Being a Champion of Immigration Rights does not Absolve Racism: The Los Angeles City Council and Anti-Indigeneity

January 9, 2023
By: Michelle Vasquez Ruiz

“Tan feos!” Nury Martinez’s coarse cackles revealed how deeply colorism and anti-Indigenous racism persist among the Latino community. Her mocking comments against the Oaxacan community confirmed how Oaxacans and specifically Oaxacan Indigenous communities are structurally disenfranchised as immigrants in Los Angeles. On October 9th, 2022, KnockLA released audio of a backroom conversation between LA City Council Members Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo, Kevin de Leon and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera. The audio recorded their redistricting plans for the county that was squarely organized around racial lines, making malicious comments against the Black, Jewish, Armenian and Queer communities. In the audio they make aggressive comments against their colleagues’ racial, ethnic and sexual identities and share outrageous opinions about a councilmember’s Black child. 

I felt personally attacked by the comments they directed against the Oaxacan community. The evening after the audios released friends and family members flooded my phone with texts, direct messages and calls checking in with me. Their messages were filled with a mixture of shock, confusion, some humor and, above all, calls to action. I paused my work to listen to the audio link sent to me over and over again. In the audio, they go over their redistricting plans and their strategy to take different neighborhoods in the city and to “put [them] in a blender and chop [them] up.” When discussing Koreatown, an area with a large Oaxacan population, Nury Martinez is heard screeching laughter: “I see a lot of little short, dark people … I don’t know where these people are from. I was like, I don’t know what village they came out, how they got here, but…” Cedillo interjects, “I’m glad they’re wearing shoes.” Nury proudly and with an unearned arrogance concludes, “Tan feos.” (so ugly). This description of Oaxacans as short, ugly, dark and living in villages without shoes, is rooted in our proximity to Indigeneity as the state of Oaxaca has a large Indigenous population. The state is home to thirteen different Indigenous communities. Often variations of the word “Oaxaca” such as, “Oaxaco,” or “Oaxaquita,” are used as an interchangeable offense for the word “Indio.” This form of discrimination is so widespread that in 2012 the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing project (MICOP) launched a successful campaign to ban the use of these words in the Oxnard Unified School District.

The councilmembers’ ridicule further proves how prevalence and normalization of this type of language, even within high levels of governance.  Their comments would expose “the legacy of anti-Blackness and anti-Indigenousness in the Latino community.”  Martinez and Cedillos words served to further prove how underrepresented and underserved Oaxacan and Oaxacan Indigenous communities are within Los Angeles. In the aftermath of the City Council audio leak, Oaxacan Indigenous immigrant communities continue to experience high levels of discrimination. Defenders of these disgraced political leaders continue to find ways to silence our outcries for these leaders’ resignations.   

“The councilmembers’ actions reflect how poorly these populations are both understood and represented. The aftermath of this leak and the refusal of certain councilmembers to step down further prove this point.”

Since the audio’s release I participated in many conversations and actions, but it was the backlash against the Oaxacan community that would continuously exhaust me and remind me of how little people understand about our experiences. 

As a Oaxacan woman I’ve had to endure this type of racist language countless times before. Growing up, I was often made to feel ashamed of my background and endure language and commentary similar to that used by these councilmembers. I recall an incident in middle school where after receiving an award from my history teacher on my outstanding work I accidentally walked in on a group of Latina girls snickering about me in the hallway. They complained that I only won the award because the teacher felt bad that I was such an “ugly India.” Being an awkward, shy middle-schooler incredibly uncomfortable in her own skin, I lowered my head and shrunk my body as much as I could and I quietly walked past them. For a long time, I believed them. I don’t think they ever realized I overheard them. These girls would go on to be successful career women. I often wonder if they ever out-learned their behavior or if in their careers they continue to snicker in hallways. Did they grow out of their casual racism phase or, like Nury Martinez, are they still mean girls that continue to use their words and their power to hurt more “ugly indias” like me?

