Santa Ana’s small-minded self-hatred

Teens killing teens. Corrupt school officials. Graffiti that blooms every night. Streets withering into dust. Not enough parks. Two libraries to serve a city of 400,000. A huge, unassimilated and poor immigrant population. Segregated neighborhoods. Overcrowding. Santa Ana, Calif., has all the problems of a metropolis but little of the compensating urban charm. (Although the overpriced downtown lofts amid the quinceañera shops and fruit ladies are trying to change that pronto.)

City officials are understandably concerned about their ‘burb, especially because it’s the government seat of Orange County, where image trumps all and “Santa Ana” is code for “Mexican.” But instead of focusing on the city’s underlying ills, Santa Ana’s leaders are ignoring the burrito for the beans.

In the last few years, Santa Ana City Council members, their appointed allies on city commissions and various bureaucrats have declared war on the criminal equivalent of Bugsy Malone. They’ve limited garage sales to four set weekends a year, hassled street vendors, made owning a barking dog a jailable offense and even tried to declare taco trucks a public nuisance. Now Orange County’s largest city has sicced its lawyers on what they classify as “human signs”: those lovable losers who spend hours on street corners under the sun holding large advertising signs.

These breathing billboards are as much a part of Santa Ana as illegal immigrants and Latino trannie bars. I’ve enjoyed dozens of memorable characters over the years -- pink-tutu-wearing pancakes promoting IHOP, break-dancing teens shilling for housing developments, Latino men glumly lugging around sandwich boards, a lady dressed as a clown while handing out fliers for a furniture store blasting rock en español.

I figure that anyone brave enough to withstand ridicule and heat for $10 an hour and few bathroom breaks is a captain of industry, a hero worthy of his own Woody Guthrie ballad. But Santa Ana’s rulers don’t share my appreciation. In this long, dry summer, they’ve already charged at least five sign-wavers with misdemeanors and are promising to prosecute more. Court dates are set for later this month.

The busybodies argue that they’re merely trying to improve Santa Ana’s quality of life. Today’s human pancakes might become tomorrow’s broken windows, and irritate drivers to boot.

But the entrepreneurs who hire sign-wavers are suffering as a result of the crackdown, and I’d believe the driver-distraction excuse if Santa Ana didn’t also allow big businesses to erect eyesores like the Santa Ana Auto Mall’s thousand-suns-bright marquee near the 55 Freeway, or the Taco Bell Discovery Science Center’s giant cube dangling ominously over cars as they speed past on Interstate 5.

The root of the problem is that Santa Ana is governed by people who don’t want to accept the immigrant magnet where they live. They pretend they’re in Newport Beach instead of the city that a 2004 study by the State University of New York’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government rated as having the most “urban hardship” in the United States. Their policies are designed to please those who live in the ritzy neighborhoods north of 17th Street, Santa Ana’s Mason-Dixon line, instead of the teeming barrio below.

Instead of investing money in more police officers, Santa Ana spent a bit more than $1 million to refurbish and repaint a water tower so it could read “Downtown Orange County.” Rather than improving infrastructure, it installed a downtown water fountain better suited for Tivoli. Instead of supporting local businesses, Santa Ana lures such out-of-town corporations as Starbucks and American Apparel with massive subsidies. And the city’s primary project over the last decade has been an Artists Village that gets its largest crowds not during its “first Saturday” gallery open houses but during Dia de los Muertos.

Sure, catering to the poor doesn’t elect politicians, and it incurs the wrath of longtime residents who seethe that immigrants have changed Santa Ana forever. But Orange County’s largest city needs visionary politicians like Fiorello LaGuardia, Franklin D. Roosevelt or even the pre-philandering Antonio Villaraigosa: men who understood that communities don’t truly prosper until the downtrodden do.

The irony of Santa Ana’s pettiness is who leads the attack. Santa Ana is the largest U.S. city with an all-Latino City Council. Three of them are Mexican immigrants; one, Mayor Miguel Pulido, campaigned against city nitpickers (planners wanted to seize his family’s muffler shop through eminent domain and turn it into a shopping center) when he first ran for City Council in 1986.

You’d expect, because of their background, that Pulido and his amigos would feel more sympathy for the city’s teeming masses. Instead, they strum some mariachi chords while Santa Ana crumbles. Before, it was gabacho politicians who ignored Latino needs; now, it’s Latino politicos forsaking their duty. That’s progress, right?

Gustavo Arellano is a contrib-

uting editor to Opinion and a staff writer for the OC Weekly, where he writes the ¡Ask a Mexican! column.