Orange County Commentary; Latinos Lost Big in Santa Ana; After a short hiatus, this elite is back in control.; [ORANGE COUNTY EDITION]
Victor M. Rodriguez. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.: Feb 23, 2003. pg. B.17
Section: California Metro; Part B; Editorial Pages Desk
Text Word Count 850
ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY
Latinos Lost Big in Santa Ana
After a short hiatus, this elite is back in control.
By Victor M. Rodriguez
February 23, 2003
While some national papers picked up the story of a political brawl in South Gate, very few in the national media highlighted the most important political shift taking place in the participation of Latinos in local politics. In Santa Ana, with the most Latinos of any U.S. city its size, the rising grass-roots participation of Latinos was dealt a setback in fashioning public policy on education.
Whether this is a trend or a fleeting event remains to be seen.
Early this month, 69% of the voters chose to recall Nativo V. Lopez from the Santa Ana Unified School District board. Lopez, who heads Hermandad Mexicana Nacional of Santa Ana and is probably most responsible for dramatic shifts in the incorporation of Latinos into the political process, suffered a decisive loss with only about 21% of the voters showing up at the polls. Even in the most Latino wards, the vote went against one of the most effective advocates for Latino immigrants.
Since 2001, when the city elected its first Latino-majority board in this century, public policy about educational issues affecting Latino children has been decided by Latinos. Today, with the replacement of Lopez by Rob Richardson and the selection of Audrey Yamagata-Noji as vice president of the school board, Latinos are effectively back where they were close to a decade ago.
This change in Santa Ana underscores a political strategy to exclude independent political voices that have challenged the economic and political elite that ruled the city in recent decades. After a short hiatus, this elite is now back in control.
Before Latino representation came to the Santa Ana school board, hundreds of Latino children were summarily expelled each year and the dropout rate was significantly higher than it is now. Some of its test scores were among the worst in the state. The new Latino majority mobilized Santa Ana voters in 1999 to pass a $145-million school construction bond. California averages 1,660 students per 40-acre campus, while Santa Ana averages 3,000 on 25.
Political research has clearly shown that when Latinos have a significant role on school boards, they affect public policy in a way that benefits the upward mobility of Latinos. Before the Latino majority was in place, in a school system where 90% of the students are Latino, less than 10% of the teachers were Latinos and only 20 Latinos were in administrative or departmental positions in the district. Today, 30% of the teachers and administrators are Latino.
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 the norm, and the legal status of parents no longer was an issue for full participation in educational policies. But to effect these changes, Lopez and the Latino majority had to be independent from the economic and political interests that had ruled Santa Ana for decades.
In the recall election against Lopez, the Republican Party was able to influence a group of Latino parents who were dissatisfied with the slow pace of school construction and impatient with the educational improvements carried out by the board. As the new chairwoman of the board, Audrey Yamagata-Noji, has said, finding unpolluted land in a built-up community like Santa Ana is a daunting task. Ironically, these parents were the unwitting catalysts in returning to power some of those who represented the past policies that never served the Latino majority well. Together with multimillionaire Republican Ron Unz, the Republican Party took over their grass-roots protest.
But in the Lopez recall, Republicans also had the support of some Latinos. Conservative Latino politician Miguel Pulido, now the mayor of Santa Ana, jumped on the race-baiting wagon. Pulido had supported Proposition 187, an initiative that if it had not been declared unconstitutional could have deprived thousands of the city's undocumented children of access to education and other social services.
Another Latino, school Supt. Al Mijares, wrote an inflammatory column two days before the election in the Orange County Register. In that column, he accused Lopez and board chair John Palacio of being "cancerous cells" on the board. Though he never had raised objections to the board's actions, he jumped onto the anti-Latino bandwagon. His negative portrayal so late in the campaign did not allow the victims to clear the air.
The Democratic Party, to its shame, slunk into a corner when it smelled defeat. Two recently elected Latino politicians, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and state Assemblyman Lou Correa -- two local legislators who owe their seats to the mobilization efforts of naturalized voters by Lopez -- distanced themselves from him.
The Republican Party discovered it can beat back the Latino surge by using power and wealth. That is a lesson Latinos also should also learn, and never forget. They must not allow their voting power to be minimized by a group that does not have their interests at heart.
Victor M. Rodriguez is an associate professor of Chicano and Latino studies at Cal State Long Beach.
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