Despite the difficulties, these moments motivated me to work with my community to research and write more about the experiences of Indigenous immigrants. I am writing a dissertation which considers the experiences of undocumented Indigenous communities from Oaxaca in Los Angeles. For the past year I’ve conducted hours of oral histories with these populations and, without fail, they consistently recount extreme levels of discrimination they face because of their Indigenous backgrounds.

My work uncovers how their identity as Indigenous peoples intersect with their immigration status, creating a hyper exploited population. Researchers have shown that Indigenous immigrants, who already face different forms of discrimination in their home country, continue to face further discrimination once in the US. [1]As Maylei Blackwell further explains, racist concepts of Indigeneity in Latin America are not only imported but hybridized with US racial and economic hierarchies.[2] In addition to facing multiple forms and hybridized forms of anti-Indigenous discrimination, their experiences become further compounded by racialized conceptions of “illegality.”  These populations become targets of racial hatred and are often presumed to have an “undocumented” status because of their appearance, making them more susceptible to hyper-policing and surveillance.[3]

Oaxacan Protester holding sign in Downtown Los Angeles, October 15, 2022. Photo courtesy of Flor Hernandez Zarate.

In this blog, I want to provide an array of statistics that would cement the prevalence of this type of discrimination, especially in the workplace and housing within Los Angeles, but as Comunidades Indigenas en Lidereazo (CIELO), an organization that addresses racism against Indigenous communities, points out Indigenous immigrants are severely understudied, primarily because of  “data biases that lump Indigenous peoples under the broad umbrella of Hispanic/Latino” which “disappears Indigenous difference.“ The councilmembers’ actions reflect how poorly these populations are both understood and represented. The aftermath of this leak and the refusal of certain councilmembers to step down further prove this point. 

While I humbly attempt to chip away at this problem, my work was paused that fall semester to cope with harsh realities that were no longer just present in my archives  and memories but also in the news cycle. I had to listen to that audio in its entirety several times as I was asked to speak on it during formal and informal conversations. Each time, despite my outward smiles and poise, my heart would burst into flames as I attempt to swallow the intensity of my true rage. I feared I had caught COVID over how tense and painful my ears, throat and eyes felt. They hurt because of how hard they worked to shut the floodgates holding back my anger. During interviews I would fold my arms to maintain my posture but I would secretly grip my wrist with such intensity that I walked around with several bruises on my arms for weeks. Each time I heard the audio, the voices of all the Oaxacan immigrants I had been interviewing overlapped in my head. For most, this leak, these comments were just a small blip, a small scandal that would blow away, but for me it was the reverberating sounds of a lifetime of injustice.  It was remembering their stories of the abuse we have experienced at work, on the bus, at hospitals, at schools, by our landlords, by our coworkers, our bosses, our “friends,” and now our councilmembers that caused me to have such a visceral reaction. While I have been candid about my anger both on social media and in interviews and talks I’ve given, I have still been careful to maintain some level of professionalism. I’ve censored my raw feelings because, as I will explain later, our passion can be easily used to silence us as people without thought and reason. 

“We have to acknowledge that you can be an advocate of immigrants and still uphold racist ideology. Being a champion of immigration rights does not absolve you of your racism and using this history as a shield raises red flags.”

Ron Herrera resigned two days after the audio release. Nury Martinez would follow and unapologetically resign three days later. As her last act, she released an insulting resignation letter that offered no apology and attempted to reframe herself under a heroic light. As a cringe worthy exit she ended the letter with: “all the little Latina girls across this city- I hope I’ve inspired you to dream beyond that which you can see.”  And, of course, she received many criticisms for this exit. Gil Cedillo did not resign and instead waited for his term to end in December. He would continue to attempt to absolve himself from the audio through different interviews.

Encampment in front of Kevin de Leon’s home organized by Black Lives Matters. Photo courtesy of Phillip Jackson.

Kevin De Leon, despite continual protests, has yet to step down. While only appearing in council chambers a handful of times since the audio’s release, he has been on a strange and tone-deaf apology tour recasting himself as a bystander and not an active racist. It has been De Leon’s and Cedillo’s refusal to step down that would prove further damaging to these conversations about colorism in the Latinx community and would demonstrate how little politicians understand the racial dimensions of the fight for immigrant rights.

