The more you listen to it, the worse it gets.
I’m talking about the leaked audio of an October 2021 conversation between three Los Angeles City Council members and a prominent labor leader. Their ostensible purpose was to strategize about drawing council districts in a way that would give more power to Latinos.
“If you’re going to talk about Latino districts, what kind of districts are you trying to create?” City Council President Nury Martinez said to Councilmembers Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo and Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, in audio posted on Reddit a month ago and which the Times obtained. “Because you’re taking away our assets. You’re just going to create poor Latino districts with nothing?”
It’s a fair question, especially in a city where Latinos are about half of the population but occupy less than a third of council seats.
But instead of taking responsibility for the underwhelming state of Latino political power, they just whined and whined about their predicament and blamed everyone else — especially Black people.
When you have an elected Latina official use words to describe Black people — children, no less — as changuitos (“little monkeys”) and negritos (“darkies”) while no one else in the room pushes back, it shows the rot, pettiness and paranoia that infests L.A.’s Latino political class. The four waded in grievance politics straight out of Sam Yorty’s City Hall.
This wasn’t a case of your rancho libertarian cousins from Corona drunkenly mouthing off during a backyard carne asada, or small-town politicians in southeast L.A. County or the San Gabriel Valley. These are some of the most powerful politicians in Southern California — and some of the most prominent Latino politicos in the United States.
Martinez is head of the City Council of the second-largest city in the United States. Councilmember De León was the first Latino California Senate pro tem in more than a century (and placed third in the mayoral primary). Cedillo is a immigrant rights legend, while Herrera is head of an organization with the money and manpower to sway elections.
They should know better than to say quiet things out loud, even in private — and the fact that they don’t isn’t just frightening but telling.
Martinez called her council colleague Mike Bonin “a little bitch” and described him as “the fourth Black council member” who “won’t f—ing ever say peep about Latinos. He’ll never say a f—ing word about us.”
Maybe he might have supported Latinos if Martinez and her cohorts tried harder to ally with him?
Herrera suggested that Bonin effectively puts his young son, who is Black, out in public like a lawn jockey, the racist statues used to invoke the antebellum South. De León compared the son to one of Martinez’s Louis Vuitton bags.
“Hay trae su negrito,” Martinez added — there he goes, bringing his little darky. Later, she said the boy’s behavior on a float during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade made him seem like a “changuito.”
In Martinez’s world, everyone in L.A.’s political class who can’t help her cause is anti-Latino and pro-Black — even the Cuban American L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, of whom Martinez said, “F— that guy, he’s with the Blacks.”
De León floated nonprofit director Irma R. Muñoz as a replacement for Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, who was suspended last year because of federal bribery charges.
Herrera then said, “You just gotta combat CoCo with that seat. That seat has to be anti-CoCo.”
He was referring to Community Coalition, the nonprofit started by mayoral candidate Karen Bass and once headed by Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson that has spent the last three decades trying to improve relations between Latino and Black folks in South Los Angeles. Bass and Harris-Dawson are Black; Community Coalition’s current chief executive and executive vice president are Latinos.
It wasn’t good enough for Martinez and her pals to bash political enemies.
De León mocked Black political power in the city as little better than the man behind the curtain in “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Twenty-five or so are Black,” Cedillo added. “And the 25 Blacks are shouting.”
De Leon interjected, “But they shout like they’re 250.”
The toxicity of the quartet was such that they found time to trash other groups too.
Cedillo called Koreatown a “misnomer” because the population is majority Latino. Martinez mentioned Oaxacans, who have lived in the neighborhood for decades.
“I see a lot of short little dark people,” she said, cackling as she trotted out anti-Oaxacan stereotypes common in Mexico and the U.S. “Not even like Kevin — little ones,” Cedillo added — a backhanded compliment to De León, who is of Guatemalan descent, when Guatemalans also get mocked by Mexicans for their stature and complexion.
“I don’t know where these people are from,” Martinez continued. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what village they came from, how they got here.’”
“And now they’re wearing shoes,” someone added.
“Tan feos,” Martinez responded. They’re ugly.
In a statement, Martinez apologized for her remarks yet defended the “intense frustration and anger” that led to them.
“The context of this conversation was concern over the redistricting process and concern about the potential negative impact it might have on communities of color,” she said.
This, after a conversation in which she and her political allies ridiculed Blacks, Oaxacans and Central Americans, who are now apparently not “communities of color” in her Latino-centric world.
De León described some comments during the meeting as “wholly inappropriate.”
“I regret appearing to condone and even contribute to certain insensitive comments made about a colleague and his family in private,” he said in a statement. “On that day, I fell short of the expectations we set for our leaders — and I will hold myself to a higher standard.”
Sadly, nothing about this embarrassing fiasco surprised me. I hear whining all the time from Latinos that Black people have too much political power, at their expense. Mexican discrimination against Oaxacans is so pernicious, even in Southern California, that the term “oaxaquito” — little Oaxacan — was banned in Oxnard schools. I’m surprised Martinez didn’t call Koreans “chinitos” — Chinamen — because that would’ve followed the same diminutive, demeaning line as the other slurs.
And slurs like “negritos” and “changuitos” still get tossed around with regularity, especially among Mexican Americans. Already, people are defending Martinez’s use of them, saying she used the former in a sarcastic tone, and the latter to describe the rambunctious behavior of Bonin’s son, not his race.
Casual racism and classism among Latinos is something our community has never really confronted until recently, as a new generation has started frank, honest conversations about our anti-Blackness and colorism. It’s a pathology exacerbated in the U.S., as we move into new neighborhoods and fight for political power with communities that have held it longer than us and aren’t quite ready to give it up.
But the pendejadas that Martinez, Herrera, Cedillo and De León entertained are why too many people still don’t trust Latinos in higher office.
The latent fear that Latino politicians only care about Latinos and will screw over other groups as our population continues to grow remains too real. People can say that’s unfair, because ethnic politics has always been a part of American democracy.
But when you’re now the majority, you’re not supposed to act like those who previously oppressed you.
Martinez can complain all she wants that others kneecap Latino political power. But as this fiasco shows, we have met the enemy — and it’s always, always us.