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Why the anti-Indigenous remarks of the L.A. City Council sparked protest

The Oaxacan community in Los Angeles is rejecting the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous views of council members

Protesters demonstrate outside City Hall on Oct. 12, calling for the resignations of L.A. City Council members Kevin de Leon and Gil Cedillo in the wake of a leaked audio recording that revealed racist comments amid a discussion about city redistricting. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Last weekend, thousands of people took to the streets of downtown Los Angeles in a march to City Hall. Called to action by a coalition of the city’s Oaxacan organizations, protesters demanded the resignation of two city council members, Gil Cedillo and Keven de León. They also made clear that Oaxacans are a central part of the vibrant, diverse city, and demanded respect for their community.

Saturday’s march was the culmination of a week of outrage and protests in Los Angeles. The leaked recordings of a 2021 conversation between three Latino city council members and a local labor leader revealed their anti-Black and anti-Indigenous views. One described the adopted African American child of another council member as “un changuito,” (little monkey) and another derided Oaxacans who live in L.A.’s Koreatown for their physical appearance. The city council president, Nury Martinez, a participant of that conversation, announced her resignation, and protesters continue to call for the two remaining council members, Cedillo and de León, to resign. In L.A., the scandal has raised questions about who is best placed to govern a city of nearly 4 million people. Nationally, it has raised questions about the limits of representational politics.

Local community leaders, such as Odilia Romero, have denounced the racist and “colonial” remarks of the elected leaders and pointed out how they form part of long-standing anti-Indigenous and anti-Black views within the Latino community. For many Oaxacans living in L.A., the comments were deeply hurtful, not only for their unabashed racism but also because many had mobilized for Martinez and the other council members in previous elections. Indeed, the leaked conversation and the public response have led to important discussions in mainstream spaces regarding the diversity and divisions within Latino communities. People have rightly pointed to the fact that racist ideas and racial hierarchies pervade the Latino community as well as our broader society.

To fully understand the outrage over the leaked conversation, and the Oaxacan community’s place in Los Angeles, we need to understand how anti-Black and anti-Indigenous ideas are prevalent on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. In particular, we need to understand the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca’s unequal incorporation into the North American economy. Oaxaca and its people have been exploited economically and cast as racially inferior on both sides of the border. But crucially they have also fought back and demanded respect for their labor and culture.

The state of Oaxaca is in southern Mexico, southeast of Mexico City, and boasts impressive mountain ranges along with a long Pacific coastline. It is not far from Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. Oaxaca was a center of pre-colonial Indigenous civilization, a source of tremendous wealth for Spanish colonialism and remains a place of Indigenous resilience and creativity. Today, there are officially 16 distinct Indigenous groups in Oaxaca. They speak a variety of languages, including Mixtec, Zapotec, Mixe and Chatino, among others. Many communities along Oaxaca’s coastline are of African descent. In a relatively small geographic region, Oaxaca houses incredible linguistic and cultural diversity.

After independence from Spain in 1821, Mexican elites celebrated pre-conquest civilizations, such as the Aztecs, as a way to distinguish themselves from their former European colonizers. Yet these elites, operating under similar racial assumptions as Europeans, continued to view the large, Indigenous population as a “problem” to be solved. Post-Independence leaders privatized Indigenous communal lands and dismissed the country’s many Indigenous languages as mere “dialects” that should be eradicated in pursuit of national unification. There were moments when Indigenous individuals and communities participated in national life, be it electoral politics or the military, but rarely could they do so as Indigenous actors. Instead, they had to shed this aspect of their identity.

In the aftermath of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, there was another shift in Mexican ideas about race. The government embraced ideas of mestizaje, or racial and cultural mixture. While Diego Rivera’s mural in the Mexican National Palace celebrated the pre-Hispanic past and the armed campesinos of the revolution, the discourse of racial mixture maintained ideas of white supremacy. If aspects of Indigenous culture were now ostensibly valued, they nonetheless were seen as a subordinate ingredient to European heritage. And while the state rhetorically celebrated Indigenous peoples, in all practical effect it erased the presence of African-descended peoples in the country (who were present since the first days of European conquest). Mexico had officially embraced a more inclusive idea of who was included in the nation, but anti-Indigenous and anti-Black ideas persisted.

In the 20th century, successive Mexican governments pursued models of economic development that favored commercial agriculture in the north and increased trade with the United States. Catering to U.S. markets was seen as key for the growth of the Mexican national economy. The central government invested in water works and infrastructure in northern Mexico that facilitated Mexican producers’ access to U.S. markets.

What this meant for southern Mexico, and Oaxaca in particular, was that while the Mexican economy grew, ordinary peoples’ lives in the south became more precarious. Small-scale, Indigenous farmers in the country’s south could not compete with large-scale commercial agriculture and found themselves increasingly dependent on a cash economy. At mid-century, Oaxacans increasingly migrated north for seasonal work. First, they migrated to Mexico City, where they labored in the industrial economy and as domestic laborers, and then further north, to the fields of Baja California and Sinaloa, states that delivered agricultural goods to U.S. markets.

Eventually, Oaxacans made their way across the border, seeking employment from southern to northern California. These migrations created an Oaxacan diaspora, a community of working-class Indigenous families that stretches across three countries. Today, the diaspora stretches from southern to northern Mexico, and from San Diego to Vancouver, B.C. In Los Angeles, upward of a quarter-million Oaxacans, many from Zapotec communities in the Oaxacan central valleys, call the city their home.

The Oaxacan diaspora toils in wealthy homes, agricultural fields and factories across North America. Some have escaped low paid work and entered professional fields. Yet many outside observers insist on equating Oaxacan poverty and indigeneity. According to them, to be Oaxacan is to be poor, whether in Mexico or in the United States. In Mexico, there are a slew of derogatory terms used to malign Oaxacans, and bigotry is often aimed at Oaxacans in prominent public roles. For instance, Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 film, “Roma,” sparked a racist backlash in Mexico, as Mexicans were unaccustomed to seeing an Indigenous woman protagonist in a major film. The actor who played the lead role, Yalitza Aparicio, herself from the highlands of Oaxaca, navigated the racist backlash with grace and dignity.

But the reaction to “Roma” also spoke to Oaxacans’ increasing cultural presence on both sides of the border. The problem of racism and colorism has become a dinner-table topic among Mexican families in recent years. Oaxacan social movements in the early 2000s, struggling against persistent political authoritarianism and economic inequality, emphasized their Indigenous character in mass mobilizations. And Oaxacans living in the diaspora have increasingly embraced and celebrated their indigeneity as a point of pride. Many living in the United States have made connections with Native nations who have similarly been cast as part of the past and inferior.

We would do well to understand the outrage at the L.A. City Council members’ comments as part of the increasing power and recognition of Indigenous communities in the Americas. The scandal also underlines the limitations of representational politics, Latino or otherwise, and how communities are often riven by inequalities of class and race. Oaxacans demand respect on both sides of the border, an imposition created by competing colonial states.