Racist comments about Oaxacans in LA City Council audio spark renewed push for change

"Today, the world heard it, but we hear it every day," said one Zapotec woman helping lead the efforts.

Anabel Munoz Image
Friday, October 21, 2022
Anti-Indigenous comments in city council racist audio spark protests
In the leaked conversation, former L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez and Councilman Gil Cedillo are heard mocking Oaxacans, calling them "ugly".

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Embattled Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León said he has no intention of resigning, despite calls to step down by protesters, his fellow councilmembers and even President Joe Biden.

De León is embroiled in a City Hall scandal in which he and two other councilmembers were recorded in a conversation making racist remarks and discussing how to game the city's redistricting process.

Among those calling for his resignation are Indigenous migrant leaders.

Since the recordings were leaked, former Council President Nury Martinez resigned her seat. De León and Councilman Gil Cedillo have faced increasingly loud calls to resign.

In the leaked conversation, published and reported by Knock LA, through laughter, Martinez and Cedillo are heard mocking Oaxacans.

Martinez calls them "so ugly" and said she doesn't know what village they came from. An unknown male refers to them as "Indios," a derogatory and racist term often used in Mexico.

"There is a racial hierarchy, and the closer you are to whiteness, the more acceptable you are, right?" said Janet Martinez, co-founder of a group known as Comunidades Indígenas en liderazgo, or CIELO, an Indigenous women-led nonprofit that works with Indigenous communities in L.A.

The group advocates for Indigenous rights and language justice, providing interpretation services in many Indigenous languages.

Martinez points to the racism planted through colonization and passed down through generations in Mexico and in Latino communities here.

"I think that for Indigenous and Black communities, they've really been the people that have been impacted by this racism," said Martinez.

Odilia Romero, a Zapotec woman and co-founder CIELO, spoke with Eyewitness News and said she was not surprised by the racist language used to describe indigenous and Oaxacan people.

"Institutionalized racism, and prejudice, we see it, and that's one of the reasons we exist, to create visibility of our existence," said Romero. "To let people know that we're still living and thriving in 2022."

CIELO members and supporters have rallied and protested calling for the resignations of De León and Cedillo.

Some, however, have spoken out in support of the De León and Cedillo, citing their work on Latino issues.

Romero said some of De Leon's supporters have tried to put a stop to the calls of his resignation.

"A whole media campaign of his defenders saying, 'Hey, these words were inappropriate, but it's not a big deal,'" said Romero. "Let's think about the broader Latino movement [and] political power. So they were willing to sacrifice, as Indigenous people and Black people, for their political gain and their political power."

But Romero and others remain firm in their calls for resignations and accountability.

Romero said part of that is language access and education.

"I think it's important that the City Council creates a language access plan, with full funding, and an educational campaign on city employees about the diversity of the city," she said.

Migrant Indigenous communities are part of the fabric of Southern California. CIELO and UCLA identified 17 Indigenous languages spoken in the region alone.

"I think being able to see people go out with their signs, with their kids, and saying, 'Proud to be Indigenous,' 'Orgullosamente Oaxaqueña,' like really is a different conversation that might have not been as prevalent 30, 40 years ago," said Martinez.