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LA Councilmembers’ Leaked Anti-Oaxacan Comments Echo 'Imported' Latin American Racism

Paint colors on a wall in Queretaro, Mexico.
Paint colors on a wall in Queretaro, Mexico.
(Photo by Justine Camacho @justinecz via Unsplash)
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The derogatory comments from three Los Angeles City Council members that were captured on leaked audio recordings included not only anti-Black comments, but also swipes at Indigenous Mexicans.

Racist Remarks By LA Councilmembers Included Swipes At Oaxacan Community

In the leaked audio from a meeting last year, councilmembers Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León are heard discussing the growing Latino population in Koreatown when Martinez says: “I see a lot of little short dark people…,” followed by a man’s voice saying, “Yeah, puro Oaxacan…”

As the conversation continues, Martinez, who is Mexican American, can be heard saying, “Tan feos!” which translates to “so ugly.”

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Martinez announced her resignation from her post as Los Angeles City Council President on Monday morning amid a loud outcry from a wide cross-section of Angelenos. “I take responsibility for what I said and there are no excuses for those comments. I’m so sorry,” she said in a statement. Cedillo and de León also issued apologies.

There were widespread statements and comments from local, state, and national politicians, along with community and civic groups, demanding that all three resign from the council.

The conversation between the three councilmembers and L.A. County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera included shocking comments Martinez made toward Councilmember Mike Bonin's young son, who is Black. The comments also contained, as Councilmember Nithya Raman described it, "homophobic tropes."

Both Shocked And Not Shocked

Martinez and others present also made derogatory comments about Indigenous Oaxacans. The slurs about Oaxacans came as a shock to many, but to others they’re an example of longstanding prejudices in Latin America and within Latino communities in the U.S.

“I listened to a tiny bit, you know, of the clip, and … the trauma came back,” said Xochitl Flores-Marcial, an associate professor Chicana/o Studies at Cal State Northridge. She was born in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, which has a large Indigenous population. She identifies as Zapotec.

When we went to school, there were kids that were bullies, just like these councilmembers, who treated us exactly with the same words.
— Xochitl Flores-Marcial, a Cal State Northridge professor who grew up in L.A.'s Oaxacan community

Flores-Marcial said she heard slurs similar to those on the leaked audio while growing up on the Westside in L.A.’s Oaxacan community.

“When we went to school, there were kids that were bullies, just like these councilmembers, who treated us exactly with the same words,” Flores-Marcial said.

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The bullies she describes were other Mexican American kids, she said.

Age-Old Color Hierarchy

The anti-Oaxacan comments echo an age-old hierarchy of color in Latin America that dates back to the Spanish conquest, in which light-skinned, European-looking Latinos are generally favored over those with Indigenous or African ancestry.

“It comes from a social construct of the dominant culture of colonialism,” said Julio Vallejo, who directs Pigmentocracia, a nonprofit that aims to combat racism and colorism in Latin American communities and media.

“The ranking is, of course, put in place by the dominant group (which) in this case was, you know, white people — or rather Spanish people, which is European,” said Vallejo, who is from Michoacan state and identifies as Indigenous with Purépecha roots.

UCLA Chicana/o Studies professor Maylei Blackwell said these attitudes have long been imported north from Latin American countries — and are unfortunately commonplace in the U.S.

How Latin American Racism Travels

“The hard part about racism in Mexico, and the way it travels to the United States, is that it's kind of everyday common, embedded in jokes,” she said, including jokes in which Indigenous people are cruelly ridiculed as “ignorant, tacky, low-class and ugly.”

For outsiders, this imported racism tends to lie beneath the radar: “Because Latinos are also part of a racial system, a white supremacy system in the United States, people often think they can't be racist,” Blackwell said.

“But obviously there are two systems of racism,” Blackwell said, including the one that “travels from Mexico with migrants and intersects with the U.S. system of white supremacy.”

Flores-Marcial said hearing racist cracks about Oaxacans like herself from fellow Latinos — those in the city’s highest offices — is discouraging.

“I absolutely do not feel represented,” she said.

What questions do you have about immigration and emerging communities in LA?