Saturday, October 12, 2002

Nativo Lopez's divisive politics
Oct. 13, 2002 Orange County Register Column

By Steven Greenhut
Greenhut is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Register.

Nativo Lopez, the Santa Ana school board member and controversial political activist, is doing everything he can to avoid the wrath of his fellow Latinos.

Some Santa Ana moms - fed up with ill-performing Santa Ana schools and with Lopez's willingness to sacrifice their kids' future to his ethnic-based political agenda - sparked an effort to recall Lopez from his school-board post.

Although Lopez is only one member of the Santa Ana school establishment, he is its ideological leader - someone who critics say has resisted the implementation of the anti-bilingual education law, promotes racial identity politics rather than assimilation, and whose finances have drawn the notice of state investigators.

Lopez responded to the recall effort in a way worthy of a caudillo in a Latin American state. His red-shirted followers harassed those collecting signatures for the petition.

And he pushed the legal envelope on political campaigning, by distributing fliers and speaking at an official parents' meeting at a school this year, where he gathered names and addresses and asked parents to volunteer on his behalf to stop the recall.

Yet in this overwhelmingly Latino and Democratic city, recall supporters gathered more than 14,000 signatures to turn out of office this Latino rabble rouser. The Orange County registrar of voters verified 1,000 more signatures than needed to qualify the recall effort for the ballot.

But rather than put the measure on the ballot, the school board dominated by Lopez supporters (Nadia Davis, Sal Tinajero and John Palacio) on Tuesday voted to spend $30,000 to hire a consultant who will call a sampling of people who signed the recall petition and ask them if they really knew what they were doing when they signed it.

"Imagine the possibilities for intimidation," said Ron Unz, the co-author of the 1998 initiative, Proposition 227, that restricted bilingual education in California schools, and a recall backer. He can see it now: Hey, did you really mean to sign this petition? Didn't your really mean to support our good friend Nativo?

Davis and Tinajero said on Wednesday they might back away from that $30,000 expenditure now that the DA said that recall backers did nothing wrong in the way they collected the signatures. If the board doesn't change its vote, Unz might challenge the decision in court.

"They're [the Santa Ana school board] basically taking money out of the classroom to prevent voters from deciding whether to remove Nativo Lopez from the board," said Unz.

As recall supporters know, with Lopez and his school board allies, the kids don't come first. What comes first is a pro-Mexicano political agenda that will keep immigrants Spanish-speaking, outside the mainstream of American society and, by extension, poorer than they otherwise might be. They will need to turn to the Lopez organization whenever they need a favor.

Recall supporter Beatriz Salas needed help getting the proper special-education curriculum for her mentally disabled 16-year-old son. She said, in a letter to school officials, that after approaching Lopez for help, he told her that she would first have to join his activist group Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, and bring 100 parents from her school also.

Lopez denied the allegations, arguing that Salas mixed up his role as a board member
with his role as Hermandad leader.

But as one Democratic activist told me, he doesn't know if Lopez is corrupt or
incompetent, but there's no question he lives on the edge, playing by his own rules.

"A Santa Ana nonprofit has agreed to pay more than $600,000 to the U.S. government to settle a case in which prosecutors alleged that Hermandad Mexicana Nacional leader Nativo Lopez wrongly diverted grant money meant for English classes for immigrants," according to a Register report in September. Previously, Hermandad was accused of voter fraud in the Dornan-Sanchez congressional election, although no charges were ever filed.

As a school board member, Lopez and ally Palacio cost the district millions in matching state funds for school construction projects because they were personally screening the architectural firms selected to do the design work, and that caused
delays that missed the filing deadlines, according to published reports. By the way, Lopez was soliciting the architectural firms for campaign contributions at the same time he was hand-picking the contract winners.

Meanwhile, despite the passage of a major bond measure in Santa Ana last year, the district has yet to break ground on any new school, and has scaled back the number of schools being built.

But the big issue remains bilingual education, the controversial teaching concept that kept students from learning English because it taught subjects to them mainly in their native language. Recall supporters say Lopez has used his school-board position to encourage parents to file waivers to anti-bilingual-education Prop. 227, thus allowing their kids to be taught in Spanish.

One parent who started the Lopez recall told the media that she was furious after finding that her English-speaking child was placed in a class that was taught almost entirely in Spanish. Efforts to transfer the child to an English-speaking classroom were met with bureaucratic indifference.

"Not one formal complaint has been filed with the California Department of Education or any county department of education that anyone has been coerced or persuaded one way or another," Lopez told me.

But many Santa Ana parents see him as a real hindrance to Prop. 227's English-speaking goals.

"I tell him that being bilingual is a wonderful thing. That's why people need to add English so they can be bilingual. But he is hampering the process," said Gloria Matta Tuchman, a retired Santa Ana school teacher, co-author of Prop. 227, and activist with the recall effort. "[Lopez] calls it racist, but he is the racist. He is the extremist. I could be advocating for Swahili if that's what kids needed to graduate. But the tests happen to be in English."

At the end of the day, Lopez - who once compared himself to Jesus Christ in an L.A. Times interview - doesn't have much going for him other than his crude attempts at playing the ethnicity card. For example, he and Palacio made headlines last year after they ridiculed the ethnic background of school board member Rosemarie Avila, a South American native whose parents are of European descent. Avila is the only board member who stands up to Lopez and his followers.

After the registrar certified the recall signatures, Lopez told the newspapers that "the only issue is the school north of 17th street." He told me it was mainly the work of "a wealthy activist group north of 17th Street." Here's my translation of the accusation: The recall is the doing of white people who don't want a school built in their neighborhood.

But most white people in Santa Ana don't want to touch the city's ethnic politics.

Lopez has his diehard supporters, just like Al Sharpton has his. But, I suspect, most Santa Ana parents eschew Lopez's in-your-face militancy and grievance mongering. For them, Lopez is a hindrance to having their children become fully assimilated English-speaking American citizens - doctors, lawyers and architects, rather than gardeners, nannies and busboys.

Unfortunately, Lopez - who won the last school-board race by a mere 500 votes, despite spending at least 10 times as much as his opponents - runs a pretty tough political machine. But why is he so afraid of his own people, his own voters, if he's sure his Spanish First agenda is what most Santa Ana residents want?

You can reach Steven Greenhut at or (714) 796-7823