Black vs. Brown: The Ugly History Behind the City Council Scandal

Why are old-guard Latino politicians so angry at their African American neighbors? It goes back 40 years
219

A month ago, not many Angelenos had heard of Nury Martinez.

Today, she’s one of the most famous politicians in L.A.—and not in a good way.

Martinez, of course, is the recently resigned Latina City Council president who was caught on tape—along with fellow Latino council members Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo, as well as former Federation of Labor president Ron Herrera, also Latino—raging against Black politicians and others during a private, secretly recorded 2021 meeting that in October was anonymously leaked to the internet, triggering one of the biggest political scandals in recent city history. Although there were plenty of incriminating sound bites to go around—“What have any of them done for Latinos?” Herrera could be heard railing against African American activists—it was Martinez who scored the most ink with her colorful denunciations of councilman Mike Bonin. She referred on the tape to her white, gay, progressive colleague as a “little bitch,” calling his adopted Black child a “changuito,” or “little monkey.”

LIFE’S A BEACH Councilman Mike Bonin and family in a Facebook post from Channel Islands National Park. (PHOTO: FACEBOOK.COM/MIKEBONINCD11)

The backlash, no surprise, was frenzied and immediate. Martinez was pushed to resign. Ditto Herrera. For the moment, de León and Cedillo are still clinging to their jobs, but calls for their resignations—from no less powerful Democratic voices than President Biden and Governor Newsom—continue to grow every day. The scandal hasn’t merely scrambled L.A. politics, possibly even impacting the impending mayoral race—between an African American woman and an Italian American billionaire who has lately been suggesting that Italians are actually a sort of Latino—but it’s also trained a light on a long-simmering, historically violent racial rift that extends far beyond city limits. One that happens to be almost entirely ignored by the media.

That would be Black vs Brown.

When you peel away the headline-grabbing racial ad hominem invective being spewed in those tapes, they actually reveal an inconvenient truth behind L.A. politics. The city’s Latino population has soared to more than 50 percent in recent years, while L.A.’s African American population has dwindled to below 9 percent, less than half of what it was in the 1960s. What Martinez and the others were really talking to each other about, when they weren’t indulging in hate speech, is whether Latinos’ representation in local government has kept pace with their exploding population growth. Do Latinos have fair representation within various city departments, including—and especially—L.A.’s 15-seat City Council? Are they getting as much political oxygen as, say, L.A.’s African American residents? Or is half the city’s population still being treated as a marginalized community?

The conversations on those tapes uncork numerous simmering resentments—a belief that Latinos are indeed underrepresented; that the grievances of African Americans—specifically surrounding policing—get a lopsided amount of attention and aren’t necessarily shared by their Latino neighbors; that white progressives, who have a history of coalition building with African Americans dating back to the Tom Bradley era, have conspired to undermine Latino progress; and that the country’s current run-amok tribalism demands that everyone vote for someone who looks just like them.

TAPED CRUSADERS Councilman Kevin de León (left) and former City Council president Nury Martinez at a meeting in 2022, just before the scandal broke. (PHOTO: IRFAN KHAN/LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES)

“There’s a double standard when it comes to discussing race,” says Nilza Serrano, president of the Latino advocacy group Avance Democratic. “Most institutions see race relations as Black and white, and it often feels like people view all Latinos as foreigners. We’re an easy target because we’re quiet people. We work, go home, and spend time with our family. We don’t have the same energy that other communities have to protest. We have a severe problem of us being unseen and unheard, and we have to do better. We don’t get the resources, and it’s disappointing and frustrating. And sometimes that frustration comes out in ways that aren’t positive and constructive.”

In other words, to fully translate what’s really being said on those secret recordings of the City Council’s “little Latino caucus”—as Herrera at one point describes the meeting’s attendees—you have to first learn the vocabulary of Latino history in L.A. You have to go back some 40 years, to the sad, ugly, and often shockingly bloody origins of the Black vs Brown political  paradigm.

Richard Valdemar, a retired 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who served on the Federal Metropolitan Gang Task Force, grew up in Compton in the 1960s, when Blacks lined up after school and picked out the Latino kids to beat up. “It was a racial thing, Blacks and Hispanics sharing the same limited resources,” Valdemar says. “If you didn’t know how to fight, you were a perpetual victim. The first thing I learned was how to fight.”

Valdemar, a Mexican American, was a deputy sheriff in Compton in the 1970s and into the 1980s, when the numbers of undocumented Mexican immigrants started to grow from a trickle to a tsunami. These were years, too, when Southern California’s economy began to shift. Its heavy industries—tire, automotive, steel—left, taking well-paid union jobs with them. They were replaced by service jobs, non-union construction, and minimum-wage factory work.

