When City Council members met recently to divide up a $3.6-million pie of federal funds, they found themselves confronted by an audience of more than 200 people from Hermandad Mexicana Nacional.
But few from the Latino rights group paid much attention to the council members; instead their eyes seemed locked on Nativo V. Lopez, a muscular, mustached man of 38 who is Hermandad's Orange County director.
When the council voted, 4-3, to reject a funding proposal that Hermandad supported, Lopez abruptly stood and stormed out, with his followers close behind. On the steps of City Hall, he denounced the decision to the cheers of the crowd. As for Councilman Miguel A. Pulido, who cast the decisive vote, Lopez vowed to picket his muffler business every Saturday until the November election and then vote to oust him.
Such is the influence of Lopez--a driven, committed, at times confrontational man who is the county's most controversial Latino leader.
For the past eight years, Lopez has cajoled, lobbied and protested before Santa Ana officials on issues that range from low-income housing to community redevelopment.
His regional stature is also such that when Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp called a meeting to discuss a Costa Mesa plan to withhold federal money from groups that serve illegal aliens, Lopez was among a handful of activists to receive an invitation.
"He is able to mobilize a significant number of people to whatever cause or issue that is a priority to Hermandad," said Robin Blackwell, coordinator for the Orange County Coalition of Immigrant Rights. "That's impressive. It's difficult for any grass-roots organizations to do that. These members are his foot soldiers."
While Hermandad, part of a national organization formed in 1951, has been hailed in recent years as the only county group to have successfully organized low-income Latinos, Lopez himself has been a lightning rod for critics.
Some say he is too adversarial to do lasting good for the 10,000 members that Hermandad often claims. Others say he is intimidating and quick to turn on anyone who dares to disagree with him. He is also accused of simply being overzealous.
"They said that about Jesus Christ, right?" Lopez responded in a recent interview. "They said that about Cesar Chavez. They said that about many people that are maybe headstrong about pursuing rights."
With eyeglasses and hair graying at his temples, Lopez looks like a college professor as he speaks from Hermandad's office in a professional building on Bristol Street in Santa Ana.
A sixth-generation Mexican-American, Lopez was born in Los Angeles and reared in Norwalk. He attended Excelsior High School there during the 1960s and founded a Mexican-American student organization.
Lopez said Vietnam War demonstrations and the Mexican-American movement in California and elsewhere in the Southwest made him want to fight for the rights of others.
When he was 17, he met Humberto Corona, now national director of Hermandad, and began working with the North Hollywood-based organization.
"You might say it was my calling," Lopez said. "You have to remember the period. It was an upswing of political activity."
He was born Larry Nativo Lopez, but about the time he began college at Cal State Dominguez Hills, he changed his name to Nativo Virgil Lopez.
His grandmother was the only member of his immediate family who spoke fluent Spanish, but Lopez decided to major in Spanish literature at Dominguez Hills. Learning Spanish sparked "a restoration of sorts" of his ethnic heritage, said Lopez, who is married and the father of three children.
Lopez left Dominguez Hills in 1980 before obtaining a degree, according to a university spokesman. He then worked with the American Friends Service Committee before founding Hermandad's Santa Ana chapter in 1982.
By 1985, Hermandad had led a series of rent strikes against landlords accused of failing to keep their apartments in good repair. The strikes proved to be highly effective, recalled Father Jaime Soto, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange's vicar for the Latino community.
"They brought leadership to tenants who were exploited by the landlords," Soto said. "At the time, county residents were unaware that such slum conditions were in the county. They thought such conditions only existed in New York and Los Angeles. I think Hermandad brought it to the public's eye."
Much of Hermandad's power stems from its ability to mobilize large numbers of people to a cause or to lobby government officials, said Arnoldo Torres, a former national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens and now a policy consultant in Sacramento. Torres worked with Hermandad in several campaigns, including efforts to halt passage of the Immigration Reform Act of 1986.
"That is the organization's trademark," Torres said. "They are willing to take on the most difficult and unpopular topics with passion and conviction."
But some Lopez critics question how he can be so politically active at City Council meetings when he operates a tax-exempt, nonprofit charitable organization that, according to federal law, is barred from participating or intervening "in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office."
"What they (Hermandad officials) are doing, they shouldn't be doing," suggested Don Richtol, an Internal Revenue Service agent in Los Angeles who is a specialist on charitable organization tax law. "They could lose their exempt status."
Lopez said, however, that he is aware of the law and careful to not to conduct his political activities during Hermandad business hours.
"Hermandad does not endorse candidates (and) is not involved in political campaigning," Lopez said. "But individually, we can be, on our own time. . . . There's a gray line out there."
IRS spokeswoman Carole Levitzky acknowledged that individuals in tax-exempt organizations can participate in the political process like any citizen, as long as it is divorced from their organizational activities. "It's a discretionary call," Levitzky said.
Councilman Pulido said he has no doubt that the people who picket his business each Saturday, with signs that read "Pulido Is a Traitor," are from Hermandad.
"Nativo is there, and members of Hermandad's board are there," Pulido said. "I've been to a number of (Hermandad) meetings. I've met with them and I know their faces. I know these people, and I'm 100% certain they are from Hermandad."
