SANTA ANA — For much of two decades Nativo V. Lopez has stumped hard and loud for the rights of immigrants, one month marching picket lines in Anaheim or Orange, the next rallying rent strikes or railing against housing or bank or police officials.
As the national co-director of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional--National Mexican Brotherhood--the 46-year-old has dug deep under the skin of more than one politician.
On Tuesday, this relentless Santa Ana outsider pulled up a chair at the establishment's table. Lopez won one of three open seats on the Santa Ana Unified School District board.
"Instead of knocking at the door from the outside or throwing a stone, I'll be opening the door from the inside," said Lopez, laughing a bit in wonder.
It is an image that is as controversial as Lopez himself.
"I think he realized that it's a critical time to get something done," said Santa Ana attorney Jess Araujo, founding president of Latin American Voters of America, who has observed Lopez's work for the past dozen years. "If you don't put your thumb in the dike now, it's only going to get worse."
But Rancho Santiago Community College District board President Enriqueta L. Ramos worries that the school board is simply a path to fulfill Lopez's political ambitions.
"I don't think he's representative of the people," Ramos said. "He was voted in by a lot of new immigrants. Mexicans who have been born and raised here are looking at this and asking, 'What's going to happen now?' "
Lopez doesn't dispute who his supporters are, but he said he felt pressured to run by the changing political makeup of the Santa Ana board, which he believes did not recognize the needs of the heavily Latino district.
"The only reason I ran is the fear of a Christian right takeover of the school board," Lopez said. "Other folks just weren't up to the fight."
The same could never be said of Lopez, who felt his first activist rush facing down police at age 18 while demanding better treatment of Latinos at his Norwalk high school.
Over the years, the father of three girls and the grandfather of one could usually be found causing, protesting or pontificating on most any controversy involving Latino immigrants.
His oft-repeated mantra over the years is that the best way the working immigrant poor can harness the power to change is through the vote. And the only way to get the vote is to become U.S. citizens.
This election year, Lopez said, was the first in which a Latino such as himself could find himself elected. This election year, he said, was the first in which his unrelenting push for new citizen voters--"We're making 2,000 new citizens a month"--would pay off.
"They've been here. They've been paying taxes," he said. But until this year, "they didn't have the vote yet."
While Lopez said he has not researched who ultimately cast ballots in his favor, he is certain that "the new constituency [Hermandad] has created" vaulted him into office.
"I didn't have the support from the traditional Democratic circles. I didn't have the support from the Republicans, nor the Santa Ana school board Old Guard," Lopez said. "I can't contribute very much to the professional Latino. It was basically the humble new Americans that comprise my constituency."
Lopez said he already is seeing the effects of his victory.
"A woman called me this morning complaining about discrimination in the school," he said. "This creates more access to people that have not had access previously."