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Latinos Ponder a School Election and Loss of Clout

Times Staff Writer

It was 1971, a year of opportunity for a group of ambitious, well-connected Mexican-American professionals in Santa Ana.

Rodolfo (Rudy) Montejano, an attorney, had drummed up enough support to win an appointment to the Santa Ana Unified School District and soon became board president, the first Mexican-American elected to such a post.

“But times have changed,” Montejano admitted, as he and others cited a host of factors influencing last week’s elections in which two Latinos failed to win seats on the school board. The factors included an exodus of the city’s white middle class and upwardly mobile Latinos, growing numbers of undocumented residents who can’t vote and a general lack of interest.

Despite a large majority of Latinos among the district’s 36,200 students, the Santa Ana Unified School District has had no Latino board member since 1978. The last Mexican-American elected to the board was Cordelia Gutierrez, a high school teacher who left in 1978.

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In 1983, four Mexican-Americans lost bids to join the board. Last Tuesday, two more, Emilio De La Cruz, a Rancho Santiago College coordinator, and Louisa Pedroza Solis, lost by wide margins.

Their defeat by two conservative incumbents, Mary J. Pryer, and James A. Richards, has raised a fundamental question: Why can’t a Latino get elected to the school board?

Many residents and community leaders immediately pointed to apathy in the Latino community. But the issue, given Santa Ana’s growing ethnic communities and its core of white residents in northern and southern areas, is more complex, said Bert Buzan, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor.

“What people dismiss as apathy is really more complicated, especially with a lot of recent immigrants who tend to be younger. Even new (legal) immigrants don’t vote,” Buzan said.

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During the Montejano years, from 1967 to 1971, “everybody cared about the schools,” including conservatives, and Latinos, who were just “beginning to gain a political awareness,” Buzan said.

“Today, that’s not the case,” Montejano said. “Most of what we would consider the moderate whites don’t have kids in the school system anymore. Their children have grown up, and they’ve moved out or they send their kids elsewhere.”

White Voting Group

What’s left, say many Latino community activists, is a conservative, basically white voting group that accounts for only 14% of the district’s students, but turns out to vote in numbers disproportionately larger than their Latino counterparts.

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The Latinos have yet to generate the 2,000 or more votes needed to win a board seat or to master the political system as Montejano and Gutierrez mastered it.

Gaining political clout in Santa Ana, where more than half the city’s 210,000 residents are Latino, has been a slow process. Despite attention to the “potential” of the Latino vote, only three Latino City Council members have been elected in recent history. Only one, John Acosta, is still in office.

Ironically, the only minority member on the school board is Sadie Reid, a black woman who was elected in 1983 with the help of the city’s Latinos.

Leobardo Estrada, a demographer at UCLA’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, was once quoted as saying, “It’s a citizenship problem, not a registration problem.”

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A 1983 Los Angeles Times Poll of 568 California Latinos showed that 58% of the respondents were not registered to vote. The poll found that 45% of the respondents were not citizens.

Nationally, Estrada said, every year for the next 10 years, 200,000 Latinos will come of voting age. “But unless they vote, unless they become citizens, all this will remain only as potential. The increase in numbers is inevitable. The issue is how to translate those numbers into gains.”

Busy or Lacked Interest

Random interviews with potential voters after the election in Santa Ana showed most who failed to vote said they were too busy, lacked interest or had to work. Out of a dozen interviews, only three said they couldn’t vote because of their immigration status.

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Many, such as Henry Montano, a resident since 1964, said Latinos were not interested. “They just don’t care much. They’d rather sit around inside their homes and watch television.”

Montano, who agreed that Latinos should have a “say so” concerning their children’s education, said he didn’t think Latinos are “educated enough to understand the importance of the vote.”

Delfino Espinoza said Latinos want to vote but can’t because many--such as his grandmother who is from Mexico--can’t vote legally.

While they said they both voted, Montano and Espinoza were surprised to hear that two Latinos were on the ballot for school board. Espinoza said he took a sample ballot into the election booth and “I just didn’t look at the names.”

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Out of a dozen people questioned, only Lydia Perez, 59, said she specifically voted for De La Cruz and Solis, because “they’re from nuestra raza (our race).”

The majority, however, reflected the view of Rosa Aguirre, owner of a small, 5th Street gift shop in Santa Ana. “I know I should vote. But I’m too busy. I have two jobs and work day and night.”

Lack of interest on the part of voters has combined with a decline in traditional political organizing in Santa Ana, observers said.

The Democratic Party inevitably relies on county labor groups for Latino support. Such once-vigorous groups as the Hispanic Democrats of Orange County and other Latino branches of Orange County’s Democratic Party have become defunct, making it harder for young community leaders to gain political sophistication.

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Organizations Needed

“Most of us have only been involved in grass-roots organizations, and we really don’t know how to run a successful campaign,” said Santa Ana attorney Sal Sarmiento, who has been on the losing end of many school board campaigns.

Cal State’s Buzan, who is from San Antonio, Tex., where Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS), one of the nation’s most effective Latino organizations in the southwest, was established, said that similar organizations are needed to help spur Latino interests and gain political clout in Santa Ana.

A local group called Santa Ana Neighborhoods Organizations boasted thousands of members in the 1970s but is now non-existent. The political organizations built by Montejano and Gutierrez have disappeared.

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Attractive candidates have been as elusive as permanent political organizations.

When Manuel Gomez, a UC Irvine economic opportunity program coordinator, ran for school board he was considered an outstanding candidate, with good speaking ability in both Spanish and English, an advanced education and many contacts in higher education. But Gomez lost twice.

“There is a base,” Gomez said, half-jokingly. “But it favors the incumbents.”

“It takes an individual who is going to strike a chord among Latinos but also strike one in the larger community. One (person) who has the correct response and one who can cultivate the right responses to bring the people out to vote,” Gomez said.

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Gomez said that when he ran, he suffered from an inaccurate perception held by Anglos that any Spanish-surnamed candidate only wants to represent Latinos.

Others said that Latinos often allow jealousies and egos to stand in the way of political success.

Need Right Candidates

“We just don’t have the right person as a candidate yet,” said Gilbert R. Melendez, a 20-year Santa Ana resident. “When we get one, other Latinos don’t like it and encourage a second Latino to run, and that ends up spitting the vote.”

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He noted, that De La Cruz and Solis both had a combined 25.6% of the electorate.

“Maybe we could have had a winner if one would have run,” Melendez said. “We don’t have our strategies worked out yet.”

Mary Pryer, who won reelection on Tuesday, said she was “baffled” by the lack of interest among the majority of Latino parents she and campaign workers had contacted prior to Tuesday’s election. Pryer rallied her supporters, including some Latino parents, around a back to basics campaign.

“That’s hard to accept,” she said, “because you have important things like their taking stock in the education of their children. This affects the next generation.”

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Montejano, who now sits on the Rancho Santiago Community College District Board, criticized the current board for a lack of leadership in failing to “aggressively go out and get these people interested in their schools.”

“That means going beyond what the law requires,” Montejano said. Instead of routinely sending notice of important district events, “You have to go knocking on doors generating interest. Those are some of the things to create a higher level of awareness and participation. You have to create an assumption that you can create that awareness without the fear of the results.”

Many community leaders interviewed said wider public participation in education is needed to help find solutions for district problems, which include severe overcrowding, continuing sharp increases in enrollment, a high dropout rate--especially among Latino students--and academic achievement levels that, despite some improvement in recent years, still remain the lowest in the county, and among the bottom 20% in the state, in terms of state test scores.


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