On the dusty, unkempt field at Santa Ana’s Jerome Park, two Mexican folklorico dancers — the man wearing an embroidered cowboy tunic and the woman an expansive, rose-colored dress — clacked their heels and whirled atop a makeshift stage as dozens of Latino onlookers whooped and reveled.
Yet surrounding the dancing duo were things not normally found at Mexican festivals: Strings of red, white and blue balloons festooned over the stage in a bow, arching above an American flag.
A sign next to the stage read, “United We Vote. Building a land of Opportunity for All.”
Sunday afternoon’s event, while steeped in Mexican tradition, was meant to promote the very American tradition of voting. The festival, organized by Orange County Congregation Community Organization (OCCCO), a faith-based activist group, is part of a larger get-out-the-vote drive aimed at Latinos, a minority group that tends to shy away from ballot boxes.
For already impoverished neighborhoods of Santa Ana, Anaheim and other cities in the county with significant Latino populations, not voting has had depressing consequences on their communities’ quality of life, activists assert. They say that cuts and government inattention on issues ranging from lack of park space to larger class sizes in schools disproportionately affect Latinos.
If only Latinos would vote, the activists insist, politicians in Sacramento and at their city halls wouldn’t ignore their plight.
“Politicians listen to people who vote,” said Luis Bravo, a 20-year-old OCCCO volunteer. “And if our community’s not voting, they’re not going to have their voices heard. … We want to change that.”
Most of these activists readily admit that the low participation rates among Latinos — specifically Mexican immigrants and their American-born children — stems from an entrenched disenchantment with Mexican government and by extension all governments. Having been politically excluded for generations in their home country, Latino migrations northward brought their apathy in tow.
But a new generation of activists, like those with OCCCO, is pleading with these residents to realize that in this country, the people can exert control over their political fortunes.
“Here it's different,” Sergio Hernandez, an immigrant from Mexico City, told a gathering of Santa Ana neighborhood groups earlier this year. “Here we can participate.”
The effort is multifaceted. OCCCO is part of a larger coalition called Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Development (SACReD), which is fighting for a transparency ordinance at Santa Ana City Hall.
The ordinance, among other things, would further connect local communities with their city government by expanding the radii of development notices and requiring premeetings with residents before projects are approved.
And in Anaheim, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a suit demanding the city change from an at-large council election system to council districts, which would have residents in Latino-heavy areas elect representatives who live in their neighborhoods.
Yet even with these dramatic steps toward civic engagement, transforming the abundant Latino population into a forceful political power bloc remains a daunting challenge.
Workers at a voting registration desk said that about midway through the event they had registered only five residents. They had been expecting to register closer to 200, according to the workers.
Jan Meslin, an OCCCO board member, said the plan is to get 10,000 voters who usually don’t vote to the polls in November.
Event organizers had expected around 500 attendees, Bravo said, yet fewer than half that number could be counted. Lack of viable transportation is one problem that could have prevented more from attending. Bravo said activists did their best to bus in residents from other cities.
The stakes for Latinos in this year’s election are enormous, the activists say. Much of the voting drive focused on Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s sales and income tax increase. If it doesn’t pass, planned reductions in education funding would take effect.
“We will succeed,” said Santa Ana resident Ricardo Ramos, a 36-year-old volunteer who had been working the voter registration desk. “It's a lot of work, but little by little we’re moving the community.”