Santa Ana — Nativo Lopez walks into the school auditorium, and whispers slice through the air like an electric current. The school board member who is facing a recall threat is famous here – some would say infamous – but no one can say that he does not know his audience.
“I represent all those who pay taxes,” he told a rapt group of about 50 parents at Edison Elementary School last week. “I didn’t say voters. I said taxpayers.”
Lopez, 50, makes a crucial point in the heart of Santa Ana, home to thousands of Mexican immigrants who are not U.S. citizens and therefore cannot vote. But some say that distinction may also be a liability as his opponents try to sweep him out of office.
The battle is the latest in a string of disputes that has shadowed Lopez’s political career as a board member and the leader of the local immigrant- rights group Hermandad Mexicana Nacional. This rift is with a group of mostly Latino parents unhappy with the resurgence of bilingual education, the pace of the school-construction program, low test scores and the high numbers of teachers without full credentials.
Recall proponents hit the streets this week to collect signatures to put the recall on the ballot, and Ron Unz, co-author of Proposition 227, the 1998 ballot initiative that sought to end bilingual education, flew down from Northern California to advise them and donate $1,000. Lopez says the recall is backed by a “fistful” of what he calls conservative-backed parents who are blowing a school dispute out of proportion.
Most recall efforts fail, according to the Orange County Registrar of Voters. In this case, 11 Santa Ana residents took out papers last month to recall Lopez and were cleared Friday to collect signatures. They have until Sept. 12 to collect 8,624 signatures, or 15 percent of the 57,490 registered voters, to put the issue on the November ballot.
The recall effort has spawned hard feelings in one of the most Hispanic cities in the nation, where Lopez is much more than a school board member. Some revere him as a champion of immigrants’ rights, while others say he is divisive and resent his blunt, aggressive style.
Because she is working on the recall, Veronica Gonzalez said, her mostly Spanish- speaking neighbors shun her at children’s baseball games.
Gonzalez said she became alarmed when her son would return from Edison Elementary School speaking Spanish and was labeled an “English learner” on his report card – odd, she thought, because her family speaks English at home. School officials say he is in an English-only class, but Spanish is hard to avoid when 80 percent of the students speak it.
“People have said … ‘How can you go against your own race?’ ” Gonzalez said. “I’m not going against my own race. I’m fighting for my children.”
Others say they feel wounded by the recall. Many praise Lopez for helping raise graduation requirements to send more students to college and pass a school-construction bond. Tuesday, about 100 parents and children marched from Edison to the school-board meeting to support Lopez.
“That’s what hurts most, that they’re Latinas,” said parent Yvonne Ramirez. “Why would they want to get rid of him? He’s helping us.”
Experts say such political divisions are not uncommon among Latinos, even though most are Democrats. Many have disagreed over issues such as bilingual education and immigration. Lopez recently differed with other Latino board members when he backed a plan to create a two-year kindergarten program.
“Splits and divisions have been very common in Latino communities and Latino politics,” said David Ayon, a political analyst at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “Latino political advancement is occurring on a national scale … so that notion of unity being the imperative over all other considerations is probably eroding.”
Still, this dispute underscores the differences among Latinos in Santa Ana. Some arrived decades ago when Orange County was mostly white and now speak English at home. Today Santa Ana Unified is 92 percent Hispanic, and 74 percent of the city’s residents speak Spanish at home.
Latinos dominate the school board, and bilingual education has made a comeback in Santa Ana even as it has declined statewide. State law lets parents sign waivers to put their children in bilingual classes, and 10 percent have done so in Santa Ana.
For Lopez, controversies have become so commonplace over the years that he calls himself a “lightning rod.” The state Department of Education is suing Hermandad to recover millions of dollars in grants it says are unaccounted for. Lopez has fought for control of Hermandad in Los Angeles and faced down accusations of voter fraud that were never proved.
Lopez won re-election in 2000 by fewer than 500 votes. Many said they were disillusioned after he accepted campaign donations from architects and others vying for school-construction contracts. Others said Lopez has broader support among immigrants who cannot vote, something experts say few Latino politicians can point to, partly because they do not court non-voters.
“I didn’t give (Lopez) much of a chance of surviving and having the political success that he’s had,” said Ayon, the political analyst. “What really intrigues me about him (is) he really does have a foot in the two worlds. Most Latino leaders don’t know the immigrant community. Lopez is the exception.”