Lessons From Santa Ana

When Latinos don't vote, they can't win

By Victor M. Rodriguez,
Published on LatinoLA: February 20, 2003

Lessons From Santa Ana

While some national papers picked up the story of a brawl between South Gate city council members, very few in the national media highlighted the most important political shift taking place in the participation of Latinos in local politics. In many ways, the journalistic penchant for choosing scandal over substance led the nation to hear about Latinos reinforcing the stereotypes, but not about a more crucial political event. In the largest Latino majority city, Santa Ana, in the most Latino state in the union, California, the rising grass-roots participation of Latinos in fashioning public policy on education issues was dealt a setback. Whether this is a trend or a fleeting event remains to be seen.

On February 4, 70 percent of the voters recalled Nativo Lopez, leader of the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional (HMN) from the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD) board. Lopez, the person that is probably most responsible for dramatic shifts in the incorporation of Latinos into the political process, suffered a decisive electoral setback when only 21 per cent of the voters showed up at the polls. His loss is most surprising given that even in the most Latino wards the vote went against one of the most effective advocates for Latino immigrants.

For the first time since 1996, when Nativo Lopez was first elected to the school board, the surge of Latino political empowerment in Santa Ana was held back. In 2001, the city elected its first ever Latino-majority board in this century, placing public policy about educational issues affecting Latino children in Latino leaders. Today, with the replacement of Lopez by Republican Rob Richardson and the following board selection of Audrey Yamagata-Noji as chair of the school board, Latinos are effectively where they were close to a decade ago.

This change that took place in Santa Ana illustrates a political strategy which will exclude independent political voices that challenged the economic and political elite that ruled this city for the last decades. This elite, which is mostly Anglo but which includes some Latinos, was responsible for creating a city that even today is described as "Apartheid-Santa Ana." The power elite is now fully back in control after a short hiatus.

The school system that was handed to Latino board members in 1996, was one were annually, hundreds of Latino children were summarily expelled and where the drop out rate was significantly higher than it is now. Test scores were among the worst in the state. The new Latino majority convinced and mobilized Santa Ana voters in 1999 to enact a new $145 million school construction bond, the first time in decades that this highly overcrowded school system received a massive injection of building funds. California averages 1,660 students per 40 acre campus, while Santa Ana averages 3,000 on only 25 acres!

Political research has clearly shown that when Latinos have a significant role in school boards. They impact public policy in a way that benefits the upward mobility of Latinos. Before the Latino majority was in place, in a school system were 90 per cent of the students were Latinos, no Latinos sat on the board, less than 10 percent of the teachers were Latinos and only 20 Latinos were in administrative or departmental positions in district. Today, 30 per cent of the teachers in the SAUSD are Latinos, and 30 percent of administrators and department directors are Latinos. This is the direct outcome of policies to break down the barriers of exclusion that kept Latinos from full participation in the educational policies that impacted Latino children.

These efforts were successful because of the values held by the Latino majority on the Santa Ana school board. They believed that all parents had a right to participate in the development of educational policy. Bilingual meetings with interpreters became a norm and the legal status of parents no longer was an issue for full participation in educational policies. But in order to effect these changes, Lopez and the Latino majority had to be independent from the economic and political interests that had ruled Santa Ana like a fiefdom for decades. The entrenched bureaucracy of the district did not understand the Latino community and until recently, did not engage in any major effort with the community.

The only way to effect change with such an entrenched system was by mobilizing the broad base of naturalized citizens and forcing the bureaucracy to respond to the needs of the community. Nativo Lopez, as an experienced community organizer, understood political structures and their inability to serve those who are in the margins of society. He knew that if the board did not push, the district would behave like bureaucracies behave, business as usual.

The Republican Party, in a strategic move, was able to take over a group of Latinos who were dissatisfied with the slow pace of school construction and impatient with the educational improvements carried out by the board. Unfortunately, they were also unaware of the history of Latino empowerment struggles in Santa Ana. Getting an entrenched bureaucracy to move is a time-consuming effort. Constructing multimillion dollar projects, do not happen overnight. As the new chair of the board has confirmed, Audrey Yamagata-Noji, finding unpolluted land in a built up community like Santa Ana is a daunting task. Also, the rise in real estate prices in orange County has been quite steep making the original district estimates irrelevant.

Ironically, these parents were the catalysts in returning to power some of those who represented the past policies that never served the Latino majority well. Together with multi-millionaire Republican Ron Unz, the Republican party took over a grassroots protest and with the aid of Rob Richardson and Tim Whitacre, two anti-immigrant Republican operatives who supported the unconstitutional and xenophobic Proposition 187, were able to unseat the Latino majority from the board.

The Republican Party in Santa Ana has a sordid historical relationship with Latinos. In 1988 the Republican Party placed security guards to intimidate Latino voters in Santa Ana polling stations. Uniformed security guards 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. But republicans had abettors among some Latinos.

Conservative Latino politician Miguel Pulido, a small business owner who presently is the mayor of Santa Ana, also jumped on the race-baiting wagon. He also supported Proposition 187, an initiative that if not declared unconstitutional could have deprived thousands of Santa Ana Latino undocumented children from access to education and other social services. In a brochure for his re-election campaign in the 1990s Pulido characterized undocumented immigrants as "a public nuisance that illegal aliens bring upon us."

Another Latino, school superintendent Al Mijares, wrote an inflammatory column two days before the election in the OC Register. In that column, he accused Nativo Lopez and SAUSD Board chair John Palacio of being "cancerous cells" in the board. While he never had raised objections to the board actions, he jumped into the anti-Latino majority board bandwagon. His negative portrayal so late in the campaign did not allow the victims to clear the air. More recently, perhaps sensing his future professional demise, he wrote a column where he attacks bilingual education and calling for an ethics protocol. However, he failed to acknowledge the popularity of double immersion programs with long waiting lists among upper middle class neighborhoods in Orange County. Young upper middle class kids speaking Spanish while Latinos become illiterate in two languages. What was wanting from Mijares was a call for campaign reform that would fairly avoid outside interests like Ron Unz from pouring thousands of dollars to demobilize Latinos.

The extremely low turnout may be the outcome of the negative campaigning that tainted this election. Especially for new voters negative campaigning leads to demobilization, not to increases in the rate of political participation. This was the perfect recipe for the Republican Party. As recent studies have shown, only when Latinos have low rates of participation can Republicans do well in local elections where Latinos are the majority.

But the Democratic Party is not without blame: two recently elected Latino politicians, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and state assemblyman Lou Correa, two local legislators who owe their seats to the unflinching support and mobilization efforts of naturalized voters by Lopez, distanced themselves from him. They smelled defeat and slid into their corners.

The Republican Party discovered it can beat back the Latino surge by using the resources of power and wealth. With the hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into this campaign by Ron Unz and the republican Party this has to be the most expensive school board election ever! The investment paid of: the Republican Party also discovered that when Latinos don't vote, they can win. That is a lesson Latinos should also learn, and never forget.

About Victor M. Rodriguez,:
Victor M. Rodriguez, Ph.D. is Associate Professor, Chicano & Latino Studies Department, California State University, Long Beach.

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