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The Afro-Latino roots of L.A. is a history we should all know in light of racist comments from Latino leaders

The Afro-Latino roots of L.A. is a history we should all know in light of racist comments from Latino leaders

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When recorded conversations between four of Los Angeles’s most prominent Latino political leaders—now-resigned 6th District Councilmember Nury Martinez, 14th District Council Member Kevin De Leon, 1st District Councilmember Gil Cedillo, and L.A. Labor Federation President Ron Herrera—were leaked, uncovering a barrage of racist comments and open discussion of gerrymandering, the story rightfully took a spot on the news cycle across the world.

One of Martinez’s most perturbing quotes came when she discussed the rich Oaxacan community found in Koreatown: “I see a lot of little short dark people. I was like, ‘I don’t know where these people are from, I don’t know what village they came, how they got here,'” while laughing. She then refers tot hem as “tan feos” or “they’re ugly” in English.

“The [racism expressed by those Los Angeles leaders] didn’t surprise me at all… Of course the racism we experience [in Mexico] is exported to immigrant communities in the United States.” -José Antonio Aguilar of Racismo MX

Drawing condemnation from President Joe Biden himself, the conversation has also drawn the ire from multiple Latino communities—including Mexico, which is having a reconciliation of its own regarding its racist history: Dismantling the foundational myth that there is only “one singular Mexican” of two bloods, that of half-Indigenous and half-Spanish, is much more difficult than simply wishing it away.

This mestizo myth, put forward by Mexican officials and leaders for nearly a century through its educational and civic engagement, has made “racism” itself a word that is both taboo and dismissed as “not existing” despite clear distinctions between the privileges and treatment between lighter skinned Mexicans and darker toned Mexicans.

Diorama of Los Angeles, 1781. Courtesy of LACMA.

And those with roots in African and Indigenous heritage in Mexico are not shocked at the behavior and comments from Latinos further north—after all, it wasn’t until 2020 that the Mexican government even included a question about Black ancestry, with 2.5 million Mexicans officially identifying at Afro-Mexican.

“If your whole life you’ve been told that we are all equal, that we’re all brothers, half-Indigenous and half-Spanish, you can’t really question how you’re treated [despite myself identifying as Afro-Mexican],” Julian Gastellou told the Los Angeles Times in an interview examining the country’s reckoning with race. “So first, we have to educate.”

Pío de Jesús Pico, the last governor of Alta California under Mexican rule, and his family. Photo courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research/Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History.

That same spirit should also be extended to Los Angeles and Southern California, where it has been largely forgotten that the first non-Indigenous people to arrive in Los Angeles and founding the city were the Los Pobladores, a group of Mexican vagabonds in which the majority were of Black descent.

“Juan Francisco Reyes, a mulatto soldier from Zapotlán el Grande in Jalisco, was one of the first to arrive after the city’s settlement in 1781,” wrote Alta Stevenson, a program coordinator from UCLA. “He was both the first Black and the first Hispanic alcalde—orr mayor—of Los Angeles from 1793 to 1795.”

Spanish Captain Juan Bautista de Anza.

And he wasn’t the only to rise to prominence: Pío de Jesús Pico, also Afro-Mexican, was one of the first governors of the larger area surrounding what is now Los Angeles, called Alta California at the time; he served twice.

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Reyes and Pico were not part of one but 11 families consisting of 44 non-natives that settled on what they would describe as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles. These families, all related to the influx of African blood after the Spanish colonizers proclaimed Mexico as “New Spain,” became one of the most influential aspects of the creation of major cities in California, including L.A., San Diego, and San Jose.

The Reyes family. Courtesy of UCLA.

So how did this all come to be, a set of Afro-Mexican families leading a colonizing expedition north from Mexico toward California? The short answer: The Anza Expedition.

In 1774, Spanish Captain Juan Bautista de Anza led an expedition—with the assistance of Native Americans, it should be noted—that opened up trade between California and the northern part of Mexican state Sonora. Shortly after, he returned to Mexico City to return with 10 other families attached. Of the 44 members of this final trek back to what would become Los Angeles, at 26 were of Black descent.

While much larger, more complex conversations and questions arise—including how that very Spanish-led colonization of California and the subsequent “purchase” or rightfully dubbed stealing of Mexico’s land in what is now the Southwest U.S. affected Native American power and populations and Mexican ownership and pride—the fact should not be lost that the intersection of the very populations dismissed by these disgraced Los Angeles leaders are what created the very ground they were able to garner power from.

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