Many Oaxacan activists I collaborated with shared numerous hate-filled emails, voice and text messages that they received from Gil Cedillo and Kevin de Leon supporters attempting to silence the voices of Indigenous leaders that to this day continue demanding their resignation. 

While I will not disclose details within this blog, I can share that there were three major talking points I heard over and over again. The first was that we should not be upset by the language that was being used because it was a true that we were short and dark. These comments can easily be dismissed as a more hateful ignorance. The chorus of giggles surrounding these words clarify that these comments were insults and not neutral descriptions. Anyone with common sense would know that like any other racial or ethnic group, we come in different shapes and sizes. The second point I heard was that that it was common for Latinxs to use this kind of language to describe others. As a result, these councilmembers were being wrongfully persecuted for a cultural misunderstanding.

It’s alarming to think that using hateful language towards Indigenous and Black peoples is seen as normal. It shows how deep the Spanish colonial caste system continues to shape our language, thought and behavior. However, the most prevalent and most misguided justification I heard in defense of Cedillo and De Leon was that the Oaxacan community was acting selfishly in destroying the legacies of two immigrant rights champions, that our calls for the resignation of De Leon and Cedillo were hurting the Latinx community. 

In an article published by Spanish newspaper La Opinion, numerous immigrant rights leaders come to De Leon’s and Cedillo’s defense arguing that,  “immigrants will lose one of their greatest heroes in the anti-immigrant fight” if we continue to “politically lynch” them. Both De Leon and Cedillo have a strong record as immigrant advocates. In 1994, even before he became a career politician, de Leon was an immigrant rights advocate, organizing a massive march against proposition 187, a proposition that would deny public services to undocumented immigrants. In 2017, in his role as a California state Senator he passed SB54 also known as the “sanctuary state” bill which prohibited state and local law enforcement agencies from using resources to investigate people’s immigration status. Gil Cedillo’s career was marked for his persistent advocacy for immigrant populations gaining the nickname, “One Bill Gil” for his push to make it legal for undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses in the state of California. While his attempts failed, his efforts were nonetheless influential to policymakers and activists. In 2011, as a representative in the California State Assembly, Cedillo passed AB130 and AB131, also known as the California Dream Act, which allowed undocumented Immigrants access to state financial aid for college. Their support of the immigrant community should absolutely be acknowledged and celebrated. In their careers, they offered great representation for these communities. However, in light of this audio, our celebration of the past should not prevent us from moving forward. We have to acknowledge that you can be an advocate of immigrants and still uphold racist ideology. Being a champion of immigration rights does not absolve you of your racism and using this history as a shield raises red flags. 

“Why should we accept “representation” by leaders who participated in racial hatred or by those that refused to speak up against it? Why are we being asked to sacrifice our dignity for the greater good of Latinxs? For the greater good of immigrants? For Kevin de Leon’s career?”

Articles like the one published by La Opinion only capture a fraction of the type of silencing the Oaxacan and Oaxacan Indigenous communities have had to face as a result of De Leon and Cedillo’s refusal to step down.  I was, at different instances and even during a formal debate, told that I was being fooled by the media into believing that these leaders were racist. I was told that I was incapable of critical thinking and doing my own research despite my numerous degrees, awards and publications in the field of race and ethnic studies. Once again, I found my intelligence questioned, an instance that brought me back to middle school but echoed further back to a familiar colonial rhetoric. I and so many others that were silenced this way were being told we were “gente sin razón” (“people without reason”), a term the Spanish used to distinguish Indigenous people from the colonizers. Because the Spanish deemed us unintelligent, they could justify our enslavement, murder and general mistreatment. Now, our rage and demand for De Leon’s and Cedillo’s resignation continues being silenced by their supporters as the ramblings of foolish “Indians” that were easily misled by the television. This idea that we cannot see reality was being thrown back at us to make our outrage seem unfounded and selfish. It’s enraged me to be personally hearing other Latinxs tell us that our demands hurt Latinxs because without them, we would be left with no representation. But why should we accept “representation” by leaders who participated in racial hatred or by those that refused to speak up against it? Why are we being asked to sacrifice our dignity for the greater good of Latinxs? For the greater good of immigrants? For Kevin de Leon’s career? 

