Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

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The debate over recasting Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day offers us all a real chance to consider equity in society and question how civic leaders can best address inequity.

Indeed, here in Orange County both sides of the “discovery” of the Old and New Worlds are always on full display at the Mission San Juan in nearby San Juan Capistrano – one of the first settlements in the West by European immigrants, who would later take over the area from indigenous peoples.

Indigenous activists and community members came together for the prayer rally at the intersection of Paseo Adelanto and Del Obispo in San Juan Capistrano. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Just this past month, San Juan City Council members were still publicly wrestling with the aftermath.

Sage and tobacco was burned during prayer. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The city’s Northwest Open Space property holds what remains of Putuidem, an American Indian village and one of the last remaining indigenous sites in the city.

Indigenous activists and community members making posters before the prayer rally. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The Acjachemen and Juaneño people who live in San Juan Capistrano today consider the land to be sacred.

Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Indigenous activists and community members have demanded that San Juan Capistrano City Council members develop a cultural park, promised long ago by city leaders but plagued by delays for years.

The latest plan to create an open-air park to honor the village was suspended in April over questions about zoning legalities.

I can understand tribal families angst over delays as it reminds me of when I covered the U.S. Senate for Congressional Quarterly and delved into the mass of shelved treaties with indigenous tribes that were just never taken up by the Senate.

Those treaties – along with all their deal points and assurances – just sat, and as far as I know continue to sit, in limbo without consideration by the U.S. Senate.

There are also questions being raised about San Juan city government leaders’ plans to use a portion of the Putuidem open space as a “glamping” site for revenue-generation.

Given that the land is sacred to many indigenous, the recreational-camping proposal has prompted some indigenous activists to question whether such options would be considered for mainstream public cemeteries, like Arlington National Cemetery, which also have revenue-potential connected to their open space nature.

Now as a kid growing up in California in the 1970s, our school system generally offered up a very one-sided and sanitized version of history. As Latinos, we knew there was another side to the Spanish colonial “encomienda system,” which essentially granted indigenous people to landowners.

Resistance meant death.

It is the gruesome side of conquest.

It cannot be erased.

It is still playing out.

On Sept. 17, San Juan city council members heard the results from a public poll on the proposed recreation plans for the Putuidem site, with 60 percent of the opinions tilted toward the tribal village site plan.

It’s unclear what will happen to the glamping idea.

Designs are expected to come back to the city council in November.

These kinds of debates are why the public attitudes toward Columbus Day are changing, much like our nation.

Celebrations marking the discovery of the New World go back to the beginning of the nation but really took off by the late 1860s.

Spain was the nation that financed the journeys, which is why everyone in Latin America, except Brazil, speaks Spanish.

Yet the explorer, Chrisopher Columbus, was Italian.

And that fact really connected with Italian Americans – the low-wage workers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – who in Columbus, saw a hero.

Denver resident Angelo Noce, a first generation Italian immigrant, is largely credited as the first to lobby in his community for a formal recognition of Columbus around the turn of the 20th Century and by 1905, the state of Colorado had created the first recognition of Columbus Day.

Numerous other Italian American and Catholic civic leaders also got behind the idea nationally and by 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared it a national holiday.

There has also always been some opposition to celebrating Columbus Day.

But by the 1990s, indigenous groups across the world organized themselves against the narrative of the upcoming 500th anniversary of the “Discovery of the New World” as a celebration.

In the summer of 1990, indigenous groups from all over the hemisphere met in Quito, Ecuador to protest the coming narrative of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage.

They were ultimately successful in reframing the telling of history.

Yet in many ways, history continues to repeat itself, not that many miles away from the original Putuidem village site.

Rising inequality and changing demographics across Orange County are testing civic and elected leaders like never before.

Earlier this month, I gathered at the Delhi Center in Santa Ana with a host of civic and philanthropic leaders from across Orange County to take in the stark results of the 2019 Equity Profile of Orange County.

The summit was billed as “the next step in a robust discussion about equity in Orange County,” coming just months after the release of the Equity Profile, published by the Oakland-based public policy think tank, PolicyLink and the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) at the University of Southern California.

The report highlighted what Orange County civic leaders could do to make progress on racial and economic equity in order to achieve economic sustainability.

And the report authors didn’t pull any punches.

The introduction to the report clearly points out clear examples of institutional inequity in Orange County as well as the need for action.

“Orange County’s diversity is a major asset to the global economy, but inequities and disparities are holding the region back,” reads the introduction to report.

“Among the 150 largest regions, Orange County is ranked 58th in terms of income inequality, ranking higher than nearby San Diego metro area.

While the working poverty rate in the region was lower than the national average in 1980 and 1990, it grew at a faster rate between 1990 and 2000 and is now on par with the national average.

Racial and gender wage gaps persist in the labor market.”

The report also noted, “income inequality, driven in part by a widening wage gap, has sharply increased.

Wages for top earners increased 24 percent between 1979 and 2016, while wages for the lowest earners fell by 26 percent.

Low-wage jobs are the fastest growing job segment in the county.

Black and Latino workers earn the lowest median wages and their wages stagnated between 2000 and 2016.

Although education can be a leveler, racial, and gender gaps persist in the labor market.

People of color with college degrees have a lower median hourly wage than their white counterparts. In addition, women of color at all levels of education earn a lower median hourly wage.”

Report authors stressed that closing these gaps in economic opportunity and outcomes would be key to Orange County’s future.

“To build a more equitable Orange County, leaders in the private, public, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors must commit to putting all residents on the path to economic security through equity-focused strategies and policies to grow good jobs, remove barriers, and expand opportunities for the people and places being left behind,” concluded the report.

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