Secretly Recorded Racist Comments by Public Officials Are a Setback for Latinos
Latino political “leaders” have created a tsunami of controversy and social chingasos with their racist, homophobic rants that were revealed in a secretly recorded conversation that was made public by the Los Angeles Times and other news outlets. Three members of the L.A. City Council and a prominent labor leader (who has since resigned his gig) were participants in a distressing back-and-forth that included characterizations of an African American toddler as a “changuito,” of a gay colleague as “a little bitch” and indigenous Oaxaqueños in L.A. neighborhoods as diminutive oddballs who are “tan feos.”
The outrage from all quarters of the political spectrum—in L.A. and throughout much of the entire country—has been so loud it’s deafening. Understandably so. What concerns me, among other things, is the lack of trust in Latino leadership that this will inevitably cause. I was born in L.A. and I’ve lived here most of my life. As a reporter in this city for 25 years I often covered the activities and intricacies of City Hall. There were some wacky goings on from time to time. But nothing like this. This is the most outrageous, scandalous pendejada I’ve ever seen—not only the revelations of the meeting but the gigantic, angry response from the public.
It was an informal, clubby meeting including Council President Nury Martinez, Council members Gil Cedillo and Kevin De Leon. (Martinez quickly resigned her position as President and a few days later resigned from the council itself.) There were loud calls for her to do so. People are shouting: Off with their heads! Understandably so. Things are seemingly changing minute by minute.
We know what they said because of a surreptitious recording that was leaked by someone who monitored the meeting. So far, we don’t know who or why. That’s a separate and intriguing story. Let’s try to keep score of what vile things were said at the meeting that was held at the offices of the Los Angeles County Federation of labor, a longstanding force for generally reasonable strategic political activism. Latinos represent more than a quarter of the population of L.A., yet their representation in the halls of power is anemic by comparison. Ostensibly, the closed-door meeting was to strategize maneuvering surrounding the redistricting of city council seats. Here are among the reprehensible slurs that were uttered and were unchallenged by those who were present:
Racist comments about African Americans.
Disrespectful references to Armenian Americans.
Casually disrespectful mean-spired allusions to Jewish Americans.
Lame derogatory comments about gays.
Oh, and to top it off, racist references to indigenous folks, specifically people who came to Los Angeles from the state of Oaxaca. “Tan feos,” says Martinez, a child of Mexican immigrants from the state of Zacatecas. Yeah, they all apologized. But that’s like saying, “Hey, I’m sorry I sound like a racist, intolerant asshole; let’s move on.”
Not so fast.
The Big Time repercussions will still be coming in the days ahead. These foolish folks should all resign their gigs at City Hall, if they haven’t already. But that won’t end this disastrous chapter. The overall Latino community will pay a prize, politically and otherwise for a long time to come. Who’s gonna trust us?
As a Chicano whose adulthood chronologically coincides with the birth and ascendance of the Chicano Movement I just have to say that the biggest emotion I feel is grave disappointment. It’s also a betrayal. Disappointment in Chicano/Latino public figures who are supposed to be looking out for the best interests of la raza, but beyond that, men and women who should be emblematic of a broad concern for the good of humanity in general. We shouldn’t take on the attitudes of the oppressor we have long railed against
Political strategies in the trenches are one thing, but an ugly disrespect for the experiences of others in the pursuit of raw political gain is something else entirely. It has to be condemned.
During the turbulent, dynamic days of the 1960s and 1970s we strived for improvements in our collective lives. Better healthcare. Better education. Better living conditions. Protection against oppression by police and all manner of authority. An appreciation of our agency by society. One way to do that, we thought, was to work diligently to insinuate ourselves into the political system. Hell, that’s where decisions were made. “We need more Chicanos and Chicanas who understand our frame of reference, who care about our well-being and who exemplify a moral concern for humanity.” That didn’t fit on a protest placard. But that’s what we shouted for. That’s what we worked for.
In 1968, for example, there were no Mexican Americans on the L.A. City Council. There were no Mexican Americans on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. There was a handful of Latinos in the California legislature. And the pattern was similar throughout the American Southwest. Numerically, things have changed over the years. There are more of us in presumed positions of power. A lot of positive stuff has been derived from that. But what have been the negative consequences? It seems some “leaders” have lost their way. I can’t help but think of the clichés about the corrupting seduction of power. In the case of these L.A. council members, they seem to have lost a chunk of their humanity in the pursuit of political enfranchisement and personal political aggrandizement. How else do you explain the use of such racist, homophobic tropes?
Disappointment. That’s what I feel as a Chicano who was distilled in the cauldron of the Chicano Movement. All the work of countless working-class men and women. All the effort to change societal attitudes about us—and our capabilities. All the efforts—subtle and forceful—to get Chicanos into politics and into decision-making positions in order to do good work. All that, for this kind of thing to help derail the progress that’s been made. Que pinche lástima. The harm these Latino politicians have done! Let’s hope it’s not irreparable. I don’t know.
For generations all of us Chicanos know–whatever we look like, whatever we do for a living—we are always seen as a representative of all of us. When we’re in public, it doesn’t matter where, we know (consciously and subconsciously) that “they” are looking at us as representatives of the rest of them. It’s undeniable. I have had conversations with African American colleagues about this kind of thing, and they nod their heads in agreement; it applies to them perhaps in greater intensity than it does for Latinos. (Hey, I have friends who are black AND Latino.) But the point is, when you screw up, it affects us all. And this latest screw up, involving men and women high up on the good chain, is a calamity.
The gacho thing is – it’s gonna take a long time and a lot of effort for the Latino community to recover from this outrageous, despicable episode.
Copyright 2022 by Luis R. Torres. Luis Torres is a veteran journalist and editor. To contact Luis Torres write: Luis.firstname.lastname@example.org Photo of Nury Martinez by Solagil1126 used under Creative Commons license notification. All other photos in the public domain.