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Saturday, November 18, 2000

A Democratic Reconquista in Santa Ana


There are some nervous people in our midst who fear that Mexicans are plotting to reclaim California and the Southwest. These jittery citizens have a Web site named American Patrol, where they fret about what they call La Reconquista, the reconquest of territory lost by Mexico in its war with the United States.

Hey, relax. The country is safe. Mexicans, or their descendants, barely managed to take over the Santa Ana school board last week, and that battle took years. They still don't have control of City Hall in this town, with a population that is overwhelmingly Mexican in origin.

Nothing more subversive than a democratic election gave Santa Ana the distinction of becoming the first Orange County locality with an all-Latino school board, though its members bicker about who really qualifies to be Latino. All five trustees of the Santa Ana Unified School District have Latino roots, mostly Mexican. That's a dramatic reversal from just a decade ago when Latinos struggled for even the slimmest electoral foothold in a district that tops 90% Latino enrollment.

This year's victory is nothing to be afraid of, as long as leaders act responsibly in office. In fact, the election demonstrates that Latinos in Orange County are more a part of the American system than ever before.

The Santa Ana results may seem surprising, or even menacing, to those unfamiliar with the history of Latino empowerment in the United States. But the drive for representation in local government has been a cornerstone of Latino politics for more than 30 years, pioneered in places like Crystal City, Texas, and Rancho Cucamonga.

Professor Armando Navarro, chair of ethnic studies at UC Riverside, has written extensively about those events and the Chicano political party movement they engendered. Coincidentally this week, the aging activist brought together other veterans of the movement for a campus forum he jokingly called the "gathering of dinosaurs."

Winning Isn't Always Victory

Navarro--who used the occasion to sign his latest book, entitled "La Raza Unida Party: a Chicano Challenge to the U.S. Two Party Dictatorship"--said Latino victories at the polls no longer offer automatic cause to rejoice.

"The difference today is that there is no fervor, no passion, for major social change," Navarro told me in a telephone interview Thursday. "The idea is not just that we needed to replace white folks with brown folks. The vision was much bigger than that. . . . Because what difference does it make if you replace a Johnson with a Martinez if [the new Latino official] is a carbon copy of the person he replaced?"

The makeup of the new Santa Ana school board is far from homogeneous. The five members include a controversial community activist, Nativo Lopez, and a conservative Christian fundamentalist, Rosemarie Avila. In between are attorney Nadia Davis, activist John Palacio and the newest member, teacher Sal Tinajero, who garnered the most votes with support from all ideological quarters.

The power on the board has tilted strongly toward the left. Lopez, head of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, an immigrant rights group, has built a voting majority with allies Palacio and Davis. Avila is more likely to be isolated on the right, especially in her opposition to bilingual education and social services for the poor.

"I think they'll just run right over her and just move on," said outgoing trustee Audrey Yamagata Noji, who narrowly lost her bid for a fourth term.

Avila's critics long have tried to isolate her as a Latina-by-convenience, charging she uses her husband's surname to win ethnic votes. Her maiden name is Rosemarie Ilse Leonhardt, born in Guatemala of German extraction. She borrows her middle name from her mother, Ilse Schieber.

"It's only of late that she's had an epiphany, a conversion if you will, of scouring the earth to find her Latino roots," Lopez said Wednesday during his victory press conference. "God bless her if she wants to be one of us."

Avila brushed off the challenge. She told my colleague, The Times' Tina Borgatta, that she considers herself an advocate for Latinos. And she warned the community against blindly adhering to a single party line.

"The Latino community has come to power politically, and now it's time for them to become informed and vote on facts and issues, not just on what they are told," Avila said.

Oddly, these opposing factions often have found consensus on the board. Noji and others say nationality doesn't matter when it comes to sound education policy.

Indeed, the Asian American educator was first approached to run 13 years ago by Latinos who had been unsuccessful in bids to get on the board. They backed her as an alternative, because she speaks Spanish and understands multicultural issues.

"It was a wonderful compliment," she recalled Friday.

Edmundo Cardenas, a Santa Ana parent who has been active in district affairs, is pleased that the board makeup finally mirrors the community but sorry to see Noji go.

"I don't think it has to be pure Latino for us to be represented," said Cardenas, a father of four who recently enrolled at Santa Ana College, where his two oldest children also are studying. "The more different experiences and different views people bring to the table, that's healthy."

Noji has mixed feelings too about the new Latino dominance of the board. It makes sense demographically, she noted. But Latinos might discover that power has its pitfalls.

"There is a lot of concern that Santa Ana will become a Compton," she said, referring to corruption scandals that have undermined African American leadership in that Los Angeles County city and school system.

Lopez defuses the issue by turning it back on those who raise it. He detects a "racist edge" to the perception that minority politicians are susceptible to corruption.

Power corrupts without regard to race, Lopez told me. And voters should hold minority politicians to the same standards and scrutiny as anybody else.

"They [the voters] have every opportunity to turn me out of office if I'm less than responsive or abusive in power," said Lopez, who survived allegations of voter fraud when he first won election in 1996.

Despite all the ideological wrangling, Lopez put forth an agenda this week that sounded anything but radical.

His priorities: construction of new schools, replacement of portable classrooms, strict performance accountability and a return to a traditional calendar rather than a year-round schedule. On more controversial issues, he calls himself "a steadfast advocate of diversity" in hiring and a supporter of bilingual education, though he wants English introduced as early as kindergarten.

As for the significance of this year's Latino victory, Lopez evoked the rationale behind the community's 30-year-old drive for political empowerment. "It's an awakening," he said.

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