LOS ANGELES — Ivan Vasquez arrived in Los Angeles in 1996, a teenager who had crossed the border to find work and improve the lot of his family in Mexico. As a newbie washing dishes in restaurants, the young man from the majority Indigenous state of Oaxaca was often called “Oaxaquita,” or Little Oaxacan, by other Mexicans because of his deep tan skin and diminutive stature.
Still, he eventually rose to become a regional manager at Baja Fresh and opened his own restaurant in 2013, a celebration of his native state’s unique cuisine. Powered by mole and mezcal, the restaurant, Madre, has won rave reviews from food critics and grown to three locations in a city that embraces multiculturalism. So Mr. Vasquez, now 41, was shocked this week to hear disparaging remarks about Oaxacans from Nury Martinez, a powerful Latina politician who was president of the City Council.
A recording of a closed-door meeting in 2021, in which Ms. Martinez was heard referring to Oaxacans as “a lot of little, short dark people” who are “so ugly,” was published over the weekend by The Los Angeles Times, creating a firestorm that has yet to subside in the country’s second-largest city. Ms. Martinez, who also made derogatory comments about Black people, resigned from the Council on Wednesday. Two other Hispanic council members who were heard in the meeting, in which they discussed ways to enhance Latino political power, are facing a cascade of calls to give up their seats as well.
“It’s painful to realize the discrimination never went away,” Mr. Vasquez said. “This is not what you expect of L.A.”
But the revelations did not feel unfamiliar to many community leaders and immigrants who have long faced discrimination in the United States at the hands of fellow Hispanic people who have carried the racist attitudes prevalent in Latin America to their new country.
“They just made public that their colonial minds have not changed,” said Odilia Romero, director and co-founder of Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo, or Indigenous Communities in Leadership.
People from native, pre-colonial communities in Latin America have frequently faced harassment in Los Angeles, a city that prides itself for being tolerant and diverse — and not just from white people.
“The assumption that if you are Latino and progressive, you don’t hold racist views, ignores the reality that racism is very deeply ingrained in Mexican and Latin American cultures,” said Gabriela Domenzain, a Mexican American who worked as a Hispanic community expert in both the Obama 2012 and O’Malley 2016 presidential campaigns.
Latin America is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse regions, and throughout its history, racial and ethnic groups have converged there — Indigenous people, white colonizers and Black people brought as slaves. Their mixing gave rise to a “browning” of Latin America, with people of different shades of skin depending on their heritage.
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Many people are now of mixed ethnicity, but people with lighter skin have remained at the top of the socioeconomic hierarchy, while those with darker skin, whether Indigenous or Black, often tend to be poorer and to be shut out of elite social and political circles.
That unofficial caste system was exported to the United States, which has its own history of racial stratification and tensions. Among Latinos, who are all considered people of color, studies have found that those who are lighter-skinned are more likely to make economic strides than their darker-skinned brethren, like Black Cubans, Indigenous Mexicans and Central Americans.
“What you get is this convergence of colonial racism from Latin America recreated in communities in the U.S.,” said Lynn Stephen, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Oregon.
Indigenous Mexicans and Central Americans typically are shorter and have darker skin than other Latinos, and their first language is often not Spanish. Prejudice against them is commonplace at workplaces in farm fields, in restaurants and even on construction sites, where subcontractors sometimes separate Indigenous crews from other Latinos on the same job to avoid conflict.
“We are regarded as dark, short people, brown people who are ugly and ignorant,” said Arcenio López, a former farmworker who is executive director of Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project, an organization that advocates for Indigenous field workers in California.
“On top of being exploited by employers, Indigenous farmworkers suffer discrimination from co-workers,” he said.
In 2012, his organization started a campaign called “No Me Llamas Oaxaquita” or “Don’t Call Me Oaxaquita,” in a bid to draw attention to, and to stop, the denigrating treatment of people from Oaxaca, a state the size of Indiana in southwestern Mexico that has become popular with tourists because of its vibrant culture, colorful markets and unspoiled beaches.
Mr. López recalled that the political campaign drew stinging criticism from some Hispanic leaders, who faulted him for highlighting differences among Latinos, rather than presenting a unified front.
So when the leaked recording of the City Council members exploded into the open, “we weren’t surprised by people like Nury Martinez making fun of us; it’s what we experienced in our own country from lighter-skinned people, and it followed us to this country.”
Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, a Oaxacan who now directs the Center for Mexican Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that too often the “tremendous diversity” of the Latino population in the United States is overlooked.
