Column: Gil Cedillo went from a Latino lion to a Chicanosaurus

When Gil Cedillo speaks at length for the first time in the most infamous leaked audio in the history of Los Angeles City Hall, he talks about the joy of being a proud one daddy.

“I did [an] Interview the other day … and said I’m a grandfather, and I have a 47-year-old son and a 2½-year-old little girl,” the Los Angeles City Council member said four minutes into the conversation.

Estás loca con esa niñasaid Nury Martinez, Cedillo’s fellow councilor at the time – you’re crazy about that little girl.

“Look at those curls! Do you like those curls?” Cedillo soon exclaimed, apparently scrolling through his phone for a photo, and finally got Martinez — who announced that she’d never particularly cared about “the whole little kid…” — to admit that she had the thought the hairstyle was cute.

He giggled.

It was a cedillo I had never heard before. And it was a rare moment of sweetness in a conversation that revealed an ugly, racist view of Los Angeles politics.

For more than 40 years, Cedillo has been a lion of the Latino left in California. His life mirrored and influenced the rise of Mexican-American political power in Los Angeles and beyond.

As an activist, organizer, assemblyman, state senator and councilman, Cedillo’s deep, raspy voice rightly railed against old losers and do-nothing Republicans in defense of the undocumented and working class. He even bucked other Democrats in his most famous fight: He allowed immigrants in the country to illegally apply for a California driver’s license.

Cedillo was what a politician should be: from the pueblo, by the pueblo, for the pueblo. Now he kept talking about his daughter being “the boss” and “responsible.”

After tolerating the goo-goo-ga-ga talk for about a minute, Martinez moved on to the evening’s business: a redistricting strategy session with Cedillo, fellow councilor Kevin de León, and then-President of the LA County Federation of Labour, Ron Herrera.

The world knows what happened next.

The audio, recorded over a year ago but only recently surfaced, has turned Los Angeles politics on its head. Martinez and Herrera have resigned from their posts, and calls for Cedillo and De León are growing louder.

Most media coverage focused on Martinez, whose barrage of insults against blacks, Oaxacans, whites, and their political opponents sounded like Don Rickles without the warmth.

But the tape also reveals Cedillo’s sad breakup, which was already underway before the scandal broke.

With his baby talk over, the cedillo that emerged was no longer the combative populist of yore, but a petty, paranoid, pathetic pole.

Gil Cedillo speaks at a lectern at Dodger Stadium.

Councilor Gil Cedillo speaks at a news conference held in 2021 to mark the launch of a mass COVID-19 vaccination site at Dodger Stadium.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

He didn’t say much during the more than hour-long conversation. His most insulting remarks landed on Armenians — when someone couldn’t remember a political adviser’s last name, he joked that it “ends with IAN, I bet you” — and Oaxacans, whom he derided as “little ones who now ” wear”. Shoes.”

The rest of the time, Cedillo spoke in the meow of a man who once roared.

He said of the Service Employees International Union, Los Angeles County’s largest union of public employees, that everything with them “starts out 100% suspect” and stands their ground when someone scoffs.

“C’mon, man,” Cedillo replied. “I know this stuff. 100% suspicious.”

In the early 1990s, Cedillo was General Manager of SEIU. In that pivotal role, he helped shape the labor movement in Southern California into the organizing and political behemoth it is today, and left after union leaders fired him for his grassroots popularity.

Cedillo brought up a recent incident at a park where 30 protesters “smashed down the fence and gates.” Activists have stalked him in recent years over allegations that he’s too comfortable with developers as gentrification and homelessness take hold in his northeast LA neighborhood.

“Leave her,” he said, “and lock her up.”

“They can’t charge their Teslas before they return home to Silver Lake,” De León replied.

“Where are they going as-?” Martinez collapsed.

This wasn’t the Cedillo, who found his political awakening at UCLA in the 1970s as a member of MEChA, the Chicano activist group that includes his longtime friend, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former California Lt. gov. Cruz Bustamante and yours really did belong. The union leader who organized noisy rallies and was arrested in a 2006 sit-in on Century Boulevard near Los Angeles International Airport to protest the treatment of immigrant hotel workers. Who helped merge state democratic politics with the immigrant rights movement and made California the brilliant blue it is today.

When it came to redistribution of districts, Cedillo joined the others in asserting that the way to protect Latino representation was to abolish black representation.

“Unlike 25 years ago, we now have a Mexican at the helm [L.A. County Labor] Fed,” he said. “We have a Mexican in charge of the council. We have more members on the council. We are at a different point now than we were 25 years ago. We are concerned with exercising our power.”

Then he went further than even Martinez.

“The seats on it [South L.A.] Corridor historical African American I could support one maybe two [Black council members] — those are Latino seats,” Cedillo continued. “Fifty-seven seats out of 60 that have African Americans in them are Latino seats,” he said.

“From the Comptons to the Gardenas to south LA… you can’t throw a stone without hitting a Mexican [in South L.A.],” he added.

When Herrera – whose shrill voice sounded exactly like old Hollywood arch villain Peter Lorre – suggested that Latinos could take over the 15th Ward, held by councilman Joe Buscaino, Cedillo switched the conversation back to South LA

He wanted a Latino candidate “who grew up there … Not the ones who went to Yale and then came back and parachuted in. but real people who grew up there.”

Quite a feeling considering Cedillo, like me, has an elite education from UCLA.

I became more and more dismayed the longer I listened. Cedillo, 68, has long been a visionary. Now he sounded like a Chicanosaurus, a person miserably out of his element. Nowhere was that clearer than with his re-election opponent, 32-year-old primary candidate Eunisses Hernandez.

At this point in his career, Cedillo needn’t have feared an upstart. De León dismissed Hernandez as someone he had never met; Martinez said he “didn’t know” her.

Cedillo knew the threat Hernandez posed. He kept talking about how a redistribution might affect his re-election, especially if gentrifying, increasingly white neighborhoods were included in his territory.

“I can’t go to Eagle Rock. I can’t go to Highland Park. They don’t like me,” he said.

Addressing De León, Cedillo whined that the maps showing the new boroughs before him were “giving you and Mitch a headache [O’Farrell, acting
L.A. City Council president] me. So you give me your headaches.”

Martinez tried to reassure him that the union leaders who made a particular map weren’t kidding him. Finally he calmed down.

“I wouldn’t mess with that process,” he said. “Let it end, and then let’s solve it.”

The matter was resolved in June when Cedillo lost to Hernandez. She is scheduled to take his place in early December.

Some readers and friends are already telling me that Cedillo deserves more respect than his cohorts—don’t sully a legend, you know?

But this is why we all have to criticize him. His place in history is secure, but his legacy is not.

Gil, resign. Do something good now in this final, shameful chapter of your career. The longer you stay, the more we forget the champion you were. I challenge you to remember a saying from our MEChA roots – la union hace la fuerza.

Unity is strength.

Your arrogance and ignorance in refusing to step down divides the city and the community you profess to serve. Column: Gil Cedillo went from a Latino lion to a Chicanosaurus

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