In early October, the infamous audio recording from a 2021 conversation between Los Angeles City Councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, former City Council President Nury Martinez and labor leader Ron Herrera was leaked. The audio leak came one month before this year’s midterm elections, with multiple seats open for new political faces, including the mayoral position won by Karen Bass.
Having Bass as the new mayor of LA has sparked a conversation about whether she will hold the council members accountable for their actions and support honest and adequate representation in City Hall and the city’s districts.
CALÓ NEWS interviewed Latino academics about the event and what needs to be done going forward.
RIGO RODRIGUEZ, 53, SANTA ANA, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF LATINX PUBLIC POLICY AT CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, LONG BEACH, CHICANO, HE/HIM/HIS
ALEXANDRO HERNANDEZ, 41, FULLERTON, PROFESSOR OF CHICANX STUDIES AT CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, DOMINGUEZ HILLS, HE/HIM/EL
JUAN DE LAURA, PASADENA, MEXICAN-AMERICAN, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA AND DIRECTOR OF LATINX AND LATIN AMERICAN STUDIES CENTER, HE/HIM/HIS
“It’s too easy of a political campaign,” said Alexandro Hernandez, associate professor of Chicanx Studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH). “I don’t think electing Bass as Mayor of LA is something [City Hall and voters] can use to sweep everything with the audio leak under the rug and act like everything is better now. This is a conversation that we need to continue to have about racism within politics and outside of politics.” Hernandez believes that Bass’s election was not to be seen as a statement by voters that LA City Hall and City Council are not racist by having the first Black woman as mayor. Instead, Hernandez believes her win was with integrity and voters believed that she was the best candidate for the role of Mayor of LA.
The racist statements made by Martinez and her city council colleagues in the audio were directed towards the Indigenous and Black communities, specifically the Oaxacan communities. Martinez referred to the Oaxacans as “little short black people,” a stereotype often used to demean Indigenous communities. In a 2021 article, the LA Times stated that the Oaxacan community is one of the largest in LA and didn’t settle in the United States until the late 1980s.
Though many who heard the leaked audio were surprised, the communities that fell victim to the council member’s racist remarks were not surprised. “None of those things are new,” said Juan de Laura, associate professor and director of the Latinx and Latin American Studies Center at the University of Southern California (USC). “Those of us who have been doing work in these communities in Southern California have known and are familiar with the kind of sentiments that [the councilmembers] expressed towards certain groups, including the Indigenous and Black communities.”
The week after the initial leak, Martinez resigned from her position as President of the LA City Council and gave a lengthy statement followed by an apology that some may deem inauthentic. “I apologize to the people I hurt with my words,” Martinez wrote in the statement she released.
“To my colleagues and their families, especially Mike Sean and your son.”
Rigo Rodriguez, an associate professor of Latinx Public Policy at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), told CALÓ NEWS that the first step to healing should be Martinez giving “an authentic apology and resignation across the board. None of them claimed accountability for what they said.”
Many Indigenous community leaders and members did not accept the initial apology Martinez gave and demanded that the rest of those in the recording also resign from their positions on the council. “What you see is there has been a long history and a legacy of people trying to combat that brand of ethnic nationalism and racism within Southern California communities,” de Laura said.
Comunicaciones Indigenas En Liderazgo (CIELO), a non-profit organization that works with the Indigenous communities in LA, held a protest outside of City Hall on October 15 to demand the resignation of those all heard in the audio. “The comments made clear that these politicians are not thinking about us or considering us in their decision-making,” said Odilia Romero, CIELO’s co-founder and executive director, in a press release. “They don’t think about us when they decide how to distribute resources or access public spaces; they don’t consider the Indigenous populations that live in these districts.”
In June 2022, Cedillo lost his reelection bid to Eunisses Hernandez, a progressive activist who won the primary election to represent Council District 1. Hernandez was sworn into City Council on December 12.
For Rodrigo, new faces in City Hall also mean a new opportunity to build better council member leadership. “I’m hoping with Bass as Mayor and Hernandez in the City Council, they can bring in a more sophisticated understanding of structural racism and social justice,” Rodriguez said. “Bass comes from grassroots organizations, community coalitions, and racial justice. Hernandez came from a strong background in criminal justice and had a grassroots campaign.” Rodriguez hopes these backgrounds can help with the momentum of change within City Hall and the City Council.
Although sincere apologies and accountability are deserving, Rodriguez feels there is more to what needs to be done for healing to start. “What’s going to help heal the wounds that were caused is the work moving forward in the communities that stand on the values of racial justice,” Rodriguez said. “The work is for communities to continue to work on anti-racism and those prejudices that are held across almost every community.”
Hernandez said that CSUDH holds anti-racism forums so students, faculty and staff can express their concerns in a safe space. He believes a space similar to this is necessary for political places. “I think City Hall needs to hold those forums,” Hernandez said. “It would be beneficial if City Hall gave people essential reading material and read these things before they enter an anti-racism discussion.”
In schools across the LA Unified School District, most students are part of diverse communities such as Latinos, Asians and Black. Hernandez believes it is essential to educate the younger generations about racism or anti-racism practices to help build a better city. “With these different backgrounds within these schools, I think it is time to implement studies, curriculum and teach,” said Hernandez. “If Black children, Latinx children, Indigenous children [and] Asian children are young enough to experience racism, then they are young enough to start learning that racism is wrong.”
After the 1965 Watts riots, the 1992 LA riots that followed the brutal beating of Rodney King, and the 2020 George Floyd riots, it is questionable how many conversations are being held about racism if history keeps repeating itself. “There was a tremendous conversation about how South LA has changed and the demographics are changing,” said de Laura. “We need to figure out how to ensure that the growing Latino community can form positive partnerships and relationships with the established Black community in those neighborhoods in South LA and other parts of LA.”