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The Troubling Legacy Behind L.A. Councilwoman Nury Martinez’s Racist Remarks

6 minute read

Leaked audio recordings of racist remarks made by Los Angeles City Councilwoman Nury Martinez—who resigned this week—were a shock to the L.A. political establishment, but for many Afro-Latinos and Indigenous people from Latin America, it was a grim reminder of racism in the Latino community.

Martinez, a descendant of Mexican immigrants who became the first Latina to be elected as city council president three years ago, made inflammatory comments while discussing redistricting with two other council members, saying that fellow councilmember Mike Bonin’s son, who is Black, “looked like a monkey.” She also referred to Oaxacans, people from the state of Oaxaca in Mexico, as “little short dark people” and “ugly.” Oaxaca has one of Mexico’s largest Indigenous populations.

The comments struck a chord in a diverse community where Latino residents make up nearly half of L.A.’s population. Martinez’s colleague council members Kevin de Leon, Gil Cedillo and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor Chief Ron Herrera were also heard laughing and seemingly agreeing with her words in the audio. Herrera has since resigned and all of them have since apologized.

But these types of comments are not unique to Martinez. In fact, experts, like Tanya K. Hernández, author of “Racial Innocence, Unmasking Latino Anti-Black Bias and the Struggle for Equality,” argues that the leaked conversation is part of an ongoing racist social structure that is deeply entrenched in Latin America, despite the Latino community’s denial of such.

“In the United States, we have this very narrow picture of what racism means and who holds racial bias,” Hernández tells TIME. “So we have this vision that it’s only what white Anglo English speaking people do to African-American English speakers.” But this could not be farther from the truth.

A legacy of colonialism

The term “Latino” is an ethnic category, meaning that people can also belong to any one or more racial groups. Afro-Latinos, people who share both Latin and African ancestry, for instance, make up about 12% of the U.S. adult Latino population. So while the Latino community faces discrimation in many forms, racism and colorism also exists within the community.

The legacy of anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenousness in the Latino community begins with the history of colonialism across the Americas, UC Berkeley sociologist G. Cristina Mora tells TIME. “To think that we are part of this similar system across the Americas and that it doesn’t have vestiges today is folly.”

Indigenous and Black communities across the diaspora have often been at the brunt of racism, as Latinos with a darker skin color report higher rates of discrimination. A recent Pew Research Center report found that Afro-Latinos, for instance, are more likely to experience discrimination, like being unfairly stopped by the authorities, than other Latinos.

And Indigenous people from countries in Latin America, many of whom do not identify as Latino because they speak a native language that is not Spanish, Portuguese or Creole, may additionally confront serious language barriers that prevent equal access to social services. This often manifests in a denial of adequate care because it is difficult to access interpreters as many falsely presume that indigenous people speak Spanish.

Odilia Romero, executive director and co-founder of Comunidades Indígenas En Liderazgo (CIELO), a woman-led intergenerational organization that serves Indigenous people in L.A., has seen this sort of discrimination first-hand.

Just as Romero’s cultural customs as a Zapotec, an Indigenous group from Oaxaca, have been passed down for generations, so too does the prejudice against Indigenous people, Romero says. “[Martinez’s comments] continue the language violence that indigenous people enter across the nation,” Romero tells TIME. “She… incites hate. And this hate leads to our human rights violations.”

Failing to address the problem

Even though Martinez has adhered to calls for her resignation, her statement falls short of adequately addressing the larger issue with her comments, scholars and community leaders say. In it, she did not apologize directly to the communities she insulted, and ended her letter saying, “And last, to all little Latina girls across the city—I hope I’ve inspired you to dream beyond that which you can see.”

But this is not the type of representation community organizers are hoping for. Romero says that if that is the “sort of inspiration” Martinez gives Latinos, “imagine what’s going to happen to us as Indigenous people and Black people.”

For many, Martinez’s comments serve as a reminder that no place, not even the state with the most socio-economic and cultural diversity, is exempt from racism.

And despite calls for increased diversity in politics, that does not always translate to anti-racist policymaking. It is important to hold leaders accountable and question whether they are the right fit for the job, even if they hold similar prescribed identities. “Is it only people that look like us that can bring true justice?” Mora says. “Or do we need people that hold our agenda, and that truly engage in politics for our betterment?”

Scholars and activists say that healing for the community should first begin with recognition that Latinos can contribute to racism while also being people of color in the United States.

Martinez’s resignation is not enough to reconcile with the reminder that discrimination exists, Hernández says. But it’s important to remember that she is one of many people who “express and manifest patterns of ideas that continue to exist across the community, and that need to be named, called out and addressed.”

She adds: “Simply firing people removes those people, but it doesn’t do anything to address the problematic attitudes which can exist amongst other people as well.”

Local community leaders, like Romero, say this is the time to better invest in communities that need it. If the city council truly wants to support Indigenous people, she suggests they provide greater funding to strengthen language access across the city. Others say that passing ethnic studies curriculums to help younger generations learn about the collective inequality and racial injustice that has plagued communities of color would help make amends.

“My greatest hope is that we will move forward in Los Angeles,” Mora adds. “Not through division, but through healing, and through intersectional forms of politics that center coalition building.”

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