“If you say Latinos, you are lumping together Nury Martinez, Ted Cruz, everybody,” he said. Ms. Martinez is Mexican American; Mr. Cruz, the Texas senator, is the son of a Cuban immigrant. But their lived experiences are completely different, Mr. Rivera-Salgado said.
The terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” have become embedded in the American mosaic, appearing in census forms, newspapers and political polling since a law passed in 1976 began requiring federal agencies to aggregate into one group data on people who trace their ancestry to Spanish-speaking countries. The classification is based on common language, culture and heritage — not race.
People in the category are far from homogeneous: Many have roots in Mexico, while others are Puerto Ricans, Argentines, Colombians, Cubans, Spaniards, and, of course, Indigenous people.
Recognizing this heterogeneity, the Obama campaign aired campaign ads in 2012 that were tailored to particular Latino populations and their countries of origin. In Central Florida, ads targeting the Puerto Rican community featured Puerto Ricans and addressed their concerns. In Nevada, the ads featured Mexican Americans.
Latinos are anything but a unified voting bloc in U.S. elections. Young second-generation immigrants are powering the growth of progressive politics in California, while older Cuban immigrants are conservative mainstays of the Republican Party in Florida. Along the Southwest border, established Latino families have bristled at the arrival of new migrants from Central and South America and have called for more limits on unauthorized immigration.
In recent years, Los Angeles and other Southwestern cities have seen large new waves of immigrants not just from Mexico, but from Indigenous communities in Guatemala and Honduras, many of them driven from coffee farms in part by the effects of climate change.
Los Angeles is home to the largest Mexican population in the United States, and about half the city’s population is Hispanic. It is also home to the largest Oaxacan community in the country, numbering about 200,000.
Mr. Vasquez, the restaurateur, said that Oaxacans worked in the kitchens of top-rated restaurants in the city, many of them having started as dishwashers, like him. Among the children of Oaxacan immigrants there are lawyers, professors and physicians.
Members of the Latino Indigenous community in Los Angeles, some of them in traditional attire, were among the protesters outside the City Council chambers and the offices of council members this week. Thousands of Indigenous people from across California were expected to descend on Los Angeles on Saturday to participate in demonstrations.
Ron Herrera, a labor leader heard in the recorded conversation, resigned as president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor on Monday. The two other council members present, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, have so far rebuffed calls for them to step down.
The council members, as it happens, make up their own Hispanic collage: All three were born in the United States to immigrant families, Ms. Martinez’s and Mr. Cedillo’s from Mexico and Mr. De León’s from Guatemala.
For Miguel Villegas, 32, who raps in English, Spanish and Mixteco, an Indigenous language, the callous comments in the recording brought back memories of the taunting that he endured growing up in the Central Valley of California.
“Mexicans discriminated against me because I am Indigenous, and Americans discriminated against me because I am an immigrant,” he said.
The son of grape pickers who spoke only Mixteco when he came to the United States from Oaxaca as a child, Mr. Villegas sought to learn English and Spanish quickly and to hide his Indigenous roots.
Later, he reclaimed his identity, said Mr. Villegas, whose artistic name is Una Isu.
“Those comments going public just confirmed that the oppression and discrimination hasn’t ended,” he said. “I had the same feeling as when Donald Trump became president. Racism became more public and visible.”
One of his songs is called “Mixteco es un lenguaje.”
“This goes out for all those that insult all my Oaxaqueños,” the lyrics say. “Small but with hearts of warriors. Preserving our culture, we will continue to grow.”
The disparaging language used by Ms. Martinez “triggered all the microaggressions I felt from other Mexicans and Latinos throughout my life,” said Miguel Dominguez, 37, who is university-educated and was born and raised in Los Angeles to Oaxacan parents.
“Growing up, we heard a lot of belittling, derogatory terms, like “Oaxaquita” and “indio,” he said.
When there were conflicts with neighbors, slurs were often hurled at his parents, who spoke Zapotec, a Oaxacan Indigenous language, he recalled.
Mr. Dominguez is a director at a nonprofit organization in South Los Angeles called Community Coalition. The group held a gathering on Wednesday for Black and Latino residents, including Indigenous people, to air their grievances. At the end of the session, participants made a commitment to develop a collective multiracial response to the challenge.
“There is a lot being done to build bridges and solidarity that is more powerful than hateful language,” Mr. Dominguez said. “We will see that as a city, Los Angeles can move forward after this.”
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.