For fear of being labeled (rightly so) an interloper who is native to northern California, it isn’t prudent for me to delve deeply into the mechanics of Mexican-American politics in L.A. However, we now see American society’s influencers – including the president of the United States – sound off on the remarks made by now-former City Council member and President Nury Martinez, two other Latinx council members who have yet to signal their own resignations, and former union president Ron Herrera.

While not wishing to call for such resignations of local politicos attempting to manipulate city districts 1,400 miles away from my own (ruby-red Republican) Dallas suburb, the remarks deserve comment from anyone who has a voice in the public sphere – and college classroom. Although their racist and ethnocentric comments on Black and Jewish people remind me of some of the crasser, beer-induced statements made on a given menudo Sunday at mi abuelita’s house, their venom directed toward Oaxacan immigrants in the community are also striking to someone who studies Mexican history for a paycheck. 

These educated people caught on the now-notorious recording demonstrate an ignorance of their own ethnic history; how native Oaxacans partly created that history, which made Mexican national identity (and by extension their own) possible.

That is not surprising, as anti-Indigenous prejudice carries over into Mexico’s present day. Martinez called the Oaxacan immigrants of Koreatown “short little dark people” on the recording first captured on Reddit. “So ugly,” she added in Spanish. We do not need to dig far into the past for similar statements in Mexico, made by Mexicans toward Indigenous Oaxacans. Yalitza Aparico, the only Indigenous woman – and native Oaxacan – ever nominated for an Oscar, for her acting role in the film “Roma” (2018) was also called “ugly” based on her Indigenousness, for example. This came from onetime telenovela star Sergio Goyri in a viral video, although he later publicly apologized. 

It was a native Oaxacan of pure Zapotec origin, Benito Juárez, who took the reins of a post-civil war Mexican state as president in 1861. He resolutely led a cross-section of guerrilla armies and their captains across that large landmass, against a 30,000-strong French military occupation – and refused asylum in the United States. His top general and fellow Oaxacan, Porfirio Díaz, of Indigenous and mestizo origin (a future authoritarian president Vladimir Putin would envy), led thousands of patriotic Mixtec and Zapotec fighters under the Mexican flag against the foreign troops who occupied their home territory. They drove the French and assorted European mercenaries out of Oaxaca in October of 1866, five months before foreign troops left Mexico for good. Juárez arrived in Mexico City as the undisputed president in the spring of 1867 – overseeing the execution of French-supported Emperor Maximilian von Hapsburg. He encountered throngs of newly nationalistic Mexicans amid jubilant cheers of “Viva Juárez!” 

Still, the legacy of Spanish colonial corporatism regarding several million Indigenous Mexicans endured (they numbered about 60 percent of 8 million people by 1900). Late nineteenth-century Mexican state-builders believed they were “savage,” unteachable in letters, and an obstacle to the nation’s aspirations to Western-style “progress” and modernity. Indigenous Mexicans needed to assimilate into the larger “mestizo” society, or “eat less chiles and more meat,” in the words of prominent intellectual Justo Sierra, who was an early architect of mestizo racial ideology in Mexico.

Today that legacy remains embedded in much of the Mexican and Mexican American populations.

My own Mexican in-laws once gave me looks of astonishment when I told them my supposedly youthful looks (in middle age) came from Indigenous genes (perhaps 50 percent). Indeed, many Mexicans of middle-class, educated backgrounds would never admit to their own Indigenous racial makeup. How sad that the phenomenon carries over into our American communities, despite the influence of the Chicano Movement and subsequent awareness of our Indigenous past and present since the 1960s.

In this current political scandal, we have four prominent Mexican-Americans in positions of influence nearly unprecedented historically, given the racist legacy of a past LA dominated by Anglo Americans. If those present did not directly insult the Oaxacans, they at the very least entertained language disparaging them. Such Oaxacan peoples are among the most culturally resilient in world history – and yet intrinsically linked to the national identities of modern Mexican people and their American counterparts. This is the historic legacy bestowed upon those officials, too.

Don’t disparage. Know them. They are you.

E. Mark Moreno is an Associate Professor of History, Texas A&M University-Commerce. He teaches about all periods and regions of Latin American history, including upper-level and graduate classes on...