Chicago has Jesse Jackson. New York has Al Sharpton. Both started with local minority-group constituencies and, by dint of passion, personality and an eye for the TV camera, transformed themselves into national media figures. Along the way, the two charismatic figures also built cadres of loyal followers and staunch enemies.
And Orange County has … Nativo Lopez.
If this were any metropolitan area other than Orange County, Lopez would be a household name. Not to mention a household face. But because this metropolis of nearly 3 million has no daily multi- network TV news presence, its leaders go largely unnoticed. We can’t really say, then, that like Jackson and Sharpton, the 50-year-old Lopez has an eye for the camera. There’s no camera to eye, so most residents probably haven’t seen his handsome face and slicked-back silver hair.
Let’s call him, then, the invisible lightning rod.
Lopez’s tenure with the immigrant-rights group Hermandad Mexicana Nacional has been dotted with controversy that has proved more smoke than fire. His current tenure on the Santa Ana Board of Education now includes, along with many tangible improvements for the district, a recall movement against him.
In recent years, Lopez has been in the forefront of various issues connected to the emerging Mexican immigrant population in Orange County and, more specifically, Santa Ana. He has threatened a Latino boycott of the local tourism industry, challenged the Anaheim Police Department’s cooperation with U.S. immigration officials and accused the Department of Motor Vehicles of racial profiling by targeting Latinos in its crackdown on identity theft.
The recall effort appears to be centered on Lopez’s belief that young Latino children shouldn’t be forced too quickly into English-language classes, for fear they’ll fall behind during their crucial early primary-school years.
Just as with Jackson and Sharpton, reaction to Lopez has chipped away at the stereotype of a monolithic minority group. That is, some of Lopez’s strongest critics, as evidenced by the recall movement, come from the Latino community around which he’s built his power base.
“He’s fearless,” says Enriqueta Ramos, a board member of the Rancho Santiago Community College District. “He’s not afraid to confront government or institutions.”
Ramos doesn’t claim Lopez as a friend and has butted heads with him from time to time. But, she says, he’s a community leader, in the real meaning of the term.
“I think he’s so much bigger than even his enemies like to give him credit for,” she says. “He’s this humongous tree that is very tall, and people see his roots swaying and think they may be able to knock him down, but I think his roots are incredible.”
Asked where that strength comes, she replies, “From the thousands of people he has helped.”
The “anti-Lopez” faction that has developed over the years tends to sound the same notes as those who oppose people such as Jackson and Sharpton. Loosely phrased, the rap is that Lopez has used Hermandad to advance his own agenda and that he’s a political powerbroker who will bend the rules or try to intimidate opponents.
“I think he’s a manipulator, so people think he has more support than he has,” one critic says. “There’s kind of a mystique that he has this power that I don’t think he does.”
Not so, says Ramos, adding that Lopez’s supporters have criticized her in the past because she won’t embrace all of his political positions. “I don’t see him as thinking of himself as a politician, at all. Politicians will say one thing and do something else, but I don’t see him saying one thing and doing something else.”
Lopez has 2 1/2 more years on his school-board term. Ramos pictures Lopez someday running for mayor Santa Ana.
Critics and all?
“Someone once said,” Ramos says, “if you don’ t have any enemies, you probably haven’t done anything.”
Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times’ Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to email@example.com.