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Racist remarks: Hurt, betrayal among LA’s Indigenous people

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FILE - Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez addresses a press conference held at Dodger Stadium on Jan. 15, 2021, in Los Angeles. The president of the Los Angeles City Council resigned from the post Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, after she was heard making racist comments and other coarse remarks in a leaked recording of a conversation with other Latino leaders. Council President Nury Martinez issued an apology and expressed shame. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Bricia Lopez has welcomed people of all walks to dine at her family’s popular restaurant on the Indigenous-influenced food of her native Mexican state of Oaxaca — among them Nury Martinez, the first Latina elected president of the Los Angeles City Council.

The restaurant, Guelaguetza, has become an institution known for introducing Oaxaca’s unique cuisine and culture to Angelenos, attracting everyone from immigrant families to Mexican stars to powerful city officials such as Martinez.

But now after a scandal exploded over a recording of Martinez making racist remarks about Oaxacans such as Lopez, the 37-year-old restaurateur and cookbook author said she feels a tremendous sense of betrayal.

Martinez resigned from her council seat Wednesday and offered her apologies. But the disparaging remarks still deeply hurt the city’s immigrants from Oaxaca, which has one of Mexico’s large indigenous populations. Sadly, many said, they are not surprised. Both growing up in their homeland and after reaching the U.S., they say they’ve become accustomed to hearing such stinging comments — not only from non-Latinos but from lighter skinned Mexican immigrants and their descendants.

Following Martinez’ departure, two other Latino City Council members also are facing widespread calls to resign since the year-old recording surfaced of them mocking colleagues while scheming to protect Latino political strength in council districts. Martinez used a disparaging term for the Black son of a white council member and called immigrants from Oaxaca ugly.

“I see a lot of little short dark people,” Martinez said on the recording, referring to an area of the largely Hispanic Koreatown neighborhood. “I was like, I don’t know where these people are from, I don’t know what village they came (from), how they got here.”

Lopez said she heard such racist comments growing up in California but had hoped they would be a thing of the past and that young Oaxacan immigrants would not have to hear them.

“I want people to look at themselves in the mirror every day and see the beauty,” she said.

Oaxaca has more than a dozen ethnicities, including Mixtecos and Zapotecs. The southern Mexican state is known for famously hand-dyed woven rugs, pristine Pacific tourist beaches, a smoky alcohol called Mezcal and sophisticated cuisine including moles — thick sauces crafted from more than two dozen ingredients.

Los Angeles is home to the country’s largest Mexican population and nearly half the city of 4 million people is Latino, census figures show. Informal studies indicate that several hundred thousand Oaxacan immigrants live in California, with the largest concentration in Los Angeles, said Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, director of the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Mexican Studies.

Demeaning language is often used against Mexico’s Indigenous people. It is“the legacy of the colonial period,” Rivera-Salgado said of Spanish rule long ago.

Racism, and colorism — discrimination against darker-skinned people within the same ethnic group — run centuries deep in Mexico and other neighboring Latin American countries. A few years ago, Yalitza Aparicio, the Oscar-nominated actress in “Roma” who is from Oaxaca, faced racist comments in her country and derogatory tirades online over her Indigenous features after she appeared on the cover of Vogue México.

Odilia Romero said the scandal doesn’t surprise her. The Oaxacan community leader is among many who had been pressing for the resignation of Martinez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, and the two other councilmembers on the recorded conversation.

Romero said she’s also fielded calls since the scandal broke, including from someone urging her not to let the hurtful remarks distract from critical working aiding the immigrant community.

“That is a very paternalist comment,” said Romero, executive director of the group Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo or CIELO and a Zapotec interpreter. “How dare you tell us Indigenous people that we are not understanding. Of course we understand — we see this every day.”

Lynn Stephen, an anthropology professor at University of Oregon who researches Mexican migration and Indigenous peoples, said the concept of mestizaje — or being a mixed-race and non-racial unified nation — intended to erase Indigenous communities, not uplift them, and the discrimination persists to this day. It is carried to the United States with those who migrate, she said, while similar divisions also exist in other Latin American countries.

“These kinds of comments directed toward Indigenous people from non-Indigenous people from Mexico, Guatemala, etc., it’s a different kind of layer of racism,” Stephen said. “Folks from Oaxaca they have to contend with anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican backlash and racism often from non-Latino Americans, white Americans, sometimes other folks, and then within that, often where they’re living or in school.”

