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‘How do you say that about a 2-year-old?’ Amid scandal, parents reckon with the politics of shame

Two adults and a child walk down a hallway holding hands.
Former Councilmember Nury Martinez, with husband Gerry Guzman and daughter Isabelle Guzman, in 2020.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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From her 2013 election upset to her resignation last week, disgraced former L.A. City Council President Nury Martinez put motherhood at the heart of her political career.

She was the mom next door on an all-male council, a self-styled advocate for abused women and kids and a champion for paid parental leave.

So many were stunned when the blunt-talking mama was caught on tape comparing a colleague’s Black son to a monkey and gleefully prescribing the toddler “a beatdown” in an explosive recording that has upended L.A. politics since it became public earlier this month.

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“They’re raising him like a little white kid,” Martinez said of Councilman Mike Bonin and his husband, Sean Arian, on the leaked tape of a 2021 political strategy session. “I was like, this kid needs a beatdown. Let me take him around the corner, and then I’ll bring him back.”

Also on the 80-minute tape, the politician and mother of a middle schooler can be heard dripping bile about Oaxacans, grousing over Black political power and trucking in crude stereotypes about the council’s Jewish and Armenian members, in a conversation with Councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León and then-L.A. County Labor Federation head Ron Herrera.

The audio drew broad condemnation, all but ending the foursome’s careers. Martinez and Herrera have resigned. Cries are getting louder for Cedillo and De León to do the same.

But amid the public fallout, many local families are nursing more personal wounds. From the bugbear of “mom shaming” to the shadow of spare-the-rod-style “chancla culture” and the specter of child removal, Martinez’s words stirred many parents’ darkest fears.

“It’s just really appalling — how do you say that about a 2-year-old?” activist and historian Citlalli Citlalmina Anahuac said of Martinez’s comments. Anahuac’s son Necalli is 19 months old. “Did she forget what toddlers are like?”

Indeed, stormy emotions and eccentric defiance are developmental hallmarks of early childhood, as predictable as day-care colds and blown-out Pampers. Yet few parents survive the terrible twos unscathed by humiliation and opprobrium as they struggle to calm children who are acting out in public. For some, the shame of judgment burns for years.

In this case, Bonin’s then-toddler was running around L.A. elected officials on a float at a 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade.

For LGBTQ parents such as Bonin, public shaming evokes the stigma that long stymied gay marriage and bars many from adoption and surrogacy to this day.

“My husband and I were both raised at a time when, as gay men, we didn’t think that we would be married, or that we would be allowed to have kids,” the councilman said in a teary 12-minute speech last week at City Hall. “Our relationships and our families were considered illegitimate.”

For others, such judgment is bound up with structural violence and generational trauma.

“Black children are observed and monitored more than any other [kids],” said state Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles), who is running to replace Rep. Karen Bass in Congress. “It’s pernicious, but it’s also indicative of how our society is overly curious, concerned and afraid of our children.”

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LA Times Today: Amid the L.A. council leaked audio scandal, parents reckon with shame

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Such surveillance of Black children is baked into the culture, from slanted school discipline to disproportionate government removal from birth families to overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system, Kamlager said.

Black children are vastly overrepresented in removal cases in L.A. County, which is home to the largest child welfare system in the U.S. They are suspended from school in disproportionate numbers and arrested and incarcerated at outsize rates.

“We know that Black families are disproportionately separated from each other — it doesn’t happen equally across every ethnic group,” said the lawmaker, whose bill to more strictly define child neglect recently passed. “That’s an example of bias embedded in the system.”

Latino families also face discrimination, including in education and the child welfare system. In that context, some see tough love as a shield, experts said.

“Our children’s misbehavior can have devastating consequences out in society,” said TikTok influencer Destini Ann Davis, whose book “Very Intentional Parenting: Awakening the Empowered Parent Within” explains “peaceful parenting” and positive discipline.

“For that reason, I understand nonwhite parents prioritizing changing their children’s behaviors with quick fixes like spanking/beating,” she said in an email. “Unfortunately, it serves the opposite purpose in many cases.”

Repeated corporal punishment makes kids more aggressive and can impair their cognitive development, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned in a 2018 policy paper. Though it’s less common among millennials than in previous generations, physical discipline remains broadly used by American parents, studies show.

In Latino households, the icon of such discipline is the chancla, a slip-on sandal so thoroughly synonymous with punishment it has become a meme.

A quick search reveals tens of thousands of #chancla posts on Instagram and more than a billion views for the hashtag on TikTok. Most videos show a rubber slide hurtling toward the camera or being tossed at a child cropped just out of frame.

“You usually see it being thrown at children from across the room to make them behave,” said Leslie Priscilla, the voice behind the @LatinxParenting Instagram page, whose movement to “end chancla culture” is the subject of her forthcoming book.

On one hand, she said, the meme speaks to many adults who grew up in strict families.

“Most people think those memes and videos are very funny,” Priscilla said. “It does meet our need for belonging, connection, resonance — but at a very surface level.”

On the other hand, she and other critics warn, it reinforces violent discipline as a cultural value, even as corporal punishment shrinks from the American mainstream.

“Chancla culture really speaks to how we have normalized violence in Latinx families, and we’ve neglected a lot of ancestral ways of being with children,” Priscilla said.

For her, embracing positive discipline means reclaiming a more authentic family system.

“It’s not anything new to us,” she said. “It’s not white people s—. This is indigenous s—.”

Davis, the influencer, agreed.

“White people do not have a monopoly on kindness, empathy, effective communication, respect, etc.,” Davis said. “These kinds of statements diminish the reality of so many nonwhite parents who show up every day with unconditional love, supportive discipline and respect in their homes.”

Over the past decade, Martinez used her moral authority as a mother to springboard from the L.A. Unified School District board to one of the most powerful positions in California politics.

Then it ended her career.

“I’m over here trying to parent this kid,” the former council president can be heard saying of Bonin’s son on the recording, audibly striking her hand.

Now, critics hope her style of parenting will fall along with her.

“As a mother, I know better, and I am sorry,” she said when she stepped down from the council presidency. “I am truly ashamed.”

But the sting of her shaming lingers, parents say. The scandal is a reminder that families are under unprecedented surveillance — not only by fellow “moms” but by people with the power to control what happens to them and their kids.

For Anahuac, it’s a daily struggle to stay focused on her son and not “get lost in whoever’s looking.”

“It’s a journey for both of us,” the new mom said. “I’ve learned to block everybody out and just think of him and me.”

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