Well, the latest scandal to hit Los Angeles has everything you would want in a telenovela. We have racism, sexism, homophobia, disdain for cross-racial adoption, potentially illegal political redistricting, and above all else, a lack of understanding of history.
Let’s take a look at our cast of characters and their actions. We have Nury Martinez, the Los Angeles City Council president who happens to be Latina, caught on tape chatting with two other city council members — Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León, as well as Los Angeles County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera — who also happen to be Latino.
Martinez was recorded disrespecting Mike Bonin, a white gay colleague, and disparaging his adopted son, who is African American.
The boy in question is called a monkey in Spanish by Martinez, and de León even accused the adopted father, Bonin, of treating the boy like a handbag.
Also up for discussion? Limiting the power of Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón. “F— that guy,” Martinez is heard saying on the tape, adding: “He’s with the Blacks.”
All three L.A. politicians and the labor union head also seem to be at odds with the way the city has been divided up with regard to redistricting.
Martinez also made disparaging remarks about Latinos who have immigrated to Los Angeles from Oaxaca, Mexico.
At no time do the other council members chastise her for her words. They seem to be OK with it. All of this was caught on tape, and all of it was released to the public. End scene.
There is a lot to unpack here, but when I first read about the remarks and the scandal, my first thought was about the idea of redistricting.
Once you size up and redistrict a community, you immediately pit neighborhood against neighborhood. They’re competing for the scarce resources they need. If it is done correctly, there can be a shared sense of ownership between the communities. If it is done incorrectly, then it can be seen as a combative competition for resources that are desperately needed.
That seems to be part of the anger Martinez had. In her mind, the Black districts were getting everything while her district was getting nothing. But then another layer was added to this already toxic issue when attacks were made on Bonin’s child.
By referring to his son as a “changuito,” Martinez went there with some serious anti-Black sentiment. She then took a left turn to call Oaxacan immigrants living in Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood “short little dark people” and wondered why they were in Koreatown.
If the goal was to enrage a cross-section of Angelenos, then well done. Martinez has resigned from her position, and a coalition of L.A. residents want to see the other council members who were complicit in the conversation go, also. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, California Governor Gavin Newsom, and the President — yes, President Joe Biden — have all weighed in on the issue.
The one other point that has yet to be discussed, however, is a lack of historical knowledge.
The Los Angeles Unified School District now has in place an Ethnic Studies requirement for all high school students. Maybe these politicians should have taken an Ethnic Studies class or two.
Yes, it’s true. There has always been tension between African Americans and Latinos in many parts of the United States, especially as it pertains to neighborhood politics. But more times than not, there have also been deep, meaningful coalitions, points of understanding, and a shared, common struggle for social justice.
Maybe it’s easy to romanticize the groundbreaking coalition work done by these two groups, but it has seemed easier just to forget about it and pretend it did not exist!
In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. Reached out to Chicano civil rights activists Corky Gonzales and Reis Lopez Tijerina in the hopes of forming a new coalition to tackle the issues concerning the war in Vietnam and the issue of poverty. King was ready to unite African Americans from the North and South as well as Chicanos from the Southwest, along with Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, and poor whites.
Despite opposition from members of the SCLC, King was ready to make Gonzales and Tijerina co-leaders in this new movement.
When Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta founded the United Farm Workers union (UFW) in 1962, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had just opened an office in Berkeley, California. Once SNCC chairman Chuck McDrew became aware of the UFW, he immediately loved what he saw. He fostered dialog and conversation between the two groups.
A relationship between the two groups quickly followed, and in no time, SNCC was training members of the UFW on non-violent resistance. SNCC also published what was happening with regard to the farm worker struggle in their newsletter and, with The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), even organized a nationwide boycott of grapes and Schenley products.
Elizabeth Martinez, a Chicana civil rights leader who worked for SNCC in their New York office, was quoted as saying, “It is necessary for Blacks and Chicanos to recognize that there is only one cause — Justice!”
And as Latino farm worker Eliseo Medina once said, “I think SNCC people were the only ones that really had any kind of concept about what to do. Particularly in things like marches and demonstrations and all those tools of the Civil Rights movement, hell, we didn’t have a clue.”
In the fight against white supremacy and injustice, we’re stronger when Black and Brown people — and everyone else — work together. For example, we must remember that former mayor Tom Bradley, the first — and, so far, only Black mayor of L.A., would never have become mayor in 1973 had it not been for a coalition of African American, Latino, Asian American, and white voters in the city.
When he was elected, Bradley made sure to create a cabinet and city hall that looked like Los Angeles and paid tribute to the city’s diverse population that helped him get elected.
These are the cultural history lessons that are forgotten that need to be remembered if we are to progress as a city and a society.
Nury Martinez has stepped down. A cross-cultural mix of Los Angeles residents wants Gil Cedillo and Kevin De León to do the same. If it happens, I hope the city can move forward and heal, and I hope these fallen politicians — as well as those who seek to serve going forward — are able to take a crash course in Ethnic Studies and look at the cultural and political connections that unify us.
It is sad that the revelations that have rocked Los Angeles had to take place during Hispanic Heritage Month. During these cultural observances, it’s easy to celebrate and look inward. But we must also look at and celebrate the ties that bind us together.