The Mexicans who arrived found jobs at the bottom rungs of this new economy. Seeking the cheapest housing, many found it in Black areas—Compton, Inglewood, South-Central—just as Black gangs in those neighborhoods were emerging as a powerful new force in urban life. In time, Mexican migrants would transform those areas. But for many years, they remained outnumbered and silent.

With the power and demographic relationships so tilted in their favor, Crips and Bloods made constant victims of the newly arrived immigrants.

UNTOUCHABLE This “La Vida Loca” mural on a wall in Westlake, a tribute to L.A.’s powerful 18th Street gang, has never been painted over by taggers or the city. (PHOTO: TED SOQUI/CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES)

For many migrants in those areas, their formative experience of life in the United States was working for much higher pay than they could get in Mexico—usually paid in cash—and then being robbed of that hard-earned money by Black gangs.

“They had no protection; they became permanent victims,” said Valdemar. “Most of them wouldn’t call the police. They were constantly being beaten up. They’d be working construction jobs and get paid in cash on Friday. Crips would be waiting for them, armed to the teeth, on Fridays.”

In one Lynwood case in the early 1980s, Valdemar said, a Mexican construction worker fought off Crips trying to rob him of his pay with a shovel from his truck and the help of residents of his apartment building, most of whom were immigrants like him. Their victory lasted about 20 minutes, when carloads of Crips pulled up and opened fire on the apartments, killing a baby and wounding others. “I handled that case,” Valdemar said.

In the Florence-Firestone unincorporated area, Florencia 13 grew into one of the region’s largest Latino gangs in part because it emerged in an area where Blacks and Mexican immigrants first lived side by side and provided a refuge of protection from Crips and Bloods. “My mom was robbed five times by Blacks when I was growing up,” a member of Florencia 13, told an L.A. Times reporter years ago. A friend’s mother was shot and wounded by Black gangs, he said. 

Few politicians or police officers spoke Spanish, and Latino political power was a fraction of what it is today—in large part because so few Latinos could vote. Not only were many Mexican immigrants illegally in the country, but many also still dreamed of returning home someday.

This humiliation at the hands of their Black neighbors fostered a resentment toward Black people in general that festered for years in emerging Mexican neighborhoods.

If you didn’t know how to fight, you were a perpetual victim. The first thing I learned was how to fight.

Then, in the 1980s, a shift began in many parts of Los Angeles. Some areas, like Florence-Firestone, went from 80 percent Black to 90 percent Latino. Compton, Inglewood, Lynwood, and Black enclaves on both sides of the 110, became majority Latino.

On the streets for a time, Black and Latino gangs maintained a balance of power. They often occupied parallel universes on the same streets, focusing on rivals of their own race in other neighborhoods.

Part of this story is the emergence of the Mexican Mafia. The Mexican Mafia – known also as the “Eme” (Spanish for M) – was neither Mexican nor a mafia, properly speaking. Instead it grew from California prisons formed by Mexican-American gang members who barely spoke Spanish and with only ancestral connections to Mexico; its first members were Mexican-Americans. They controlled Latino prison inmates from Southern California, known as Surenos (Spanish for Southerners), ordering violence and regulating contraband on prison yards and the older Eme members didn’t seen any other option. 

In state prisons in the 1980s, the Eme and its Sureno soldiers went to war with Black gangs. The groups warred throughout the prison system. A new generation of young Eme members – known as the Pepsi Generation, for the business-minded desire to push mafia power to the streets and make money through it – was made during these prison wars with the Crips.

Sureno inmates had to battle Blacks whenever they could, regardless of whether they had any racial animus. In prison, Surenos began to follow an almost Jim-Crow separation—not using water fountains Blacks used, no bumming cigarettes from Blacks, nor using the same telephones or showers. 

THE GANG’S ALL HERE Members of Eme in prison. (PHOTO: FACEBOOK.COM/GANGSETS)

“In the 1980s this was not happening on the street,” Valdemar said. “But all the gang members coming into the jail system were being indoctrinated into this no-Black thing. They go back out onto the street, and those rules become a big thing.”

In some areas of Los Angeles, the first interracial gang wars erupted that reflected this. Shoreline Crips and Venice 13 faced off for years. In Compton, Fruittown Pirus and Tortilla Flats had co-existed for years but erupted in a prolonged war in the mid-1990s. Paroled inmates, meanwhile, returned to Southern California barrios and the prison ethos came with them. Uncles tutored nephews. Parolees dressed down young gang members who were allowing Blacks in their areas. 