Lopez countered by flatly insisting that "we're not participating in a partisan political campaign against Pulido."
According to the most recent available federal tax forms, Hermandad is actually two distinct nonprofit entities: Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a so-called fraternal organization that provides legal and immigration assistance to low-income members of the community, and the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional Legal Center, a charity that receives $3.9 million in government grants.
About $2.8 million of the money goes to teach English and civics to more than 19,000 immigrants enrolled in the federal amnesty program, and the rest goes to provide, among other things, job training and a community newspaper.
Lopez, who is vice president of the legal center and co-director of the fraternal organization, said he is paid $35,000 a year from a combination of federal funds and money raised from 2,000 Hermandad members who pay $10-a-month dues.
He said he received no salary or compensation from Hermandad until 1987 and worked part time as an interpreter to support his family.
Lopez's wife, Maria Rosa Ibarra, is a treasurer of the legal center and trustee of the fraternal organization. She is paid $30,000--all of it federal money--to direct Hermandad's amnesty classes. Before Hermandad began its amnesty classes, she was a 30-hour-a-week unpaid volunteer while also working as a computer architectural engineer.
Hermandad's tie to the amnesty program has also sparked questions from Lopez critics.
Some complain that Lopez uses Hermandad's amnesty students--most of whom do not speak or understand much English--to periodically inflate the ranks of his "foot soldiers" who pack City Council meetings.
At a council session in April, for example, Lopez showed up with about 500 people--many of them amnesty students who carried notebooks and English books into the council chambers.
Santa Ana Mayor Daniel H. Young contended that such a turnout gives the false impression that Hermandad has many members lobbying the city.
The mayor added, however, that he does not let the crowd size influence his vote because he believes that Lopez is only "showboating. . . . He brings out a group to buy attention."
Lopez acknowledged that the students regularly attend council meetings, but not to lobby.
"That's a misconception, that we take students to participate in advocacy," Lopez said. "When we have gone before the council to raise hard issues, we don't take students. We take members of our organization."
Because part of the amnesty instruction program includes lessons in civic affairs, Lopez said, Hermandad takes students to council and school board meetings, so they can see how democracy works firsthand.
Lopez said the council meetings are models of "practical civics": "We're putting people in position where they can touch and feel those in position of power and to come in communication with those who receive petitions for any change.
"It's imperative for them to know how that process occurs, in which presentations can be made seeking funds for the very same needs those students have in their respective neighborhoods."
Torres of the League of United Latin American Citizens agreed that amnesty students can get valuable experience from attending council and school board meetings. But he questioned whether Hermandad allows its members to make up their own minds about city government.
"Are they really teaching their people to think independently and to make their own decisions about political issues?" Torres asked. "Or are they simply directing the people on how to think, act and function?"
Community leaders such as Helen Brown, president of the Civic Center Barrio Housing Corp., said members of Hermandad are not blind followers but people attracted to the organization because it is an advocate for their rights.
Santa Ana residents, Brown said, "see Hermandad as a concerned organization."
Lopez dismissed criticism of his group as "a perception from the outside."
"There's a flavor of racism in that perception," he said. "It speaks to the underlying thought that immigrants are incapable of thinking for themselves and . . . incapable of participating democratically in an organization and arriving at decisions and conclusions."
Since Pulido voted against distributing federal money to a group backed by Hermandad, 25 to 50 people have indeed picketed his business every Saturday. Pulido said he finds the picketing ironic, because he does not represent the east side Santa Ana district where Lopez wanted the money to go.
Lopez sees an irony as well in his actions against Pulido: "I've personally suffered, at least mentally, on this whole issue of having to protest another Latino in public."
But Lopez said he has been criticized by some in Hermandad for being too "soft" and "patient" and "compassionate" in dealing with a councilman accused by some members of not supporting the Latino community vigorously enough.
"I can't ignore what they are doing," Pulido said of the Hermandad pickets. "I'm working hard not to let it jade me and not letting it affect me on how I treat them."
In the past, Pulido concluded, "I've been producing results for this group. When you produce for them and then you get kicked in the teeth, it makes you wonder what their true motives are."
HERMANDAD MEXICANA NACIONAL
Led by Nativo V. Lopez, the Orange County chapter of the Latino rights group has been hailed in recent years as the only local organization to have successfully organized low-income Latinos.
1951, national organization based in North Hollywood
1982, Orange County chapter based in Santa Ana.
10,000 members claimed, of which 2,000 pay dues of $10 a month.
Legal, immigration and landlord/tenant assistance to 3,000 low-income residents.
904,399 hours of Amnesty Program English and civics classes provided to 19,667 students.
Career development and job training assistance to 17 residents.
Community Newspaper, Union Hispania, circulation 3,400.
$3.9 million in grants to the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional Legal Center, of which $2.8 million underwrites Amnesty Program classes.
Source: 1988 Internal Revenue Service Form 990 for Hermandad Mexicana Nacional and Hermandad Mexicana Nacional Legal Center; interviews with Hermandad officials.