By Nicole Shine, Garden Grove Journal
Last November’s general election was a civics lesson, schooling both parties on the national political might of Latinos.
In sheer numbers, they’re expected to overtake Caucasians as the majority here in Orange County. Garden Grove and Westminster are already home to 83,730 Latinos, according to the latest census.
And yet a look at key elected offices in these cities–the city council and school board–shows their vaunted influence is more myth than reality.
Latinos hold one seat on the Westminster council. They hold another on the Garden Grove school board, although that position is a student appointee.
Instead, it’s the area’s 87,848 Vietnamese, the nation’s largest concentration, who have won:
• two of five seats on the Garden Grove City Council
• two of five seats on the Westminster City Council, including one as Mayor
• two of six seats on the Garden Grove school board
• one of five seats on the Westminster School board
Before this last election, Vietnamese held the majority on the Westminster council.
Yet the number of Latinos and Vietnamese in these cities is similar. Why don’t we see more Latinos in office?
Not Just Numbers
Benny Diaz, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
“You cannot compare Latino population to Latino voting,” Diaz explained. “Not because Latinos don’t want to vote, it’s because they cannot vote. You have to have money to become a citizen.”
When you’re working one or two jobs, citizenship—voting even—is a luxury, he said.
To become a citizen, or naturalize as it’s called, immigrants pay a $595 application fee, complete a slew of paperwork, and sometimes must hire an immigration attorney.
But Louis DeSipio, a UC Irvine professor who studies immigration, said the pricey process isn’t the whole story. He has found that fewer immigrants from Mexico—and even Canada—seek citizenship.
“There’s something about proximity,” DeSipio said. “There’s less urgency to naturalize.”
Vietnamese immigrants, on the other hand, tend to naturalize quickly. They want to gain the protection of citizenship before they visit their former homeland, explained another UCI professor, Linda Vo.
Homeland Activism Comes Here
Vo has studied the rise of Little Saigon, where businesses, residents and Vietnamese-language media have coalesced into what she termed a “vibrant” community over the last three-plus decades.
The political activism that forced the Vietnamese to flee, she suggested, often turns into political involvement once they’re here.
“It created a momentum that you see right now,” she said.
Latinos, on the other had, generally come for a job or education.
Westminster commissioner Lupe Fisher explained it this way: “[Vietnamese] know they’re never going to go back, and I think some Latinos think differently. They left because they didn’t see a future as far as education and work.”
They might return if prospects were better in their homeland, she added.
The complex issue is made more challenging by lingering racism, Fisher believes. She worked for 25 years in Westminster schools and remembers Mendez v. Westminster, the Supreme Court case that forced the district to stop segregating Mexican American students.
“It really hasn’t been that long ago when you think about it,” she said. “When someone looks at my brown face they still see a Mexican, not a Mexican American, until they get to know me.”
But couldn’t the same be said for Vietnamese?
Plus, it’s not that Latinos have been shut out of office. U.S. Representative Loretta Sanchez, whose district includes Garden Grove, and State Senator Lou Correa, whose district includes Garden Grove and Westminster, are prime examples of Latinos’ ability to win in larger races.
Time for Change?
While it’s clear there’s no simple reason for Latinos’ underrepresentation locally, LULAC’s Diaz has a few ideas about solutions.
Last month, LULAC opened a new office in Garden Grove. He plans to step up voter registration efforts from there.
“We’re paying the price for not organizing strongly in this area,” Diaz said.
On a larger scale, the Garden Grove City Council is “very conscious of the disparity in Latino representation,” he said, noting talks since 2006 to draw the city into districts, like in Santa Ana.
Garden Grove Councilman Kris Beard thinks it’s an idea whose time has come.
“Obviously our city is pretty diverse and I think district elections could promote that diversity,” he said. Another benefit, he said, is it gives all neighborhoods an equal voice.
He has discussed the idea with City Manager Matt Fertal and intends to present it to the council sometime this year.
“Latinos need a seat at the table, just like West Garden Grove, they need a voice,” he said.
Westminster, a smaller city, isn’t considering districts, according to Councilman Sergio Contreras.
Still, change is coming, Diaz believes.
“It’s going to happen [here] what’s happening at the national level,” he said. “You read my lips, Garden Grove and Westminster are going to have high numbers of Latinos.”
Contact the writer on Twitter @nicolekshine.