,” the statement said, referencing a bottle Sica holds in the picture.
In addition, the advocacy groups faulted the photo for its “mockery” of the challenges faced by the Asian workers at Orchids, some of whom have faced harsher legal consequences than Kraft and the other men who allegedly solicited prostitution.
Sica said she and her husband two years ago had attended a Halloween party that “made light” of the Orchids case.
“Since that time, many, myself included, have become much more aware of the fact that the women involved in cases like these are all too often vulnerable members of the Asian community who are victims of exploitation,” Sica said. “Those that know me know that I have love in my heart for people from all backgrounds, races, and religions. I also recognize that bad intent isn’t a necessary ingredient to actions that are hurtful to others.”
Sica said she now views her costume choice that night through a very different lens.
“Looking back at the choice of costume through a more enlightened lens allows me to see now what I didn’t see then, which is that costumes that in any way portray another culture can be hurtful and in my case, send a message inconsistent with how I’ve lived my public and private life,” Sica said. “I can and will do better.”
The groups called on Sica to apologize and said they’re asking her to “throw her support behind policies and plans that support her immigrant, People of Color constituents” in Malden.
Sica, meanwhile, said she values all constituents in her district.
“As a mother, a daughter, and a public official, I never stop learning,” Sica said. “I value each and every member of our community, regardless of background, race or religion, and remain committed to Malden being a welcoming home for all.”
One of her colleagues, Councilor Debbie DeMaria, suggested via e-mail that an apology from Sica would be appropriate.
“I believe the Councillor and [her] husband wearing the costumes in question never meant them to be harmful, but rather got caught up in the excitement of Halloween festivities,” DeMaria wrote. “However, as I’ve read on social media, discussed with people in our community and paused to personally reflect, they have indeed caused harm.”
DeMaria said one of the most “profound interactions humans have, is the power of our words. While our actions do speak louder than our words; a verbal apology recognizes our personal failures, humbles and centers us; and certainly can restore broken relationships.”
DeMaria continued, “Speaking personally, if it were me … I’d embrace an apology. No doubt, it is a learning experience for all of us!”
Sica’s faced scrutiny before.
In May of 2020, a petition was launched calling for her resignation after she hosted a large family party in a parking lot that critics said drew dozens of people in violation of the strict social distancing protocols in place at the time.
Sica later apologized for hosting the party.
On Wednesday, another of Sica’s colleagues in city government, Councilor Stephen Winslow, said in a statement that he was “disappointed” by Sica’s “insensitive” costume choice in the photo flagged by the advocates, adding that he’s always “deplored” mocking people’s ethnicity and sexual exploitation victims.
“I hope that Councillor Sica who has worked to eliminate sex trade activities in her own neighborhood will apologize for her choice and work with [Greater Malden Asian American Community Coalition] to confront such depictions as well as with groups that help protect victims of sex exploitation,” Winslow said.
Malden’s State House delegation also addressed the controversy in a joint statement Wednesday afternoon. They noted the “long-overdue reckoning” that’s taken place in recent years around racist stereotypes, as well as the “shameful increase” in hateful acts directed at the Asian community amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The legislators — state Senator Jason Lewis and state Representatives Paul Donato, Kate Lipper-Garabedian, and Steven Ultrino — also thanked the advocates for “courageously” speaking out against racist stereotypes.
“All people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, and we strongly condemn any actions that harm or disrespect any racial, religious, or ethnic minority group,” the lawmakers said. “We also pledge to continue our efforts to support and pass legislation in Massachusetts that advances racial justice and equity in our schools, institutions, and communities. ... It is important that we all strive to be upstanders and not passive bystanders in order to dismantle systemic racism in Malden and elsewhere.”
Deanna Pan of the Globe Staff contributed to this report, and material from the Associated Press was used.