Herein lies the problem with using their history as immigrants’ rights champions as a defense of their actions. This argument homogenizes the immigrant experience and ignores the multiple racialized dimensions of this status. As I described earlier, Oaxacan populations face harsher forms of discrimination because of their Indigenous identities. Yet, there is still not enough data or investment in understanding and supporting the experiences of these populations. Nonprofit organizations like CIELO are expected to carry the weight of these challenges. Their team works to provide court language interpreters for Indigenous speakers, financial support for indigenous families, even cultural awareness trainings for the Los Angeles Police Department and so many other services that are left unmet by the state. Smaller hometown associations and community activists have, for decades, worked to meet the specific needs of Oaxacan Indigenous communities.  Many stepped up and provided food and financial support for families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic before widespread aid became available. While so many community organizers continuously worked to support the community, this city council scandal further burdened them. 

How can we expect leaders like Cedillo and de Leon, who chose to be bystanders when racism unfolds or who celebrate the fact that we “now wear shoes” to write policy that holds us in mind? We need immigration leaders that deeply understand the diverse experiences that compose the immigrant reality. While I have primarily written about Oaxacan Indigenous communities, I would be remised if I did not recognize how Black and afro-Latinx immigrants also experience hybridized forms of discrimination. How are these leaders advocating for these communities? How are they writing policies in a way that is inclusive of their struggles? The leaked audio makes it clear that in their plan to redistrict Los Angeles, to “chop” up the neighborhoods, they were more than willing to sacrifice the well-being of the Oaxacan community in order to consolidate power. For the longest time, I believed that the lack of support from government officials came from them not knowing about our existence. This audio clarifies that they know we exist; they just strategically and hatefully chose to ignore us.  I reiterate that being a champion of immigration rights does not absolve someone of their racism. In fact, this inability for our community leaders to not understand immigration through its relationship to racism is a huge problem. The experiences of all immigrants are not equal, but are intrinsically tied to racial structures that limit their well-being. We need political leaders that are not bystanders to these forms of discrimination, but instead understand and write policy in accordance with these realities. 

[1] Juan Herrera, “Racialized Illegality: The Regulation of Informal Labor and Space,” Latino Studies 14, no. 3 (October 1, 2016): 321.

[2] Maylei Blackwell, “Líderes Campesinas: Nepantla Strategies and Grassroots Organizing at the Intersection of Gender and Globalization,” Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies 35, no. 1 (April 1, 2010).

[3] For more about this see (This is not an exhaustive list) : Abigail Andrews, Undocumented Politics: Place, Gender, and the Pathways of Mexican Migrants (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2018); Lourdes Alberto, “Coming Out as Indian: On Being an Indigenous Latina in the US,” Latino Studies; London 15, no. 2 (July 2017): 247–53; David Barillas-Chon, “Oaxaqueño/a Students’ (Un)Welcoming High School Experiences: Journal of Latinos and Education: Vol 9, No 4,” Journal of Latinos and Education 9, no. 4 (2010): 303–20; Brenda Nicolas, “‘Soy de Zoochina’: Transborder Comunalidad Practices among Adult Children of Indigenous Migrants,” Latino Studies 19, no. 1 (2021): 47–69;  Daina Sanchez, “Racial and Structural Discrimination Toward the Children of Indigenous Mexican Immigrants,” Race and Social Problems 10, no. 4 (2018): 306–19; Lynn Stephen, Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon, (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2007); M. Laura Velasco Ortiz, Mixtec Transnational Identity (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2005).

Michelle Vasquez Ruiz

Michelle Vasquez Ruiz is PhD Candidate in the department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. She serves as the Digital Archivist and Content Manager for the Mobile Indigenous Community Archive. Currently, her research looks at the migration history of undocumented Indigenous community in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in American Quarterly, Ethnic Studies Review and Mobilities.


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