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Point Man for County Latinos : Activism: Nativo Lopez is county director of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional. But his influence in the community goes far beyond that role.

July 01, 1990|LILY ENG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — 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."

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