A leaked recording with Los Angeles City Council members revealed them making racist remarks and trying to consolidate districts to favor certain Latino communities at the expense of others. In its wake, the incident has surfaced a discussion within Latino communities about who represents them and the power and pitfalls of identity politics.
Nury Martinez, the former president of the city council has since been forced to step down, but advocates say the incident shows there is still work to be done when it comes to Latino representation across California.
Seciah Aquino, executive director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, said despite the diversity in the state’s Latino communities, representation in politics tends to skew Mexican-American and lighter-skinned.
“Many of those positions are being held by folks who grew up in the state and they were raised here,” Aquino said. “I do think we see a bias. We are not a colorblind society, so when it comes to colorism, that is something that we are living with.”
She admitted that the controversy around the elected officials’ statements highlights a rift in the Latino community that many other communities of color experience.
“For far too long, Black and brown communities have been pitted against each other, we’ve been divided and fed that myth that for political gain, it’s at the expense of each other,” Aquino said.
Mindy Romero is the director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California. She said the LA city council controversy has brought to light two discussions — one about the effectiveness of identity politics, and another about Latino representation in politics overall.
On the one hand, Romero said that identity politics — or the idea that because someone is from a similar racial background as their constituents, they’ll look out for their best interests — isn’t everything.
“It’s not just because it's the same racial ethnic background, it's because it makes them often more likely, although not guaranteed, to share a similar life experience and to be more effective at understanding their community and advocating for their community,” Romero said. “But the political structure can disincentivize them once people get into positions of representation from actually working in the best interest of their community.”
But at the same time, she added that she has noticed that if leaders are physically reflective of the communities they serve, this can also lead to higher levels of civic engagement.
“What it can mean is maybe if you see a candidate that is of the same racial ethnic background, potential voters are going to pay more attention. And so it can pull people out that may not have paid attention to politics,” she added.
She also said that although Latinos make up a significant portion of California’s population — in Sacramento about a third of the population identifies as Latino — voter engagement tends to be much lower. For Sacramento, despite being nearly 30% of the population, only about 20% engage in elections, which can lead to less representation of Latino interests in city council and regional elections. She said with greater Latino voter engagement would naturally come greater diversity in Latino candidates.
“I think having a diversity of experiences within the Latino community is really important, especially if for no other reason, because the public, again, tends to engage with Latinos with a certain set of ideas about who Latinos are or what their needs are,” Romero said.
The National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), a national advocacy group representing Latinos in politics, has said that the council controversy has highlighted the importance of training more diverse Latino candidates to run for office in the future.
“I do think there is some soul searching going on throughout the country based on what happened in Los Angeles since Los Angeles is really such a flagship community for Latino representation,” Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO said. “And to have this situation develop has been, I think, a real disappointment across the country.”
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