Special to the San Fernando Valley Sun
On a recent Monday morning, Maria Mendoza was busy getting things ready to open the doors of La Asunción, a Oaxacan restaurant in North Hills that serves moles, tlayudas, tamales oaxaqueños and other dishes from her Mexican home state of Oaxaca. Mendoza is proud of Oaxaca, famous for its cuisine — it is known as the “land of the seven moles” — as well as for its diverse indigenous communities, rich culture, art and folklore.
But despite their rich heritage, Oaxacan indigenous people have endured insidious and overt discrimination in Mexico for centuries. Racism has also followed them during their immigration to the US, as shown by the current scandal of a leaked recording of three elected city officials and a labor leader who spoke pejoratively of Oaxacan immigrants, African-Americans and other groups.
The Oaxacan community in Los Angeles is the largest in the United States currently estimated at 200,000 people. You can see their growth by the restaurants and commerce that have grown in the San Fernando Valley and most notably in the Koreatown section of LA.
Racism & Words
In Mexico, racial bigotry is ingrained in the language with offensive expressions like “indio pata rajada”, loosely translated as “barefooted Indian” and “trabajar como negro”, or to work like a Black (slave) person. Some innocuous words like “prieto, cabezón, chaparro”, are often used to denigrate indigenous people; even the word “indio” can turn into a despective when purposely spoken with a malicious emphasis or combined with expletives. Also mocked are Mexican indigenous’ dialects and their accent when speaking Spanish, their traditional clothes, endemic poverty, and place in modern Mexican society.
Words matter, whether in Spanish, English or any language; and when used to put down entire communities, words also have consequences. Now-disgraced Councilwoman Nury Martinez learned that the hard way this month.
Caught in Recording
Martinez, whose district covered a part of North Hills, North Hollywood, Sun Valley, Van Nuys, Lake Balboa, Panorama City, Pacoima and Arleta, was caught in a surreptitiously recorded conversation with colleagues referring to Oaxacans as “little, short dark people” and called them ugly in Spanish. “Tan feos,” Martinez is heard saying on the recording of a meeting with councilmembers Kevin De León and Gil Cedillo, and LA County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, none of whom challenged the councilwoman’s racist remarks.
“That’s really bad,” says Mendoza, 40, the La Asunción restaurant worker. For her, the hurtful words hit home because Mendoza identifies as Mixe. “How can they talk about us like that?” she emphatically adds, “That’s racism. They shouldn’t denigrate immigrants from any Mexican states nor of any race.”
First reported by the Los Angeles Times earlier in October, the infamous recording shook LA City Hall and racial politics, and made national and international headlines. In addition to Oaxacans, Martinez also made racist and disparaging comments against Blacks, Jews, Armenians and other groups during a meeting discussing city redistricting and ways to secure their seats and consolidate Latino power in City Hall.
The response to the scandal has been swift, with a growing number of diverse politicians — including President Joe Biden — labor officials and community leaders calling for the resignation of all those heard in the recording.
Demands for Accountability
Activists have disrupted City Council meetings since the scandal broke, demanding the resignation of Martinez, Cedillo and De León. Martinez stepped down first from the City Council presidency and soon later from her district seat. (Herrera resigned from his union leadership.)
De León and Cedillo were recently pulled from city council committees, but they are hanging on to their seats, apparently hoping that the scandal will subside. However, activists still seem determined to see the two remaining council members go for good.
“We have a message for councilmen Cedillo y De León: if you don’t show your face and resign to your posts, we’ll keep on protesting until you do,” says Raúl Cortez, 55, a resident of Mid-City who attended a March for Justice on Saturday, Oct. 15, that reportedly drew 5,000 people in downtown LA.
Organized by Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo (CIELO), an Indigenous women-led, nonprofit organization that works for social justice, the demonstration started near LA Trade Technical College and ended at the steps of City Hall.
Cortez takes pride in his Zapotecan ancestry. He leads a cultural organization called Nueva Antequera to teach Oaxacan traditions to children and adults through music and dance. A big tradition is La Guelaguetza, an annual fiesta held every July that celebrates people helping people. “In the spirit of Guelaguetza, we help compatriots with gifts throughout the year, in fiestas, baptisms and weddings,” says Cortez. “It is ingrained in our culture.”
At the moment, though, his priority is to hold elected officials accountable and bring about change at City Hall. “We just want the councilmen to step down for our wounds to heal, to put an end to what you’ve done to our indigenous community and also to African-Americans,” Cortez said and warned, “We won’t back down. We demand their resignations to set a precedent and to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Oaxacans in USA & Their Homeland
Oaxacans are a small group among immigrants hailing from all the Mexican states, and most of them call Southern California home, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Their home state is in southwestern Mexico, facing the Pacific Ocean, and is the state with the second largest indigenous population — accounting for almost half of the state’s total population of over 4 million, according to the National Commission for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples.
The largest ethnic groups are Zapotecs and Mixtecs followed by Mazatecos, Chinantecos and Mixe. Other groups are the Chatino, Trique, Huave, Cuicateco, Zoque, Amuzgo, Oaxacan Chontal, Tacuate, Chochotec, Ixcateco y Popoloco.
