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Hey, Nury, Kevin and Gil: My Spanish is as good as yours

When I first heard a secretly recorded conversation among four of L.A.’s most powerful politicos that captured them uttering all sorts of racist and conspiratorial nonsense, very little of it surprised me.

The voices — then-Los Angeles City Councilmember Nury Martinez, then-Councilmember Gil Cedillo, Councilmember Kevin de León, and then-Los Angeles County Federation of Labor head Ron Herrera — were familiar. The cavalier anti-Blackness and jokes about Oaxacans sounded like some of my male cousins when they’re six Michelob Ultras into a carne asada Sunday. The whines about Black L.A. having more political representation than it deserved, at the expense of Latino L.A., are the same cants I hear from too many Latinos who should know better.

But what was most familiar to me was the way they expressed all of the above: in Spanglish.

Like some of the people on that tape, my first language was Spanish. Now I’m bilingual and mostly use English, though Spanish inevitably seeps into my daily speech, mostly as filler words. Among non-Spanish-speaking people, I’ll only consciously use Spanish if there’s a word that doesn’t translate well, or to make a point. When I’m around people with the same linguistic background, Spanish signifies, “Hey, I’m about to get real right now,” and what I then say is considered weightier than if I had said it in English.

So I immediately recognized how Cedillo, De León, Herrera and Martinez weaponized Spanglish on the tape. I was listening to it last October, zeroing in on the sometimes ugly Spanish phrases as my colleagues and I prepared to break the story that would upend Los Angeles politics.

A year later, Los Angeles is still dealing with the aftermath — in part because Cedillo, De León and Martinez are on a comeback-cum-whitewash-tour no one asked for.

Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León

Then-L.A. Councilmember Gil Cedillo, left, and Councilmember Kevin de León attend the Oct. 11, 2022, City Council meeting, not long after the leak of the racist audio recording.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Cedillo is suing the L.A. County Federation of Labor and two of its former employees, alleging invasion of privacy and negligence and saying the release of the audio caused him to lose income and job offers. De León, who is running for reelection, filed a similar lawsuit with only the two former employees as defendants.

In an interview with my colleagues Brittny Mejia and David Zahniser, De León characterized his comments on the tape — ridiculing Black political power in L.A. and comparing then-Councilmember Mike Bonin’s son to a luxury handbag — as “inartful.”

Martinez, meanwhile, is the star of a new four-part podcast by LAist Studios that allows her to tell her side of the story, but not without constant pushback from host Antonia Cereijido.

The truculent trio are all using the same tired bingo card of victimization politics that Donald Trump keeps in his breast pocket. But they’re also employing a novel tactic to argue that it wasn’t them who did any wrong — it was people like me.

Both De León and Cedillo’s lawsuits contain the same passage, word-for-word, alleging that the Spanglish comments on the tape “were taken out of context or were improperly interpreted from Spanish slang to English by those who did not have a full understanding of the meaning let alone context of the term.”

Here’s a Spanish phrase you can’t take out of context, Kevin and Gil: pobrecitos.

You poor, pathetic guys.

By my rough estimate, español made up no more than 5% of the City Hall leak, and most of it came from Martinez. She used filler words and phrases, like quien sabe que tanto (who knows how much) and que (that). She employed Spanish to compliment Cedillo’s love for his daughter — ’tas loco con esta niña (You’re crazy for that girl). She delivered a particularly apt blow against former USC gynecologist George Tyndall, who recently died while awaiting trial on sex crime charges, by describing him as a cochino. This literally means “pig” but carried the implication of “creeper,” the way she used it.

When the conversation turned to Bonin, the Spanglish gloves came on. Martinez despised her former colleague and thus had no qualms about trashing his Black son if that meant scoring points during a private conversation. That’s why she described the young boy as a changuito — little monkey — and a negrito, which translates as “little Black male” but has the connotation of “darky.” It’s also why Martinez trotted out the word judios when claiming Jewish politicians were working with Black politicians to screw over Latinos, when she could’ve just said their names.

“The way I grew up with that word, ‘parece changuito,it has nothing to do with skin color,” Martinez insisted on the LAist Studios podcast. “It has more to do with behavior. You’re sort of just playing around.” She did admit that uttering it “was insensitive. It was mean,” while laying the blame on her immigrant background — she was born in the U.S. to parents from the Mexican state of Zacatecas.

“I think in Spanish, then I speak in English,” Martinez told LAist. “And so my vocabulary comes from me being an English learner. And I think for me, those words [I uttered] are not meant to hurt anybody, or to sound racist at all. I think it’s just words that I grew up with.”

Hey, Nury: my parents were born in Zacatecas, too. I learned English, too. But I sure as hell don’t blame my upbringing whenever I mess up. As we say back in the rancho when someone tries too hard, “le echaste mucha crema a tus taco” — you put too much cream on your tacos.

Kevin de León and Nury Martinez

L.A. Councilmember Kevin de León and then-Council President Nury Martinez confer at a meeting on Oct. 4, 2022. Five days later, a leaked conversation involving them, then-Councilmember Gil Cedillo, and then-L.A. County Federation of Labor President Ron Herrera would upend L.A. politics.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

While the ex-council president was by far the worst Spanglish offender, others employed it to insult as well. Cedillo mockingly referred to L.A. Councilmember Nithya Raman as Martinez’s comadre — female pal — to rile up Martinez. De León described former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as a viejita — a little old lady, also using the term for Marilyn Flynn, the former dean of USC’s School of Social Work.

When everyone in the room ridiculed Oaxacans in Koreatown, with Cedillo calling them “little ones,” Herrera said his mother used to refer to them as indios — literally “Indians” but carrying the same sentiment among Mexicans as the Old West slur “Injun.”

Cedillo, who lost his City Council reelection bid months before the tape leak, gave a rambling interview earlier this week to La Opinión, blaming the Democratic Socialists of America, Black political leaders, this newspaper, cancel culture — basically everyone but himself — for his supposed pariah status.

“Our community doesn’t care about what was said [on the tape] because they understand Spanish, our culture, and they know the history,” he said in the interview.

Who needs the Santa Anas when you’ve got all this ceaseless, annoying hot air?

That Cedillo, De León and Martinez claim they’re victims of a witch hunt fueled by people who don’t understand the nuances of Spanish is not only weak salsa posturing, it’s self-hatred at its most laughable. They’re trying to tap into generations of loathing that jingoistic Mexicans have felt toward Mexican Americans for supposedly not speaking Spanish well, or at all. They’re trying to paint people like me, who look askance at Latinos who utter the type of bigoted mierda (crap) that they did, as vendidos (sellouts) who are not “real” Latinos and thus can’t be trusted.

If the three ever talk to me, I’d tell them straight up: No manchen — literally, “don’t stain” in Mexico City Spanish and figuratively, “Give me a break.”

Since they’re so insistent on letting the world know they’re the true custodians of Cervantes, I’ll follow in their spirit and repeat here some nuanced Mexican Spanish words and phrases that are apropos to all this desmadre (mess).

The three of them se pasan — go beyond the pale of respectability.

Se hacen. They put on airs.

They are sinvergüenzas — a wonderful noun that translates as “withoutshames” — people with no shame.

Finally, I don’t need to translate the phrase vaya con Diós, which long ago entered the SoCal lexicon as a way to bid farewell. So here’s another parting phrase, one that many Angelenos have learned because of y’all: Fuera.

Get the hell outta here.

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