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Why Mexicans Are Left Out of Santa Monica's Race Debate

By Elias Serna

City officials refuse to include Chicanos in discussions on racism, even though the institutionalized racism against Latinxs in the Pico Neighborhood is the most pervasive race issue, and Mexican Indians are the oldest racial group in the city. To begin, let’s recognize that Santa Monica is a Mexican concept.

When the first Spanish ships sailed up the coast in 1769, they named the bay “Boca de Santa Monica” because it resembled the wailing mouth of Saint Monica, lamenting her errant son Saint Augustine (before he changed his ways). Later, other settlers referred to the nearby natural springs as the “tears of Santa Monica.”

The lands along the end of the I-10 freeway were a Tongva-Gabrielino village called Kechengna. The other nearby centers were Sa’Angna (near LMU bluffs) and the ceremonial springs at Kuruvung’na (University high school). When Spaniards finally made their “entrada” into West L.A. they did so armed with weapons and disease which would decimate the local Native population.

Over the centuries Tongva natives and Mexicans (themselves “de-Indianized” Indians) mixed and merged in West Los Angeles. And so it was really the Tongva Indians of Kechengna, and then subsequent generations of Mexicans, Blacks and people of color, that were to inherit the pain and agony that comes with living in the lost paradise of Santa Monica, the Pico Neighborhood.

When the Covid-19 crisis brought the world to a halt in late March, I felt especially worried about families in the Pico Neighborhood. Now more than ever, as institutions crumbled and Black and Brown families became that much more vulnerable, economically and biologically, I thought, the Pico Neighborhood is more divided than ever.

And it is primarily the doing of the Santa Monica City Council.

If you talk to some of the Pico Neighborhood old-timers you will get many a story of White, Black and Brown cooperation and some unity. But currently, the Mexicans/Latinxs are being left out.

The council’s response to the George Floyd uprising was to create a “Black Agenda.” That is perfectly appropriate and timely. But where, then, is the “Brown Agenda?” The city’s Mexican Americans have suffered more severely at the hands of the City than any other racial group.

To provide a “Black Agenda” while simultaneously ignoring Mexicans is a slap in the face, but it is also a false gesture that city actually cares about racism and is doing something about it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

City officials have maintained a repressive campaign of marginalizing and silencing opposition and buying loyalty from residents who do their bidding, keep silent on race issues, and stand in as Pico Neighborhood “representatives.”

Meanwhile, they ignore or suppress the five most burning race issues in the city: voting rights, police abuse, youth centers, public monuments, and diversity in school curriculum and hiring.

The current Santa Monica City Council has spent over $12 million opposing the Pico Neighborhood voting rights case. After the Pico Neighborhood Association (PNA) won the case for district elections in Superior Court last year, the City Council voted to appeal, and the case now heads to the California Supreme Court.

In 2015, the City Council voted to completely defund the Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC), which gave a building and a voice to Pico Neighborhood folks, not to mention a place for young people to organize and make culturally relevant art and music. Being outspoken and effective were the PYFC’s main “faults.” The City should continue funding the PYFC.

The tragic long-term child abuse at the Police Activities League (PAL) is most closely tied to the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly its call to “Defund the Police.” Some have called not only for the defunding of SMPD, but the shutting down of PAL. The facts are disturbing.

Since the 1990’s PAL staff enabled one of their own to prey on Mexican American boys enrolled in programs. Another staff member was caught and prosecuted for taking inappropriate photos of underage Latina girls. City Staff members are accused of overlooking complaints by youth and fellow staff.

Last March, the city paid $42 million in settlements to 23 victims, as more victims come forward. The attempted cover-up of PAL crimes and the City Council's evasion resembles the disturbing tendency to maintain a “liberal” image by concealing wrongdoing at any cost.

Like their colonial ancestors, today’s colonizers are attempting to “erase” Mexicans and Indians from the city. Teachers in the Association of Mexican American Educators (AMAE) and the Intercultural District Advisory Committee met at PYFC and initiated an Ethnic Studies campaign which brought one Ethnic Studies class to Samohi.

But victories are too often followed by institutional pushback. Last year the district fired a Chicano specialist hired to build an Ethnic Studies program.

As one enters City Hall, we see the large 1950s tile mural depicting Spanish priests and soldiers on horses, their eyes fixed on a horizon, while faceless Indian “savages” kneel drinking from a stream the horses have dipped their hooves into.

It is the old racist civilizational narrative myth that Ethnic Studies commonly challenges. Some don’t see what is offensive, and even defend it as art. But it is our own, homegrown Confederate statue, a clear sign of the historical and ongoing racial colonization of Native American bodies and minds.

Like racial voting rights, the City Council refuses to see it. They refuse to recognize the brown bodies they are subjugating.

With the arrival of the Metro to Santa Monica, of tech industry into “Silicon beach,” tourism development has gone wild, making Black and Brown homes in the Pico neighborhood prime real estate. The biggest obstacle to developers is outspoken neighborhood groups and leaders.

The current historical crisis in the U.S., however, has also created a profound opportunity for residents to rise to the occasion, and make more equitable the governance, services, and education systems of our city.

The current City Council has failed miserably, but pays a high price (at taxpayer expense) to maintain an image of being “liberal.”

Mexicans are left out of Santa Monica’s race debate because to address Mexican grievances would be to open the floodgates on Santa Monica’s real race scandals. It would bring up past wrongs and make things very complicated, as race is. It would mean addressing the real and ongoing pain endured by Pico residents, the inheritors of Santa Monica’s agony.

Now more than ever, we need government that is accountable to its residents, not one that is in the pockets of developers. We need representatives that put people before profits.

This month, we can write a new chapter of Santa Monica history, one with less corruption, less tears and agony. Together, we can write a more truthful chapter about “changing our ways,” about justice and integrity.

Elias Serna, Ph.D. grew up in the Pico Neighborhood and is a life-long resident. An Assistant Professor of English at the University of Redlands last school year, he is the president of AMAE (Association of Mexican American Educators) SM/West LA Chapter, and a member of PEMA-Samohi (Padres, Estudiantes y Maestros Asociación)

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