Ofelia Platon, a tenant organizer, went to the Los Angeles city council chambers recently to demand the officials step down. She said she hasn’t experienced discrimination from within the Latino community as much as from outside it, but there’s no place for such — especially coming from elected leaders the poor count on to help improve their lives.

“They think they have the power to step on people,” she said. “They’re two-faced.”

It’s not just the hurtful remarks that sting Xóchitl M. Flores-Marcial, a Zapotec scholar and professor of Chicana/o Studies at California State University, Northridge. She called it very telling about the officials who make decisions affecting her community. She said she grew up in the United States hearing hurtful words and still faces similar rejection whenever she travels to Oaxaca and people there are surprised she’s the research team leader.

“It’s so painful because those are consequential people,” she said. “This is hurting us — not just our emotions, but our actual life in terms of our jobs and our opportunities.”

Still she said she has hope for future generations in “Oaxacalifornia” — the tight-knit community that has maintained traditions while embracing life in Los Angeles.

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Pence: ‘Mistakes were made’ in classified records handling

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MIAMI (AP) — Former Vice President Mike Pence said Friday that he takes “full responsibility” after classified documents were found at his Indiana home.

In his first public comments since the discovery, Pence said he hadn’t been aware that the documents were in his residence but acknowledged his lack of awareness wasn’t an excuse.

“Let me be clear: Those classified documents should not have been in my personal residence,” Pence said at Florida International University, where he was talking about the economy and promoting his new book, “So Help Me God.” “Mistakes were made, and I take full responsibility.”

The discovery made public by Pence’s team earlier this week marked the latest in a string of recoveries of sensitive papers from the homes of current and former top U.S. officials. The Department of Justice was already investigating the discovery of classified documents in former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and at President Joe Biden’s home in Delaware and his former Washington office.

Pence’s public acceptance of responsibility over his handling of the documents marks a departure from the reactions of both Trump, his former boss, and Biden in their own cases. Trump denounced the search of Mar-a-Lago as “one of the most shocking abuses of power by any administration in American history” and suggested without evidence that investigators may have planted the documents. Biden has said he was surprised to learn the documents had been found but had “no regrets” about how the public was informed.

The discovery of documents at Pence’s home came five months after he told The Associated Press that he did not take classified records with him when he left the vice presidency. “No, not to my knowledge,” he said when asked if he had retained any such information.

The comment — which would typically be unremarkable for a former vice president — was notable at the time given that FBI agents had seized classified and top secret information from Trump’s Florida estate on Aug. 8 while investigating potential violations of three different federal laws. Trump claimed that the documents seized by agents were “all declassified.”

Pence said he decided to undertake the search of his home “out of an abundance of caution” after recent disclosures by Biden’s team that documents were found at his former office and in his Delaware home.

He said he had directed his counsel to work with the National Archives, Department of Justice and Congress and fully cooperate in any investigation.

The former vice president said national security depends on the proper handling of classified documents, but he hopes that people realize that he acted swiftly to correct the error.

“We acted above politics and put national interests first,” he said.

Pence, who remains estranged from Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, is considering a 2024 White House challenge to his former boss, who announced his campaign in November. Biden has said he intends to seek reelection in 2024, though he has yet to officially kick off his campaign.

Referring to a possible White House bid, Pence said he has been reflecting on the challenges the nation has. He said many accomplishments have been “dismantled” by the Biden administration, highlighting problems with immigration and the economy.

“We are giving powerful considerations on what might be next for us,” he said. “I am going to continue to travel all across this country. I am going to continue to listen and to reflect.”

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Michigan Democrats pass over $1 billion in spending

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan Legislature will set aside $200 million dollars out of its about $1 billion in spending for a paper mill in the Upper Peninsula, while also setting aside more money for the state’s economic development fund.

The spending legislation, which was passed late Thursday night by the newly Democrat-controlled Legislature, includes a $946 million spending plan and an additional $146 million to close out last year’s budget, bringing the total spending to nearly $1.1 billion.

Nearly $200 million in grant funding will be set aside for upgrades at the Escanaba Mill, located in the Upper Peninsula and operated by Swedish paper producer Billerud. The company is looking to begin making a more technologically advanced paper product that will be used as packaging for pharmaceuticals and healthcare, cosmetics and drinks.

