Santa Ana leaders encourage young Latino activists to speak, by ballot

While young Latinos in Santa Ana speak out against the political 'old guard,' city leaders push them to vote

Laura Perez thought Mayor Miguel Pulido was being inattentive when she stepped to the podium at a Santa Ana City Council meeting last summer. So she called him on it.

"What are you looking at? Please answer me. Can you answer?" Perez asked Pulido. "What were you looking at? Your phone?"

The 29-year-old activist's public chastising of the 20-year mayor reflects a new political dynamic in heavily Latino Santa Ana — one in which tensions spring more from generational issues than ethnicity.

The city of about 350,000 elected its first all-Latino council a few years ago, and Latinos today hold as much political sway in Santa Ana as in any large city in America, experts say.

But as the Latino community has grown and matured politically, young activists in Santa Ana are increasingly vocal and taking to task many of their local leaders — most of them older Latinos who rose to political power long before many of the activists could vote. It's a generation gap driven by differing visions of what the city should be.

"Some think they have too much power. In reality, they don't. Just as we gave it to them, I think we can strip it away," Perez said of the City Council. She campaigned unsuccessfully as a write-in candidate against Pulido after the confrontation at the council meeting.

The young residents have fixed on the all-Latino City Council, accusing members of being part of an "old guard" that is afraid to challenge other entrenched forces such as law enforcement officials and business leaders.

One point of contention is gentrification of 4th Street downtown. Santa Ana's central district has for generations been a marketplace for Latino immigrants. But the activists worry that non-Latino outsiders, with the blessing of council members, could continue to bring in gourmet restaurants and hipster shops, and displace longtime Latino business owners hawking Mexican-style boots and frilly quinceañera dresses.

More generally, some younger residents argue the old guard is not in touch with the needs of their largely immigrant constituents.

"You have a group of people who are coming into their own and questioning what is going on in their city and questioning how it is being remade," said Jody Agius Vallejo, assistant professor of sociology at USC who has studied Latino issues in Orange County.

Some of the veteran Latino leaders reject the criticism and say they are heartened to see the next generation becoming politically active. They also say the activists should schedule an appointment to meet with city leaders to talk about their concerns in hope of finding common ground.

They also said the activists might be better served by voting in larger numbers, rather than just taking to the streets to protest or flooding council meetings — as they have done several times this year.

A generation ago, Latinos complained of an all-white City Council. After becoming Santa Ana's dominant ethnic group in the 1980s, they agitated for better representation — a push that eventually helped elect Pulido, among others.

Decades later, the 58-year-old mayor is under investigation by the Orange County district attorney and the state's Fair Political Practices Commission over a downtown real estate deal.

The youthful critics point to the investigation, but also say he is inaccessible and dismissive of their grievances.

They cite Pulido pushing public comments to the end of the council meetings as an example of their being shut out of the process.

Pulido brushed off the complaints, saying he constantly receives "overwhelming support" for what he's done for youth in the city.

He touted his years of leadership while pushing development projects such as the Discovery Science Center and the Academy, a charter school on North Fairview Street, as examples of his commitment to Latino youth in the city.

"Forty people coming to a council meeting and complaining is part of the process, but it's a big city out there," Pulido said.

But Carlos Perea, 22, said the council's latest move further emboldens the youth movement. Perea is a member of a grass-roots immigrant rights group called RAIZ, which has rallied against what it perceives as an overly cozy relationship between Santa Ana Police Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

The group has criticized City Council members for not speaking out against the police, given that many residents are recent arrivals from Mexico who are in the country without legal status.

"Youth are frustrated with the lack of leadership in regard to the issue," Perea said.

The group has packed council meetings, circulated petitions, held community forums and targeted specific council members who could influence the process.

"We didn't come to ask," Perea said in an interview. "We were saying you can do it and we know you are going to do it because you know we will mobilize."

In 2013, the group called on the Police Department to stop automatically honoring requests from immigration officials to hold people who are suspected of being in the country illegally. The department eventually did so.

"We have pushed the line when other organizations were afraid of doing so," Perea said. "That's what youth in Santa Ana are doing.... They are standing up and saying that's enough. You can't ignore us anymore."

The intergenerational conflict in Santa Ana mirrors what's happening on a national level, where some young Latinos have employed brazen tactics in challenging the immigrant rights establishment such as participating in sit-ins at congressional offices and staging protests along the U.S.-Mexico border.

"These latest generation of activists are a lot bolder," said Manuel Pastor, professor of sociology and American studies and ethnicity at USC. "They want to challenge the system in more dramatic ways."

Pastor noted that a generation gap always exists in politics. He said the Chicano movement was a reaction to the Mexican American generation before it being perceived as too willing to assimilate.

Michele Martinez, who at 35 is the youngest council member, said she doesn't consider herself part of the old guard, but learned through "a lot of hard knocks" that being too brazen sometimes doesn't get you very far.

When she was elected to the council at 26, she said she "got beat down" because she was trying to push an agenda without the support of others on the council.

"I'd get angry and not support what they would do. Back then I was just very angry and lashing out," she said.

Since then, she said she's matured as a politician, becoming more strategic, focusing on issues that many on the council can agree with.

She encourages the younger activists to follow a similar course.

"Let's work on things where we have common ground," she said. "They don't realize it because they're angry and think they are not being heard."

Councilman Vincent Sarmiento said he has a hard time reconciling the discontent among younger Latinos with the reelection of three incumbents last month.

"I think the real maturity is not being vocally outspoken, I think it's taking a role in participating in the political process, which is voting," Sarmiento said. "To me that is the real, true indicator of political maturity for a community of color."

cindy.carcamo@latimes.com
Twitter: @thecindycarcamo

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