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Hurt By Racist Remarks, Indigenous Angelenos Hope to Seize The Moment For Change

A group of kitchen staffers, all with varying brown skin tones, all wearing black, except for the restaurant owner, standing in the center, in a white shirt, inside a commercial kitchen.
Ivan Vasquez, center in white shirt, with his staff at his Madre restaurant on Fairfax Ave. He is Zapotec from Oaxaca; many staff members are also from Oaxaca.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas
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When Ivan Vasquez heard the leaked audio of three Los Angeles City Council members — all of them Latino — engaging in racist and anti-Indigenous banter, he felt not only angry, but invisible.

The restaurateur, who is Zapotec, arrived in the United States as a penniless teenager from Oaxaca, and spent many years working his way up through L.A.’s restaurant industry. Today he owns a small chain of upscale Oaxacan restaurants called Madre, and contributes lots to the city, he says — paying sales tax, creating jobs.

LA's Indigenous Communities Angry, But Not Surprised, By Racist Recording

Vasquez said hearing city leaders make derogatory cracks about Indigenous Oaxacans, like himself and much of his staff, was especially rough given how hard he and his staff work.

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“The Oaxacan population here in Los Angeles, we have done a lot to get respect, to get recognition,” Vasquez said. “It was very painful … that they don't even know how much we contribute.”

The Marginalization Persists

That sense of invisibility — of being overlooked, even erased — is something many of L.A.’s Indigenous Mexicans and Central Americans have grappled with for years as they navigate local government and institutions, long before the City Council tape scandal.

They’re lumped in with Spanish-speaking Latinos, although many don’t speak Spanish as a first language. They aren’t well-counted in the census and have little political voice. And they’ve long known that having Latinos in positions of power doesn’t necessarily translate to representation.

“Within the official discourse, indigeneity and Indigenous people are largely invisible because ‘everybody is Latino, everybody's Mexican’, and therefore that homogenizes the population,” said Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, a UCLA sociologist who directs the school’s Center for Mexican Studies.

Rivera-Salgado, who is Mixtec from Oaxaca, said this homogenized perception of Mexicans and Latinos in general masks deep racial divisions caused by an age-old, racist caste system dating to Spanish colonial times that marginalizes Latinos of Indigenous and African descent.

This marginalization persists in the U.S., he said.

“The moment Indigenous people become visible, they're looked at from these colonized eyes, you know, they're ‘short, dark, and ugly,’” Rivera-Salgado said, referring to what former Council member Nury Martinez called them in the infamous recording.

“And therefore, ‘Are they smart? Are they able to represent the entire community? Should they have those positions of power?’ And I think that's the negative impact of racism,” Salgado-Rivera said. “One, invisibility. And the second one, that how are people going to take you seriously?”

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Consequences Of Marginalization

Indigenous people are often left out of the conversation — sometimes literally, said Odilia Romero, executive director of Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo, or CIELO, an L.A.-based nonprofit that advocates and provides interpreters for Indigenous communities. The L.A. area is home to 17 languages indigenous to Mexico and Central America.

Romero, who is Zapotec, said that in local institutions, Spanish-speaking gatekeepers frequently fail to communicate adequately with Indigenous people.

Two brown-skinned women against a background of green foliage; one on the left is in a white printed blouse, the other on the right in pink.
Odilia Romero, left, and Aurora Pedro of CIELO
(Leslie Berestein Rojas

“It is that Latino that is in power, be it the receptionist at a school, be it a receptionist at a hospital, you know, they will be the one noticing if I am not speaking Spanish or if I am not getting my message across,” she said. “They will be the one that should be asking, ‘Do you speak an Indigenous language?’”

But that rarely happens, she said.

Romero pointed out a moment in the leaked audio in which a man’s voice is heard saying the word “indios,” a derogatory term used in Latin America for Indigenous people. Attitudes like these, Romero fears, get in the way of fair treatment.

“It's very clear of how they think about us,” she said, “and how decisions are made.”

Her group has made some strides working with local police to recognize Indigenous languages, after a 2010 incident in which an LAPD officer shot and killed a Maya man who didn’t understand English or Spanish.

But Aurora Pedro, who coordinates CIELO’s interpreter program, said there continue to be tragic outcomes.

Pedro, who is Akateko-Kanjobal Maya and the daughter of immigrants from Guatemala, recalled a case in which medical staff gave an Indigenous mother important details about medication and caring for her critically ill child in Spanish — assuming she understood.

“She didn't understand,” Pedro said. “And her daughter ended up running out of medication and having to be hospitalized, and the young girl ended up passing from this. So it’s very serious consequences when you erase someone's Indigenous identity.”

Making Use Of The Moment

In the busy kitchen of Vasquez’s restaurant on Fairfax Avenue one recent afternoon, Indigenous staff members said they felt let down by the Latino city leaders caught on the recording.

Kitchen manager Jacinto Lopez Martinez, who was born in Oaxaca, said that even with elected leaders of color, he doesn’t feel everyone is represented.

“The system is white, and no one is going change that, no one,” he said. “Whether you put in a Latino politician, or a Black politician, they will never change that, because the system is like that. When they get to power, they will push us aside.”

Ever since the City Council scandal broke, local Indigenous leaders have been calling for greater recognition and representation. CIELO’s Romero and Pedro said they hope this can be a teachable — and visible — moment for Indigenous Angelenos that leads to real change, including better in-language public services.

“I do feel like we can definitely use this moment to really meet those needs of the community, and that's something that we're asking, for officials to really act on that,” said Pedro, who would also like to see more data gathered on local Indigenous communities by public agencies to better serve their needs.

A brown-skinned man in a white shirt stands in front of a mural in tones of yellow and brown.
Ivan Vasquez, at his Madre restaurant on Fairfax Avenue, hopes to see more Indigenous leaders elected to local and state office.
(Leslie Berestein Rojas

Indigenous Representation In Government

Some would also like to see Indigenous leaders in government.

A couple of weekends ago, hundreds of Oaxacans and other Indigenous Angelenos marched through downtown L.A., protesting the council members’ comments as they also celebrated Oaxacan culture, with marching bands and dancing in the street.

Among the protesters was Ivan Vasquez. Taking a break in the dining room of his Fairfax Avenue restaurant the other day, he said he would love to see an Indigenous elected leader in City Hall within the next few years.

“It’s very important to have a good representation of us, because we are part of the city,” Vasquez said. “We have worked really hard to get recognition and to have a voice.”

He hopes that from now on his community’s voice will grow, and be better heard.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously said all three city council members heard on the leaked audio are Mexican American. Nury Martinez and Gil Cedillo are Mexican American; Kevin de Leon is the son of Guatemalan parents.

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