Putting Latinos In Their Place

The Santa Ana recall was not about Nativo Lopez

By Howard O. Kieffer
Published on LatinoLA: February 12, 2003

Putting Latinos In Their Place

Last Tuesday's election has set Santa Ana back in many ways that we can now only begin to come to understand. Once again, the City Hall/Chamber of Commerce powers have flexed their collective muscle. Although this City has a Latino majority on its Council, that does not begin to tell the full story. Although their revisionist biographies show deep roots in the City, at least three members won their seats after having "returned" to the City. The truth is that they were recruited by this power structure -- from places like Irvine and Fullerton.

The Nativo Lopez recall was not really about Lopez. Lopez and his forces may seem scarred, but they are now invigorated and ready to press on with even bigger battles. They will learn much from this defeat and will look for ways to topple the very system that served to entrench the power structure - election "from" Wards.

But the power structure has been fighting back for many years. In 1986, Measure C (not the school bond) 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." A local community activist then called the campaign against Measure C "the most blatantly racist smear campaign that the Santa Ana community has ever seen."

Just two years later, 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 two-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 our Mayor jumped on the bandwagon by supporting proposition 187. 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 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.

Leading the charge with his power and resources was no other than Ron Unz, the Northern California multimillionaire who spearheaded proposition 227, which is responsible for the dismantling of bilingual education in the most Latino state of the union. Why did Mr. Unz decided to invest more than $120,000 in this battle against a local community activist? Why did he, along with the Lincoln Club, spend another $120,000 plus during last November's school board elections?

This may seem like the hole in the GOP's doughnut, with Rep. Loretta Sanchez, Assemblyman Lou Correa and State Senator Joseph Dunn representing the area. This only happened because of the literally thousands of newly naturalized citizens were mobilized. The main force behind this transformation was the role of the Lopez' Hermandad Mexicana National in utilizing the naturalization process and absentee ballot to facilitate the electoral participation of working class Latinos. In 1996 and 1998, and contrary to electoral trends, the "mobilized naturalized citizenry" had a higher rate of electoral participation than native born U.S. citizens.

Since then, 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 and 1998 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 was also involved in the Unz-financed Santa Ana efforts to unseat Nativo Lopez.

The group, financed by multi-millionaire Ron Unz, 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 spoken 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 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 expected 12 new schools to be built and about 20 schools 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, while requiring parental involvement.

They also have approved or 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 five years (a trend that began before proposition 227) and English instruction has increased at all grade levels. The number of high school graduates has 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 was this recall about? Was it about quality education? Was it about bilingual education? This recall election was about dismantling a movement that has developed a mobilized citizenry that spoke truth to power in Santa Ana. This was an election that has now turned 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 continue 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 Howard O. Kieffer:
Howard O. Kieffer is a resident of Santa Ana

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