In 1992, a long-time Mexican Mafia member from Orange County, Peter “Sana” Ojeda, held a meeting at Salvador Park in Santa Ana, bringing together dozens of warring Latino gang members. At that meeting, which was filmed and is viewable on YouTube, Ojeda ordered an end to drive-by shootings, an act that now would be punishable by death. For a time, drive-bys, the notorious symptom of L.A.’s virulent gang culture, waned.

This was covered in the media as a “peace treaty”—with the Mexican Mafia achieving what law enforcement could not. But other Eme members saw Ojeda’s edicts and realized Latino street gang members would follow their orders. That the Mexican Mafia, a prison gang, could have an influence on the streets that many of the older Eme veterans were unaware of, or unwilling to exercise.

They began holding meetings or sending emissaries to organize the street gangs, in the guise of ending drive-by shootings. In reality, a new order went out. Gang members were to begin taxing drug dealers in neighborhoods for cash that each gang then shared with the Mexican Mafia member controlling its neighborhood. This system of extortion exists today in many barrios across Southern California.

During these years, many Latino neighborhood gangs added “13” to their names—sometimes as “XIII” or “X3”—signaling their allegiance to the Mexican Mafia. (M being the 13th letter of the alphabet.)

A mug shot of Mexican Mafia boss Peter Ojeda. (PHOTO: ORANGE COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT/THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER VIA AP)

From the tax collection orders came another, roughly translated as: get rid of the Blacks. This was intended first as a business move to stifle drug-dealing competition from Black gangs who had made crack cocaine into big business. At first, Valdemar said, “they specifically targeted the 8-Trey and East Coast Crips because they controlled drug trade in South-Central and the Mexican Mafia wanted to take that from them.”

But the edict played upon those resentments prevalent in many barrios, as well as the animus developed in Mexican neighborhoods toward Blacks due to the humiliation many had endured. 

At meetings across Los Angeles, and in Hawaiian Gardens, Pomona, Ontario, San Bernardino, and many others, these orders went out. 

They were also likely intended to target Black gang members. However, in time they were interpreted by scruffy street gang members as commands to rid their areas of any Black residents at all. Many of these youths harbored little or no racist feelings towards blacks. Certainly, there was no organized racial ideology motivating any of this. But few wanted to go against wishes of the Eme, the members of which were idolized by Southern California Latino gang members, who referred to them as the “Big Homies.”

These attacks had a racist veneer, and certainly, Latino gang members needed no coaching in the language of racism. But this phenomenon was more complicated than that. It amounted to a naked power grab, born of a cold prison calculus, now that Latinos had the demographic numbers.

In some Latino neighborhoods where there were no Blacks – East Los Angles, for example – the edict had no effect. But many barrios had seen Blacks arrive fleeing the Crip-Blood violence elsewhere. In time, the edict became interpreted in some neighborhoods as an order to engage in a form of neighborhood ethnic cleansing.

From the mid-1990s until about 2009, Latino street gangs grew notorious for their attacks on Blacks. In Los Angeles County Jail, members of gangs that were perceived as being lax regarding Blacks in their areas were disrespected and sometimes beaten. 

In Pelican Bay State Prison in 2000, Surenos ignited in a massive, planned attack on Black inmates. In the Pacoima area in the mid-2000s, a “curfew” was set by Latino gangs on Blacks out after 10 p.m., according to several African-American residents of the area.

In Hawaiian Gardens, HG13 firebombed a Black family’s home and a member shot to death a well-known Black high-school football player, Mark Hammonds, while he walked on the street. In Highland Park, the Avenues gang staged a long-running campaign to rid the neighborhood of Blacks; they were eventually prosecuted, found guilty, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. 

The Big Hazard gang in the Ramona Gardens housing project grew notorious for firebombing Black families that moved into the projects through the years. 

That’s how it was for some 15 years, from Riverside to the San Fernando Valley, as Latino gangs absorbed the mafia edicts—a prison-like expression of the region’s new demographic balance of power on the streets. 

During these years, a Latino reader of the L.A. Times would email a reporter insisting that this violence wasn’t racism, but “payback” for all the abuse Mexican migrants had to endure at the hands of Black gangs. He recounted how immigrant men had to accompany their families to the store in these areas to protect them from Black gangs.

In 2004, five Azusa 13 gang members were prosecuted for, among many other things, “hunting” Blacks, in the words of one gang dropout who testified in their trial. They too were convicted and sentenced to near-life prison terms.

Numerous members of Florencia 13 were indicted, in part, on charges they led a race war between 2004 and 2007 with Crips on the streets – on orders from a Mexican Mafia member in Pelican Bay. Members of both races were shot, some were killed in Florence-Firestone during these years — though few of them were actual gang members. Most were folks going about daily life.