Sadly, Oaxacan activist Cristina Ramirez of the podcast Crónicas de OaxaCalifornia, says that racism against the indigenous has been normalized in both Mexico and the US to the point that she rarely gets shocked when hearing it in daily life. “It was unfortunate to hear Martinez, a woman of my community, saying those offensive words but it doesn’t surprise me, though,” expresses Ramirez, adding, “Those are the words that people use and are very common in my community, the words of bullies. If they do it to us in Mexico, can you imagine here [in the States]?”
While somehow numb to pejorative expressions, Ramirez explains that Martinez’s words were especially hurtful. “It bothers me that they came from a public official,” says the activist, who is of Mixtec descent. “I had never heard anyone speaking with so much scorn. Her words hurt me, they’re from a bully. The cruelty she displays, how she derides people, she seems to enjoy all that.”
Then there is the response of Cedillo and De León in the recording that incenses Ramirez even more. “A bigger sin was that the gentlemen [councilmen] in the meeting didn’t stop Martinez,” the activist says. She also believes the councilmen wanted to fit in and decided to go along with Martinez. “I think that’s what happened to Mr. Cedillo,” she suggests.
‘Like a Bucket of Cold Water’
For Graciela Molina, a Zapotecan woman who lives in Koreatown and who has been reconnecting with her indigenous roots, the racist recording hit her “like a bucket of cold water.” “We’ve suffered racism in our own country [Mexico] and we’re still facing it here,” she says. While she expects uneducated people to use racial epithets, Molina says that is unbecoming of elected officials to do it. “I feel so disappointed in Martinez and the councilmen,” she states. “They’re racists and classists.”
With irony in her voice, Molina recalls that both Cedillo and De León had asked for the backing of the Oaxacan community for their political campaigns in the past. “We supported them,” she states and adds, “Now we see them as accomplices in this atrocity.”
For Jorge Alvarez, 40, of Boyle Heights, an encounter with De León a couple of years ago may have presaged the racist scandal now overwhelming and paralyzing City Council. “I ran into Kevin and, as he extended his hand for a shake, I told him, ‘I only hope you won’t let us down like [former Councilman] Jose Huizar,’” recalls Alvarez. Huizar is the Mexican immigrant council member that De León replaced when Huizar vacated his seat after his arrest and indictment in June of 2020 on federal corruption charges. “Upon hearing my comment, Kevin decided not to shake my hand and walked away, which made me laugh,” says Alvarez with humor in his voice. Then he adds with seriousness, “He lost my trust right there. He proved to me he was just another politician of the bunch.”
Alvarez, who works in finances for a nonprofit, believes that anti-indigenous racism is the legacy of the Spanish conquest of the Americas that also erased local traditions and wisdom. “Racism is present in our Latino communities, and we don’t even realize that we partake in it,” he states. “But we must remember that we are of mixed races, the product of Indians, Africans, Spaniards and other Europeans.” He also has advice for Latino and Black politicians. “We are in the same boat and have the same goal, which is to bring more resources to our communities,” he says. Echoing the words of Martin Luther King, the Black civil rights leader, Alvarez adds, “We also have to teach younger generations to judge people by the content of their character and not their looks.”
Like Alvarez, Angelo Papento, another Oaxacan immigrant who resides in Santa Ana, opines that racism against Oaxacan indigenous people is common among Mexicans and not so much among white Americans. He sees a prevalence of racist stereotypes of what Oaxacans should look like, including skin color and body height. “People don’t believe I’m from Oaxaca because I don’t fit the stereotype,” he says. “Racism comes from our own people who have the wrong ideas.”
The Irony as Shamed Council Members Have Fought for Immigrants
The political crisis created by the leaked recording is reshaping City Hall and the local labor movement, and Ramirez, the podcaster of Crónicas de OaxaCalifornia, feels ambivalent about the price both Latino politicians and community at large will pay. On the one hand, she wants to hold Latino councilmembers Cedillo and De León to account; on the other, she acknowledges the work both have done in their political careers for Latino immigrants both as legislators in Sacramento and as councilmen in LA.
As a state assemblyman, Cedillo championed and helped pass legislation to grant driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants as well as the Dream Act, which allowed financial aid for undocumented students attending college. He also supported the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA. “I have love and appreciation for what Cedillo has done for us,” she says. “I have a driver’s license y tengo un hijo [and I have a son] DACA.”
For his part, De León has authored, supported and helped pass state legislation for renewable energy, gun control and gender equity. As a councilman, he championed clean streets and housing for the homeless.
Martinez, who is the daughter of a dishwasher and is known to her constituents as fighting for the disenfranchised, helped pass a raise in the minimum wage for all workers in LA, championed ordinances against human trafficking, helped create green zones in Pacoima and Sun Valley, supported some programs to house the homeless and opposed federal anti-immigrant decisions by the Donald Trump administration. Also, as City Council president, she led the COVID-19 pandemic response helping allocate funds for residents needing assistance with rent and childcare.
But Ramirez says that Martinez left without addressing the hurtful words she used for Oaxacan indigenous. “She resigned but it pains me there was no public apology for Oaxacans. So that is not enough for us. We Oaxacans have a word of honor. But Martinez dishonored our Mexican community, herself and, above all, our indigenous people. She took off without apology to Oaxacans.”
Ramirez cites a famous quote by beloved Mexican President Benito Juarez, who was an Oaxacan of Zapotecan indigenous descent: “Damned those who with their words defend the people and with their deeds betray it.” Adds Ramirez, “That quote applies to Nury Martinez.”