The recall from office of a school board member in a medium-size Southern California city wouldn’t normally be big news. But the ouster last week of Santa Ana Unified School District’s Nativo Lopez should send a signal to ethnic-enclave politicians across the state, if not the nation.
Lopez, one of the California’s most ardent advocates of bilingual education, was recalled by a 40-point margin in the most Spanish-speaking city in the United States. While the issues in the race were many, the one underlying theme that drove the election was Lopez’s dogged belief in the need to teach the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants in Spanish rather than English. Lopez was done in by his advocacy of a brand of politics that emphasizes ethnic identity over assimilation, separatism rather than inclusion.
Lopez, a veteran advocate for immigrants who changed his name from Larry to Nativo to stress his Mexican roots, is the most prominent figure in Santa Ana politics. He is revered by many in the immigrant community for his dedication to their cause.
But his efforts to register new citizens to vote have been accused of bordering on fraud, or worse, and the state Department of Education is suing the foundation Lopez runs for failing to account for its use of state and federal funds.
The issue that finally caught up with him was bilingual education. He was an outspoken opponent of Proposition 227, the 1998 ballot measure that sought to eliminate bilingual education and to protect the rights of immigrant parents who wanted their children taught in English. After the measure passed, Lopez led an effort to persuade (some would say harass) Santa Ana parents to sign waivers that would allow the schools to continue to teach their children in Spanish.
The recall effort was started by parents at one Santa Ana school who were frustrated that they could not enroll their children in English- immersion classes. Children who were speaking English at home and didn’t even know Spanish were being forced into classes taught mainly in Spanish.
The effort was joined by a group of parents from the north side of town opposed to the construction of a new school in their neighborhood. All seven members of the majority-Latino City Council endorsed the recall. Local business leaders and bilingual education opponent Ron Unz also joined the fight, eventually contributing more than $250,000 to the recall campaign. Lopez spent more than $150,000 on his campaign.
The results were stunning. Lopez got just 29 percent, while more than 70 percent of voters approved the measure to remove him from office. He was replaced by a white former City Council member. Predictably, Lopez blamed his defeat on racism.
“This recall wasn’t just about Nativo Lopez,” he said as returns rolled in. “It was to keep our people in check.”
But his “people” voted against him in droves. According to an analysis of the results by the Orange County Register, Lopez lost in every precinct in the school district, including the heavily Hispanic neighborhoods once considered his stronghold.
In only one precinct, the paper said, was the vote even close. This was not reactionary racism but a home-grown movement by people fed up with a style of leadership that has come to characterize Latino politics in much of California.
Arturo Lomeli, a Santa Ana dentist who was born in Mexico and who is president of the Downtown Business Association, told the Los Angeles Times that he voted for the recall because he was convinced that Lopez was trying to re-create Mexico in Santa Ana.
“You don’t come to the United States and say, ‘I’d like to live in a city that looks like Mexico.’ … You want nice things. You don’t get them with a Nativo Lopez,” Lomeli said.
And Mary Helen Milanes, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico, told the Orange County Register that she opposed Lopez because of his separatist tendencies.
“I hate it when people say because he’s a Latino, he’s going to do things for Latinos,” Milanes said. “I think they should be doing it for the community.”
Exactly. The Lopez recall is a sign of maturity in Latino politics. It’s an indication that many, if not most, immigrants from Mexico and the rest of Latin America yearn to be Americans. Like other immigrants before them, they came here for a better life, and they want their children to have access to the opportunities this society offers. They value their heritage, but they don’t want to be ghettoized. They want to assimilate.
It’s condescending in the extreme to suggest that Latino voters should be any more cohesive, as a group, than non-Hispanic white voters. And it’s dangerous for Latino politicians to cater only to the fringe activists who resist assimilation. Or to take Latino voters for granted.
Lopez was a close ally of like-thinking Latino politicians who have become a dominant force in the Democratic Party and the California Legislature. They think they are the wave of the future. But last week’s election in Santa Ana suggest that their ways are fast becoming a thing of the past.
The Bee’s Daniel Weintraub can be reached at (916) 321-1914 or at [email protected]