It was like that when Blacks held the upper hand years ago, too. “Less than 10 percent of these communities were ever gang members,” Valdemar said. Yet gang members “were responsible for 80 percent of the crime. The rest of the community was a victim.”

Perhaps the watershed case in all this, though, was the murder of Cheryl Green, a 14-year-old Black girl, in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood on December 15, 2006. The shooter, Jonathan Fajardo, 18, was a member of 204th Street, a Latino gang that had been attacking and murdering new Black residents in the neighborhood for several years by then. (Fajardo, who was himself half Black, was convicted, sentenced to death, and was stabbed to death by another inmate on San Quentin’s Death Row in 2018.)

A 2007 vigil for Cheryl Green, a 14-year-old victim of gang violence. (PHOTO: KEN HIVELY/LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Harbor Gateway is a tiny neighborhood in the strip that connects Los Angeles with the San Pedro port, and 204th Street was virtually unknown before this. But the LA Times ran a story outlining the history of racial attacks on Blacks by 204th Street. Within two weeks, a press conference — attended by FBI Director Robert Mueller, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Police Chief Bill Bratton and Sheriff Lee Baca — was held outside a tiny market the gang claimed as its territory, and which it prohibited Blacks from visiting.

Before long, federal racketeering indictments against Latino street gangs for running criminal enterprises collecting taxes for the Mexican Mafia also included allegations of race-hate-inspired campaigns against Blacks in those areas. Hundreds of Latino gang members went to federal prison behind these indictments.

By 2010, the Latino gang attacks on Blacks began to end. So, in fact, did much of the classic gang violence that plagued Southern California working-class neighborhoods for so long. Graffiti disappeared; parks gangs once dominated now grew safe for children. Gangs faded from public view in many areas, eschewing the race-hate crime that earned so many long prison sentences. They focused instead on economic crimes: drug dealing, credit card fraud, gun running, smash-and-grab jewelry robberies, pimping, and more.

The departure of so many committed gang members to federal prison gave their neighborhoods a certain room to breathe. In many areas, peace came and neighborhoods that gangs had once dominated saw property values begin to soar. Residents could unlock the value in their homes that Southern California neighborhoods always took for granted. Meanwhile, racial mixing among young people was changing a lot about Los Angeles. There was a letting down of guards, an allowance for acceptance that had always been there but had suffocated under the strictures on the street.

Then-FBI Director Robert Mueller with then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, vowing to crack down on gangs in 2007. (PHOTO: TED SOQUI/CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES )

In Los Angeles, homicides began a multi-year decline that has only reversed in the last two years, as county prosecutors moved away from gun, gang, and other sentencing enhancements to criminal cases.

In the council tape, though, it’s not hard to hear the echo of the Black/Brown relations of L.A. from decades past; of barrio resentments and prison-born edicts; of a feeling that nothing is given but must be taken; that if one side wins, the other loses; that crossing racial lines betrays one’s race.

Discussing the tape and Martinez, a lawyer prominent in Mexican-American Democratic politics—who asked to remain anonymous, given their position—spent some time analyzing the former council president’s bare-knuckle language.

The lawyer had a lot to say about the attitudes Martinez expressed—which were spoken in some Latino homes but not out in public. It reminded the lawyer of an old-school style of power politics reminiscent of years-old battles between ethnic enclaves in cities in the Northeastern U.S. In the end, the lawyer said, perhaps that was it. Perhaps when it came down to it, where Martinez was concerned, the council tape showed simply this: “She never left Pacoima.”

We’re going through a transition where identity politics have to change. Maybe the starting point is L.A.

The truth is that should an independent committee be assigned to redraw council district boundaries, Blacks likely would lose one of the three seats they have controlled since the years when their numbers were much greater. Today, fewer than 9 percent of Los Angeles is Black; close to half of the city is Latino. Yet the former still has three seats, the latter only four.

So much have the demographics changed that they may be forcing unexpected bedfellows. Some Black politicians, seeing their constituent base dwindle, may now rely for support on newly arrived young, white college graduates from out of state who’ve come to work in the creative industries, knowing little of the city but fired by far-left political ideologies forged in school and the Black Lives Matter movement. They now make up a significant gentrifying force in Highland Park, Glassell Park, Echo Park, and similar areas that were for decades were home to politically moderate, and now departing, Mexican-American families, and to Latino gangs that have faded from public view. How the politics of these new young arrivals may fit, or not with many middle-class Black voters on issues such as, say, homeless encampments, will be one of many to be answered in coming years.

Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.

This article appears in the December 2022 issue of Los Angeles magazine