When a guy calling himself Robert Erickson dumped a sack full of pennies on Rep. Tom Emmer on July 14, causing the Republican gubernatorial candidate to flee the ersatz Mexican restaurant where he was defending his tip credit plan, the cameras caught the chaos, and it even ended up on some national broadcasts.

That, of course, was the intent.

Some reporters covering the event were miffed to find out Erickson was not who he said he was. In fact, he was, is, Nick Espinosa, a social worker who helps people find jobs by day and advocates against stronger immigration policies by night, sometimes using humorous pranks to get attention.

To some, Espinosa is a bit of an Internet phenom, a new-media crusader who got national attention in November when he snuck onto a Tea Party podium and whipped the crowd into a frenzy over immigrants before flipping his speech and demanding that all European descendants leave the country immediately. He left the puzzled crowd with a final slam against Christopher Columbus.

To others, Espinosa is an irritant who demeans actual debate in favor of farce and discredits his issue by becoming the story. One commentator said Emmer should thank Espinosa for helping him get out of the volatile debate with waiters and waitresses over tips.

Sitting at a coffee shop in northeast Minneapolis, where he grew up, the DeLaSalle High School and St. Olaf graduate seemed the polar opposite of a brash activist. He wore a crisply pressed blue shirt, drank tea and talked in a soft, almost inaudible voice.

Espinosa, 23, came to his activism from personal experience. The son of an American mother and Ecuadorian father, Espinosa said that he watched helplessly as his father was detained, then deported, when Nick was 15. He said his father, Renato Espinosa, was an engineer who came to the United States on a student visa and then married his mother. They split when he was 2, and his father remarried. Espinosa said his father had a green card to work, but that changes in the law made him ineligible to stay.

"One day immigration agents came and just took my father away," said Espinosa. "I had to choose whether to stay with my stepmother or go to Ecuador with my dad, and I wasn't ready for that. It had a big impact on me."

Espinosa said his father was an engineer for Ecolab in Illinois, and was leading a productive life in the United States before being the target of a politically charged issue. "It just didn't make any sense to me why my family had to be ripped apart," he said.

Because of privacy laws, immigration officials could not confirm Espinosa's story. Renato now runs a bird-watching hostel outside Quito in the crater of a volcano.

"I am very proud of my son for having the guts to confront a system that treats people like a cancer," he wrote to me. "God bless you, Nick!"

Espinosa put himself through college with scholarships and money he made delivering pizza. He said studying in Mexico convinced him that NAFTA helped drive prices down for Mexican farmers, forcing them to come to the United States to survive. Here, he joined up with the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee and began rather predictable protests.

But then he got on the e-mail list of the Minnesota Tea Party, and eventually offered to speak about immigration under the name Erickson, "the whitest name I could think of."

They bit, and he turned it into a bit of political theater and a YouTube hit. "I realized then that humor was a very powerful way to communicate, a way to re-frame the debate," said Espinosa.

Not all the Tea Partiers caught the nuances of his speech. "They were still cheering when I got to the end, so I ad-libbed a little bit," he said. "When I started chanting, 'Columbus go home,' that was the nail in the coffin."

Ruthie Hendrycks, a Tea Party leader who invited Espinosa to speak, said he won't enter into real dialogue. Instead, his antics are "nothing more than acting out for attention," she said.

Espinosa and the MIRAC has also picketed Baja del Sol, owned by Republican Party Chair Tony Sutton, and threatened a boycott of the Jimmy John's on Block E because the chain's owner supported harsh immigration laws. The local franchise owner agreed to denounce the Arizona law and end the boycott, "a huge victory for us," said Espinosa.

A compendium of Espinosa's pranks can be found at his website, www.columbusgo


"I hope to bring a serious message," said Espinosa. "The pranks are fun, but if no serious analysis comes from it, then it's just a vapid act."

That leads us to the infamous penny dump, which I thought took away the opportunity for restaurant servers to have their day. They were doing a pretty good job, from all accounts, but Espinosa gave Emmer a chance to make an exit, albeit an awkward one.

Espinosa, no surprise, disagrees. "I wanted to make the connection between working people and immigrants," he said. "I don't think people realize how attacks on immigrants also have an impact on the community."

So what would he tell a waiter or line chef who lost a job to an illegal immigrant?

"I don't know," he said. "I could understand why they would be angry, but I would hope they looked at the bigger picture, that immigrants are often good for a community."

This Thursday at the State Capital (6 p.m.) Espinosa will be part of another rally against the Arizona anti-immigration law. And it won't stop there.

"Unless Emmer does a 180 on some issues, there will be more pranks to come," he said.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702