The Battle of Santa Ana

Local Latino empowerment activists face power structure

By Dr. Victor M. Rodriguez
Published on LatinoLA: January 26, 2003

The Battle of Santa Ana

In many ways, the city of Santa Ana, right in the middle of conservative Orange County, California, is a microcosm of the contested terrain of Latino politics this century. A small, but effective Latino organization, Hermandad Mexicana Nacional (HMN) is led by one of the most important grassroots Latino activist in Southern California, Nativo Lopez (pictured), and is the pivot of a coalition of Latino activists that have for years shaped the nature of Latino politics in Orange County.

This effort in Latino empowerment is right now being challenged in its own backyard: Mr. Lopez, the first Latino to serve on the Santa Ana school board in decades, is facing a recall election on February 4. Mr. Lopez was elected in 1996 as a result of a massive registration drive that also swept Congressiona representative Loretta Sanchez into office.

Leading the charge with his power and resources is no other than Ron Unz, the multimillionaire who spearheaded initiative 227, which is responsible for the dismantling of bilingual education in the most Latino state of the union. Why has Mr. Unz decided to invest more than $80,000 in this battle against a local community activists? Why did he spend another $100,000 during last November 2002 school board elections?

Ironically, historically, Latinos were invisible in the political system. They experienced exclusion with barriers like poll taxes and literacy tests, or were manipulated by political machines in cities like San Antonio and Santa Fe. Only in recent history, Latinos have developed an autonomous political practice to challenge exclusion and marginalization. Since la Raza Unida Party, in the 70s, Latinos, and particularly Mexican Americans, were not able to muster the momentum to speak to power with a strong voice. This effort to provide Latinos a strong independent political voice, however, is being contested in the city of Santa Ana, where the modern journey began. The consequences of this recall election could set back the movement that brought to fruition dramatic changes in the Latino political landscape. But also, the strategy being utilized could lead to create obstacles for the further development of an autonomous Latino politics that responds to Latino working people.

--National Context

In January, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), released the most comprehensive study on the role of race and ethnicity in political behavior during the elections of November 2002. Because of the technical collapse of Voters New Service, reliable exit poll data was non-existent until this study analyzed Fox News Polls data for CIS. Professor Gimpel, from the University of Maryland, concluded, among other things, that Republicans were unable to attract a significant portion of Latino voters into their camp. In fact, challenging mainstream pundits and political consultants, he said that the data indicated that "partisan commitments and policy preferences are highly stable, and campaign messages matter much less than political consultants." This conclusion is in line with basic trend in social and political analysis of political partisanship and social identities.

In Texas and Florida, for example, the two states that were placed on a pedestal as evidence of an effective Republican strategy to attract Latinos, were found to be precisely, evidence of its failure. In 2002, Jeb Bush received a smaller share of the Latino vote than when he was originally elected in 1994. In the 1994 elections, Jeb Bush received 71% of the Latino vote, while in 2002 he only received 57% . This is even more outstanding given that he was not a well known politician in 1994 and did not have the track record and resources he had developed by the 2002 elections. The study also indicates that Rick Perry, Republican gubernatorial candidate in Texas, did not receive a wave of new Latinos voters in the 2002 elections. The Latino Democrats who supported Perry look very much like the Republican voters and most of them, had already voted Republican in the 2000 election. In sum, despite all the hype, the Republican strategy of serenading Latinos with high school Spanish and pandering to issues of immigration did not achieve the desired results.

This strategy failed despite the demographics of the kind of Latino turnout that characterized this election. This cohort of Latinos who showed up at the polls were more educated and had higher incomes than the Latino electorate that participated in the 2000 elections. In other words, many working class Latinos stayed home while middle and upper middle class Latinos were a larger percentage of the Latino electorate than is the norm. This is usually the kind of voter that is more likely to vote for a Republican platform. But even in this electorate, the republican strategy failed.

This study arrives at a final conclusion that there is not a Latino ethnic bloc similar to the African American voting bloc. Prof. Gimpel shows that after controlling for party affiliation, income and education, Latinos vote like the rest of Americans. Like other non-Latino voters they are influenced mostly by party affiliation, class and education. This conclusion however, needs to be explored further, data for California was not used (where the largest percentage of all Latinos live) and the data used is aggregated and does not distinguishes between foreign-born, and Latino sub-groups. Other studies have showed that racialization and the impact of race/ethnic identity on electoral participation is stronger in some Latinos sub-groups and also more intense among Latinos who have lived for a significant amount of time in the United States. For example, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans, the Latinos who have lived for a longer period of time in the U.S., are more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate than Cubans, Argentineans or Nicaraguans. Collapsing all of the groups together obscures the generational role of race and ethnicity in political patterns of voting.

