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Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the country, is home to the largest Oaxacan community outside of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. In October, Knock LA broke the story of a leaked audio recording of four powerful Los Angeles leaders conspiring to gerrymander the city and speaking disparagingly about their constituents, including Oaxacans.
The Oaxacan Community of LA
Oaxacans in Los Angeles speak many languages; there are 16 language families in Oaxaca, comprising 200 languages. With dozens of town associations, as well as churches, folkloric groups, and over 40 traditional bands, Oaxaqueños in Los Angeles celebrate their Indigenous music and community every week.
Then-City Council president Nury Martinez displayed both racism and ignorance of her city when she asked about the origins of the “short, dark people” in Koreatown, and said they were “tan feo [so ugly].” Then-councilmember Gil Cedillo chuckled and said they don’t wear shoes before the group returned to their main task: “We have to massage districts that are going to benefit you guys,” said Ron Herrera, then head of the LA County Federation of Labor.
Soon after, thousands of Angelenos from Oaxaca marched through Los Angeles, carrying signs with messages like “Fuck your Eurocentric beauty standards” and “Resign Cedillo and Kevin de León.” The mood was proud and defiant. Upon reaching City Hall, the demonstrators danced to a banda playing Oaxacan music.
Demonstrators told Knock LA about several ways Los Angeles could combat anti-Indigenous racism. Here are four demands from Oaxacan Angelenos:
1) Fully Fund a Language Access Plan that Includes Indigenous Languages
Odilia Romero, director and co-founder of Comunidades Indigenas En Liderazgo (CIELO), said she was disgusted by the councilmembers’ comments but not surprised, as she has experienced this anti-Indigenous racism in Los Angeles for decades. “This is how they treat us in restaurants, in the garment industry, wherever we go,” Romero said.
In her role at CIELO, Romero works to honor the diversity of Indigenous languages and the people who speak them, in Los Angeles and across the country. The organization released a list of demands for the city and the regional labor movement to address the racism heard in the tapes.
The city and county of Los Angeles should fully fund a language access plan inclusive of Indigenous languages, Romero said, including cultural sensitivity training and expanding language access across Los Angeles.
“It’s time to see language as a human right,” said Romero. “It’s a human right for people to understand their due process, to report a crime, support a victim, or receive care in a hospital.”
Spanish is Romero’s third language, after Zapotec and English, but she said English speakers often assume they should attempt to speak Spanish with her. That ignorance is not only personally hurtful, but when it occurs in settings like hospitals and courtrooms, it can have dire consequences.
“I’ve seen people incarcerated or put in mental institutions because other Spanish-speaking people didn’t know there are Indigenous languages in Latin America,” said Romero.
2) Create a Oaxacan Corridor
Starting around 1970, Oaxacans in Los Angeles began gathering in Normandie Park to build community and play basketball. They organized friendly tournaments of Oaxacan basketball teams and formed groups like the Organización Regional de Oaxaca (ORO), which is “dedicated to promoting and preserving Indigenous Oaxacan culture in California.”
ORO soon organized a local version of Guelaguetza, a community festival held annually in Oaxaca. Guelaguetza is a Zapotec word that some translate as “mutual aid,” but many Oaxacans describe the concept of guelaguetza as “giving without expecting anything in return.”
The route of Guelaguetza’s annual parade, called el Convite or la Calenda, runs down Pico Boulevard, from Crenshaw Boulevard to Normandie Boulevard. In its first year, a few dozen Oaxacans joined the parade. These days, it’s closer to 20,000.
For about a decade, ORO, led by Mauro Hernandez, has been pushing the city to designate those two miles as a Oaxacan Corridor — as it has with neighborhoods, such as the El Salvador Corridor and Little Armenia — to support and uplift Oaxacan cultural events and small businesses there.
That would require the cooperation of council members from CD 10 and CD 1. ORO organizers told Knock LA that then-CD-10 councilmember Herb Wesson showed enthusiasm for the project throughout the decade it has been in the making. But “Gil Cedillo gave us the runaround,” former ORO organizer Isai Pazos said. “He seemed more interested in big businesses than small businesses,” Hernandez said. “But small businesses do a lot for the community and for the economy.”
Along Pico Boulevard, there are over 70 Oaxacan restaurants and other small businesses, including stores selling materials for Oaxacan festivals. “For Día de los Muertos, a deeply rooted tradition, you can find tejocotes, sweets for the altar, and copal incense,” Hernandez said. “You can’t find all of that at big generic stores.”
Decades ago, Pazos said, it was very isolating to be Oaxacan in Los Angeles: “We don’t miss the food, tradition, culture, as we probably did 20 years ago. The beauty of 20 years is now we have everything.”
Hernandez said designating a Oaxacan corridor would honor the community and provide more opportunities for bandas and grupos folklóricos.
3) Respect Street Vendors
“All I want is for the city to leave us alone, because we do honest work,” Ines Juarez-Sernas told Knock LA. For 20 years, Juarez-Sernas has run a one-woman stand selling late-night hot dogs and snacks in Hollywood. City officials have issued her dozens of tickets, demanding tens of thousands of dollars, alleging that she is too close to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Juarez-Sernas said she receives tickets even when she is located more than the newly required 500 feet from the stars.
With the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act of 2018, the state of California decriminalized street vending but allowed cities to carve out exceptions based on “objective health, safety, or welfare concerns.”
Los Angeles then passed an ordinance banning street vending in several high-traffic areas, claiming “overcrowding on sidewalks” justified the restriction. But when the pandemic hit, the city encouraged restaurants to participate in its “Al Fresco” outdoor dining program, allowing the sidewalks to fill with tables, chairs, and restaurant diners — in locations where vending is prohibited based on allegedly dangerous overcrowding.
Last month, two street vendors and two community organizations sued the city over the no-vending zones. Hugo Soto-Martínez, whose predecessor Mitch O’Farrell drove street vendors out of Echo Park almost entirely, has said he supports repealing the ban.
Beyond tickets, street vendors sometimes face violence from customers, and from the city. Last February, several police officers beat two taco vendors — Fermin Martinez Martinez, originally of Cuatros Palos in Oaxaca, and his wife Silvia Aguilar — at their taco stand in El Monte. The assault was captured on video. As the police hit Martinez Martinez repeatedly in the head, a bystander can be heard telling the police, “You’re going to kill him!” The couple survived, but Martinez Martinez told Knock LA the police have continued to harass him and he fears for his life.
Juarez-Serna said Los Angeles should be protecting street vendors from the dangers of the street, rather than abusing and extorting them. As it is, she said, “we defend each other.” Because drunk customers can get aggressive, “I always have a broomstick by my side, always. I chase them away with my broomstick.”
4) Kevin de León Must Resign, Leaders Must Respect the Community
Romero said elected officials have a responsibility to know the communities they serve. “There are Indigenous people from all over the world in this city,” Romero said, “and you need to know that.” But the audio leak revealed city leadership’s racism and ignorance. “If you don’t know your constituents, who pays your salary, who contributes to the growth of your city, that’s tragic,” Romero said. “That shows you they shouldn’t be our elected officials.”
At the Oaxacan protest in October, Blanca Mateo, originally from San Sebastián Abasolo in central Oaxaca, beamed as she watched her community dance on the steps of City Hall.
“We bring so much to Los Angeles,” Mateo said. “We bring happiness. We bring culture. We work hard.” If politicians like Kevin de León don’t understand or respect that, she said, “they don’t deserve us.”