Michelle Vasquez Ruiz felt a rush of adrenaline when she first heard audio of former City Council President Nury Martinez disparaging Indigenous people from the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Martinez, in conversation with City Councilmembers Kevin de Leon and Gil Cedillo, and LA Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera, described Oaxacans as “tan feos,” or “so ugly.” Vasquez Ruiz is among the estimated 200,000 Zapotec Indigenous people from Oaxaca living in LA.
“She called the Oaxacan community ugly, but it was personal,” says Vasquez Ruiz, a PhD candidate at USC who studies Oaxacans in Los Angeles. “She called me ugly. And it was just a fight or flight response. I was angry. I felt my blood all of a sudden just boil.”
In discussions with a dozen Oaxacans in LA, many said they had similar reactions.
“At the end of the day, we're just short little dark people to them,” says Zapotec Honduran Jess Z, who asked KCRW not to use their full last name because of sensitivity at their job. “We’re not valid constituents or people that they would want to serve. It seemed like we were people just to ridicule.”
“It really is devastating and hurtful because we have establish[ed] California to also be known as Oaxacalifornia, because we're so proud to be here,” adds Zapotec American Danny Hernandez.
As a Oaxacan American myself, I too got angry and sad, and felt protective of my grandparents, Baltazar and Sara Rios, who are Indigenous Zapotec immigrants from Oaxaca.
Another typical reaction from LA Oaxacans? Memories of being bullied at school.
Vasquez Ruiz recounts a time in middle school when someone she considered to be her best friend made an issue of her identity. “Somebody asked me in front of them, ‘Where are your parents from?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my parents are from Oaxaca.’ … And my supposed best friend pulled me aside and they were like, ‘Why are you telling people that you're from Oaxaca? Don't tell people that. That's so embarrassing.’ … And I didn't say anything after the fact, but it just stuck with me forever, and I was like, ‘It's embarrassing to be from Oaxaca? It’s embarrassing to be me?’”
Hugo Tomas, a first-generation Zapotec American, describes being bullied in middle school at Camino Nuevo Charter Academy near MacArthur Park as the worst three years of his life.
“They would always call me like Oaxaco or Oaxaquito or Indio,” Tomas recalls. “They were just randomly slurred out, and it was specifically the white Hispanics [using racial slurs].”
That kind of anti-Indigenous sentiment within the Latino community is due for a reckoning, says Gaspar Rivera Salgado, Oaxacan director of the Center for Mexican Studies at UCLA.
“We have a lot of work to do regarding very racist ideologies and concepts that we use in our everyday speech,” says Salgado. “It would seem that these four Latinos were having a good time. They were laughing about how short and how ridiculous, in their point of view, these Oaxacans are. They seem to believe a caricature of indigeneity and Indigenous people, and I think that, to me, is more concerning that it comes from powerful people.”
The racism stung, but some Oaxacans described another reaction as well: ethnic pride.
“There's a reason why I’m just so happy to be Oaxacan,” Vasquez Ruiz says, beaming. “I mean … we have mole, we have tlayudas, we have chapulines, we have amazing, amazing food. We have amazing music, amazing textiles and culture and color. … But I think outside of just culture, these tangible materials, I think it's our way of living … you get to grow up in a network of love.”
Vasquez Ruiz and many others want to see LA City government make a bigger effort to connect with the Oaxacan community by providing language interpretation, social services, and physical/mental health care.
Special thanks to the Oaxacan Angelenos who spoke to us for this project: Ezequias Guzmán, Odilia Romero, Gaspar Rivera Salgado, Michelle Vasquez Ruiz, Hugo Tomas, Maricela Bautista, Harvin Diego, Baltazar Rios, Sara Rios, Rosalinda Meza, Fernando Garcia Cruz, Danny Hernandez, and Jess Z.