But the telling fact that Prof. Gimpel shares with a mostly academic audience is a disturbing one: if Republicans are to do well in the 2004 elections, the best thing that can happen is the demobilization of the Latino vote! In other words, the more working class Latinos participate in the electoral process, the less likely Republicans will be able to extend their mid term victory into the 2004 presidential elections! Any strategy that demobilizes, discourages Latinos from showing up at the polls, will benefit the conservative forces.

--Latino and Anti-Latino Politics in Santa Ana

Most of the great strides in mobilizing Latino voters took place in the last decade. Most of these efforts were attempting to develop an autonomous political processes to empower working class Latinos and were built on community networks and resources provided by ethnic cultures. In other words, ethnic culture in a racialized society like the United States, provides a bond and a tool for survival in a society that is at times, hostile, against Latinos. Mexican Americans in Watsonville, CA for many years were unable to elect political candidates to represent them. Fourteen Mexican Americans ran from 1971 to 1985 to no avail. Even in 1980, when they were close to half of the population, not one Latino was in the city council. Latinos went to the courts in Gomez v. City of Watsonville, under the Voting Rights Act to request political representation. The at large system that had served to exclude them was overturned in 1988. The at large system for political representation was replaced with one based on electoral districts. For years, Anglo prejudice failed to support Latino candidates and Latinos were unable to have any representation in the city government. In 1989 Watsonville elected the first Latino mayor and Mexican Americans sat in the city council. Today, 5 of the seven council members are Latinos.

The history of the "Mothers of East LA" is legendary, a group of women decided to form a grassroots community organization to speak truth to power. With the support of the local Catholic church and community activists with training in community organizing, the Latina housewives challenged the power structure and stopped a number of projects that would have polluted and contaminated the community even more. All of these efforts relied on kinship, gender and ethnic bonds and the kind of grassroots mobilization that was not initiated by mainstream political institutions.

Similarly, in 1980 Santa Ana, close to 45% of the residents were Latino, a majority of the children in the school system were also Latino. However, there was not one Latino sitting on the school board. Today, 76% of the population is Latino, predominantly Mexican American, and more than half of the board and its chair are Latinos. Also, the Mayor and two member of the city council are Latinos. In the 1980s, there were no Latinos in any elected position in city government.

This transformation and increased participation of Latinos in the decision which affect their lives did not take place in a vacuum. These changes took place when a coalition of organizations and individuals, led by the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional (HMN) vigorously began to organize undocumented workers, a group marginalized and excluded by many community and labor organizations. During the 1870s and 1910, when large numbers of European immigrants were arriving to the United States, local political machines and local governments hurried to naturalize and mobilize the Italian, Irish and Jewish vote. However, the role of local political organizations with respect to Latinos has not followed that model. The role of mobilizing was done by local Latino community based organizations like the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional.

During the 1980s, HMN focused its efforts in lobbying the Reagan administration for a program to legalize and naturalize the millions of undocumented workers that lived in the United States. Between 3-6 million undocumented Latinos, lived in the shadows, exploited and without a voice in the systems that controlled their lives. With the support of Cong. Edward Roybal and other Anglo allies the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act IRCA allowed hundreds of thousand of Latinos to legalize their status and eventually naturalize as U.S. citizens.

The organization provided leadership training to Latinos and provided various opportunities so that they could speak with their own voices and experience the political process. One of the tactics utilized by the HMN was to have workers speak for themselves in lobbying efforts that included local congressional field offices and in Washington D.C. At one point HMN had offices across the nation as the outcome of its urban based efforts to organize the undocumented immigrants. This work, that had been initiated by Bert Corona, gave rise to a movement to empower undocumented immigrant workers. This face to face experience with the political process developed leadership skills in many Latinos who today work as labor and community organizers, teachers and professionals throughout Southern California.

But the power structure has been fighting back for many years . In 1986, Measure C was presented to the electorate of Santa Ana to introduce a ward system that would enable Santa Ana voters to directly elect city leaders. A racially tainted campaign was used to intimidate voters. Some of the flyers called Nativo Lopez the "radical leader of the gang of illegals" that wanted to take over Santa Ana. One of the flyers issued by the organization "Good Government Committee" was titled "Proposition C Would Turn Santa Ana into the Slum of Orange County." The Santa Ana Merged Society of neighbors (SAMSON) whose chair was local community activist Rick Norton called the campaign against Measure C "most blatantly racist smear campaign that the Santa Ana community has ever seen."

In the 1988 the Republican Party placed security guards to intimidate Latino voters in Santa Ana polling stations. The uniformed security guards hired by the Republican Party carried signs that read "Non-Citizens Can't Vote" and were posted at polling places in Hispanic Santa Ana neighborhoods prompting charges of racism and intimidation. In 1992, a political action committee related to the Santa Ana Police Department produced flyers characterizing Latino youth as gang members and criminals. They juxtaposed a portrait of young 2-year old Mexican children holding rifles taller than themselves with photographs of armed teenage gangbangers. The caption read: "When their baby pictures look like these, this is how they grow up."

