Tuesday, September 6, 2011 | Residents, merchants and artists from Santa Ana have written letters, held meetings and appeared at City Hall to protest what they say is an effort to rid the downtown core of Latino culture.

But over the weekend, a group of mostly young Latinos took the protest to a new level; they broke into song, dance and theater.

Carrying small Mexican guitars and singing traditional folk music known as Son Jarocho, the youths stormed Saturday’s Art Walk in downtown Santa Ana with a message for city leaders:

“Santa Ana no se vende” (“Santa Ana is not for sale”).

The group’s efforts were intended to shift attention away from the controversial comments made two weeks ago by Santa Ana Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez against large property owner Irving Chase and back to whether a special tax that funds Downtown Inc. is legitimate. Downtown Inc. is chaired by Irving Chase’s son, Ryan Chase.

Many of Saturday’s Art Walk patrons were transfixed by the protest.

In one street play about the evolution and erasure of Latino culture, proponents of the special tax, including City Council members, were cast as villains.

Latino groups say Downtown Inc., supported by the city establishment, has made a concerted effort to push out Latino businesses and replace them with trendy restaurants and entertainment venues.

“This is our beautiful garden and culture,” said Carolina Sarmiento of the El Centro Cultural de Mexico, a community nonprofit that hosts Latino cultural programs. “This,” she said, pointing to Fourth Street’s historic and newly renovated Yost Theater, “is trash.”

The debate over the plight of downtown Latinos was thrown into disarray on Aug. 24 when Alvarez compared Chase, who is Jewish, to Adolf Hitler. Since then, the focus has been on Alvarez’s comments, their condemnation by the Jewish community and her reluctance  to offer a full apology.

A spokesperson for the protestors acknowledged that the weekend protest was part of an effort to shift attention away from Alvarez and back to the tax debate. This challenge was presented last week at a breakfast meeting of the grassroots Latino group Los Amigos of Orange County.

A consensus was reached: The group must condemn Alvarez’s words but also activity in downtown seen as attempts to gentrify the area.

“We expect others to stand up when we’re offended, so we will do so,” said Jose Moreno, the new leader of Los Amigos . “We join you [the Jewish community] in condemning the words, but join us in condemning recent actions in the downtown.”

Elena Vilchis, 22, a spokesperson for the Art Walk protestors, was unequivocal when asked whether a shift in focus was one of the protest’s aims.

“We are trying to shift the focus,” said Elena Vilchis, 22, a spokesperson with the protestors. “We want spaces that promote different programs in the community, not just the restaurants and night life.”

In one confrontational move, protestors camped outside the Fourth Street restaurant Chimichurri. Councilman Carlos Bustamante, a particularly vocal proponent of the downtown facelift, was dining there with his family.

Among other chants hurled at Bustamante, the protestors attacked the downtown special property tax, shouting “no taxation without representation!”

“It’s sad that they’re exercising racism against other people,” Bustamante said about the protestors. “Why can’t we all just get along as human beings and not worry about what race we are?”

Bustamante defended the protestors’ right to protest but also called them “misguided youth.”

While much of the protest focused on the city’s downtown, it was also laced with other counterculture themes. Street rappers made references to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a death-row inmate who to some has become an icon of injustice, and to beseiged Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Salehi, who was injured during the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East.

“Fight the fascists like Ali Salehi!” one rapper declared.

The protest had other detractors.

Artist Dino Perez, who was selling his Mexican folk art on the picturesque Second Street promenade, said the protestors’ contention that the city’s downtown should remain exclusively Latino was “narrow-minded.”

“They [the protestors] should be ashamed of themselves,” Perez said. “This city has so much to offer to so many people.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

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