The funding for the Escanaba Mill comes after the Michigan Strategic Fund approved a 15-year tax break last month to support Billerud’s planned project at the paper mill, which is expected to bring in nearly $1 billion in investments from the Swedish company and retain at least 1,240 jobs in the region.

The passage of the supplemental budget Thursday came one day after Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivered a State of the State speech that focused heavily on economic development and keeping jobs in the state.

Rep. Jenn Hill of Marquette called the paper mill project a “generational investment” and said that after the Lower Peninsula received multiple economic development projects last year, it was time for the Upper Peninsula “to have a turn.”

“The governor talked last night about providing young people with a reason to stay in Michigan. A big part of that is economic opportunity,” said Hill. “Let’s invest in the Upper Peninsula and the future of green manufacturing in our state.”

The bill also gives an additional $150 million for Michigan’s Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve, which brings the total remaining balance of the fund to $890 million.

Republicans criticized the late-night spending bill as being rushed and secretive. Rep. Mike Harris of Clarkston said that Democrats planned the bill “behind closed doors” and “waited until the last minute to make this public.”

“Democrats are starting their new majority by shoving an enormous, secret spending bill down the throats of the people of Michigan,” House Republican Leader Matt Hall said in a statement. “They gave the public and their elected representatives virtually no time to read the ridiculously over-stuffed plan before the vote.”

During December’s lame duck session, talks between Whitmer and the Republican-led Legislature stalled before any supplemental budget could be passed. Democrats took full control of both chambers this year and a budget surplus that was projected to grow to over $9 billion by fall.

The Democratic-led Legislature also worked Thursday to pass tax relief that includes increasing the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit to a 30% match of the federal credit, compared with 6% currently, and a retirement tax repeal. Final passage of both bills is expected sometime next week.

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S. Dakota Senate suspends lawmaker after vaccine exchange

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PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The South Dakota Senate on Thursday suspended a Republican state senator in a rare move that stripped the lawmaker of all legislative power while keeping the allegations against her a secret.

Sen. Julie Frye-Mueller, who is among a group of right-wing Statehouse Republicans, told reporters earlier Thursday that she was being punished following an exchange she had with a legislative aide about vaccinations.

Sen. Michael Rohl, the Republican lawmaker who initiated the motion to suspend Frye-Mueller, said in a statement that it was based on “serious allegations” and had been made to ensure the Legislature was creating a safe work environment for employees. He likened the Senate’s suspension to the move a business owner or human resources department would make when allegations are raised.

“The Senate will operate swiftly and diligently through the process of an investigation and provide the opportunity for due process to all parties involved,” Rohl said.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted 27-6 to form a committee to investigate Frye-Mueller’s conduct and in the meantime suspend her from voting or holding other rights of an elected official. Republican legislative leaders refused to comment Thursday on the allegations that led to them suspending the Senate rules and stripping their colleague of her ability to represent her constituents.

The Senate Republican leader, Sen. Casey Crabtree said the legislative punishment was “brought after a lot of serious thought,” but offered little else on the allegations. Another high-ranking Republican, Sen. Lee Schoenbeck, said it was meant to “protect the decorum” of the law-making body.

Schoenbeck removed Frye-Mueller from two committee assignments on Wednesday.

One of Frye-Mueller’s Senate allies, Sen. Tom Pischke, spoke against the suspension, saying it was based on a “she said-she said situation” and would deprive Frye-Mueller’s constituents of their representation in the Senate.

Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden, who serves as the Senate’s president, also opposed the move, cautioning against the precedent of suspending an elected representative without due process. But his objections were overruled in a two-thirds majority vote by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Republicans in the Legislature have become deeply divided in recent years. One of the battlegrounds between right-wing members and Republicans who support the political establishment has been over separate proposals to limit requirements for the COVID-19 vaccine and childhood vaccines.

Frye-Mueller said she did not bring up the COVID-19 vaccine during her exchange with the aide and that she has not been formally presented with the allegations against her.

“I have a right to defend myself,” Frye-Mueller said before the Senate’s vote Thursday.

After the vote succeeded, she exited the Senate chamber.

Childhood vaccines have long been celebrated as public health success stories, but vaccination rates among kindergarteners have dropped nationwide in recent years. Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that decreased confidence in vaccines is a likely contributor, as well as disruptions to routine health care during the pandemic.

Falling vaccination rates open the door to outbreaks of diseases once thought to be in the rearview mirror, experts say.

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