Even conservative Latino politician Miguel Pulido, who is presently the mayor of Santa Ana jumped on the race baiting wagon. He supported proposition 187, the infamous effort to deprive Latino undocumented children from access to education and other social services. In a brochure for his re-election campaign in the 1990s he characterized undocumented immigrants as "a public nuisance that illegal aliens bring upon us." His flyer, in an effort to attract the anti-immigrant vote then proceeded to ask voters to support him since he would "Stop Illegal Immigration Support . . ."

In 1996, a shift took place in the political role of Latinos around the country, put especially in Santa Ana. Thousands of newly naturalized citizens were mobilized and for the first time in the history of Orange County, and a Latina women was elected to congress. Loretta Sanchez a neophyte in politics, was able to defeat Cong. Robert Dornan, one of the most conservative members of the California Republican congressional delegation. Nativo Lopez became the first of the new generation of Latino school board members who would soon become a majority on the school board by the 2001 elections. The main force behind this transformation was the role of the HMN in utilizing the naturalization process and absentee ballot to facilitate the electoral participation of working class Latinos. In 1996, and contrary to electoral trends, the "mobilized naturalized citizenry" had a higher rate of electoral participation than native born U.S. citizens.

--The Recall

In 1998, the voters of California approved the dismantling of Bilingual Education programs. The initiative allowed children under age 10 to continue in Bilingual Education if parents of 20 students in the same grade make a request in person each year. Interestingly, 63% of Latino voters voted against the dismantling of Bilingual Education while 67% of whites voted in favor. Historically, Latinos have supported bilingual education when these programs are fully funded. Many bilingual education programs around the nations are not the object of the kind of controversy experienced in California. The reason for the controversy is that some conservative elements see bilingual education as a conspiracy to aid the ascendancy of Latinos in this state.

Mr. Unz supported the efforts of a small group of conservative parents and teachers from Santa Ana in an effort to unseat a number of the Latinos on the school board who came in as a result of the 1996 efforts. Gloria Matta Tuchman, a former teacher in the Santa Ana school district was one of the co-leaders in the anti-bilingual education initiative. She is also involved in the Unz financed Santa Ana efforts to unseat Nativo Lopez.

The group financed by multi-millionaire Ron Unz, has accused Mr Lopez of subverting the dismantling of bilingual education in Santa Ana. They also have made an issue of Mr. Lopez receiving campaign contributions from "outsiders" and people who do business with the school board. The reality is that 90% of the children are in English only programs. This is astounding given that, 92% of the 60,000 students are Latinos and 70% of the children are English learners, with Spanish being the most common language spoke by them. It is also a very poor community since 85% of the children in the schools receive free or reduced meal programs.

What this new board has accomplished is to pass a new $145 million school construction bond, the first time in decades that this highly overcrowded school system received this injection of building funds. California averages 1,660 students per 40 acre campus, while Santa Ana averages 3,000 on only 25 acres! For years, the previous board had not mobilized the community as the present board member have. The board expects 12 new schools to be built and 20 schools will be modernized and wired for computer technology. They also have doubled the number of students attending fundamental schools, schools that have been very successful in raising the academic achievement of kids.

They also have approved /created charters school in the arts, medical professions, science and arts academy etc. SAT-9 test scores have increased at every grade for the last 5 years (trend began before proposition 227) and English instruction has increased at all grade levels. The number of high school graduates have increased. Since the dismantling of affirmative action the proportion of Latinos at the CSU and UC have not kept up with their growing proportion of high school graduates who are Latinos. While Latinos are almost half of all children from k-12, and increased 34.4% from 1995 to 2002, they only increased 21% in the University of California system. These are a group of people that are trying to transform a system that did not serve the community well.

So what is this recall about? Is it about quality education? Is it about bilingual education? This recall election is about dismantling a movement that has developed a mobilized citizenry that spoke truth to power in Santa Ana. This is an election that could turn the clock back to the time when only Latinos who depended on the power structure that maintained Santa Ana as one of the most segregated cities in Southern California were elected. For many years Latino activists have called Santa Ana?s social and political system "apartheid." It may sound strong, but it is accurate. Fortunately, thousands of Anglos, Latinos, blacks and Asians in Santa Ana have struggled to begin the process to change that. Unfortunately, some unaware of the history of Latino empowerment are contributing to again try to teach Latinos "their proper place." They will not . . .

About Dr. Victor M. Rodriguez:
Dr. Rodriguez teaches in the Chicano and Latino Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach. He can be reached at

   print this


Arts & Entertainment Comunidad Forum People El Editor's Blog

Careers Expresate Hollywood Tecnología RSS Feeds