On Oct. 9, leaked audio recordings of a meeting at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor’s central office made major headlines because of the virulently racist comments made by local politicians. The recordings featured Nury Martinez, the sitting LA City Council President, Ron Herrera, the LA County Federation of Labor President, and Kevin De León and Gil Cedillo, two LA City Council Members. Their comments highlighted the pervasive, endemic, and violent nature of anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, homophobia, and the contradictions of capitalism.
The public condemnation was swift, with even President Joe Biden calling for the resignation of all three councilmembers. Outraged Angelenos rallied and protested at the first city council meeting after the leak. In the weeks since, there have been dozens of actions and protests calling for De León’s resignation. Martinez and Herrera both resigned from their respective posts but a wider reckoning has yet to happen.
The visceral reactions to council members’ comments go beyond personal indignation over insulting epithets and racist ideologies. Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities have not only come together to denounce these powerful individuals’ dangerous statements but have also extended their righteous rage to demand a repeal of the anti-Indigenous, anti-Black, and anti-poor policies these political representatives passed.
However, we need to recognize that their violently racist comments are rooted in centuries of white supremacist violence and the same forces that shaped the colonization of the Americas and the transatlantic slave trade. The wounds created by these processes are not unique to the U.S. The same legacies that stratify racialized and poor people also shape social relations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. While the U.S. codified its racism through the law, Latin American countries structured civil society through customary law that serves as a powerful form of racial control. As legal scholar Tanya Katerí Hernández notes, customary laws in Latin America are unwritten collective understandings that act as de facto laws and do the work of race regulation in society. “When customary law is fully integrated into a society as a matter of state practice, there is little incentive to have the customs codified,” Hernández wrote. What we have are societies where Black and Indigenous people are subjected to normalized and systemic abandonment, institutionalized neglect, and even militarized violence and criminalization. Cedillo, De León, Herrera, and Martinez are the products of a world structured by racial colonial violence.
Almost as quickly as the leaked audio went public, questions about Black and brown relations in the city resurfaced. There is a history of tension and solidarity among these two segments of Los Angeles, and in public discourse about these relationships, there is almost always a flattening and erasure of the wide range of racialized peoples that Latinidad encompasses. The brown part of the equation obscures Black and Afro-Indigenous peoples from Latin America who live in Los Angeles. The brown part also routinely fails to acknowledge the intraethnic racism that is funneled from non-Indigenous Latinx people towards Indigenous people from Latin America. It is this intraethnic racism that was so vividly on display by De León and Martinez when they described the Oaxacan communities of Koreatown as “little short dark people” and said “‘tan feos,” or “they’re ugly.” The histories of racism—rooted in colonialism, chattel slavery, and amplified by capitalism—that corral a disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous people into poverty travel alongside Latinidad.
“Latinidad” is a relatively new concept in the U.S. that has proven to be an effective marketing tool, one that has aided in the perception that “Latinos” are a powerful and diverse political bloc that politicians must target to win elections. These two developments have made Latinidad a vexed vehicle for discussing identity, power, and the idea of belonging in the U.S. Latinidad is a fraught term and ideology which renders multitudes of people, histories, and cultures under a broad and homogenous umbrella. Within this framework, Black people don’t exist, and Indigenous people are perpetually marginal and/or frozen in the past like artifacts in a living museum.
Leveraging Latinidad played a huge role in getting people like Cedillo, De León, and Martinez elected. The political power generated through a Latinidad that does not account for Black Latinx folks and that derides and objectifies Indigenous people from Latin America is one that advances a white supremacist global capitalist society. Under the rubrics of Latinidad, Black and Indigenous communities are actively erased to appeal to a broader segment of U.S. society. The power gained through political mobilization under this standard is not to threaten the unequal status quo that persists in this country, but to reinforce it. When I listened to the words spewed by these Latinx political power players, I recognized their comments animated a vacuous Latinidad reflective of racial colonial violence.
If Latinidad seeks allegiance, assimilation, and power within whiteness and white supremacy, then the dismantling of these hierarchies becomes a priority for our survival and safety. As systems of power and the politicians within them weaponize and use flattened and more palatable versions of our identity, the leaked statements also highlight how solidarity and organizing across our communities is essential to improve the material realities of marginalized people in LA and across the U.S. One does not need to be racialized as white in this country to uphold white supremacy, anti-Blackness, or anti-Indigeneity. Latinidad spends much of its time silencing, erasing, and diminishing the voices, experiences, and contributions of Black and Indigenous communities. If this was better understood, then the fact that these Mexican-American politicians trafficked in these viscerally racist tropes would not seem a contradiction. Rather, it is an affirmation that racial colonial violence is not a relic of the past but an enduring residue.
As calls for “healing” continue to reverberate across the city, so do the calls for the resignations of both Cedillo and De León. Their resignations alone wouldn’t be enough to address the simmering and ever-present foundations that continue to harm BIPOC and working-class communities. Some of those demanding resignations are other local politicians with their own lofty political dreams. Will these new rising political stars forcefully challenge police power that disproportionately targets the Black working-class and seeks to mollify political dissent in this city? I think we know the answer.
We cannot keep individualizing the problems that racial colonial violence continues to shape. If we understand that racism, sexism, and classism are systemic and institutionalized realities in this country, then those in power who do not actively contest and confront these ideologies only reinforce them. White supremacy and its incumbencies are sutured into the ways cities, states, and nations govern. It is a contradiction—and a waste of our collective time—to continue investing our energy into systems that simultaneously target and abandon racialized people. It’s ineffective to focus on individual monsters and not the monstrous institutions and ideologies that limit the lives of “the wretched of the earth,” as Frantz Fanon put it.
The words of the Black intellectual giant Aimé Césaire continue to ring true: “A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization. A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization. A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.” There’s no healing that type of civilization. The only path forward is one that has yet to be charted in the modern world. We continue to believe that we can bandage up racial violence. Unless we work to understand the ways the specters of the past give shape to the terror of the present—and organize around the principles of dignity, respect, and justice—the monsters will continue to win and we will continue to be haunted.