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AsthechairofOrangeCounty'sRepublicanPartyfrom 1984 until last year, Tom Fuentes distinguished himself by waging vindictive, sometimes bizarre campaigns against enemies real and perceived. As a trustee for the South Orange County Community College District (SOCCCD), Fuentes continues his GOP battle plan by launching a campaign against . . . Spain?! The country that weathered four years of bloated OC businessman (and Republican scion) George Argyros as American ambassador?
Fuentes unveiled his new crusade at the Feb. 28 SOCCCD Board of Trustees meeting, at which he requested a discussion on Item 10 from the night's consent calendar. The item would have allowed Saddleback College students to study abroad in Santander, Spain, during the summer. It wasn't expected to generate much controversy; the SOCCCD board has allowed Saddleback students to learn Spanish in the Iberian country for the past 14 years.
But Fuentes shocked everyone in the audience when he began to assail his ancestral home. "One hundred ninety-five years ago, in 1810, my family arrived on this continent from Spain, so I have an affection for that land," Fuentes said. But he quickly dropped the amicable pretense, simultaneously attacking Saddleback College's study-abroad program as catering to "an elite" and as a death wish given the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings that left 191 dead.
Terror wasn't what disturbed Fuentes the most, though. "Now: something more," he intoned sternly. "Many of our students in this college and its sister college, Saddleback and Irvine, past and future, today fight on the battlefield of Iraq under the flag that is behind us. Spain has abandoned our fighting men and women, withdrawing their support. I see no reason to send the students of our colleges to Spain at this moment in history."
Other trustees quickly picked up Fuentes' drumbeat. Board Vice President Nancy Padberg said she wouldn't support the trip because of the "political circumstances," while John Williams cited "the interest of safety" in joining Fuentes and Padberg. The only opposing board members were Marcia Milchiker and David Lang. Non-voting student representative Brittany Poulton warned, "It's dangerous to set this political precedent." But the protest was for naught; Fuentes' anti-Spain motion passed, 5-2.
Fuentes did not return a call for comment. However, the Weekly obtained a personal correspondence between Fuentes and a Southern Methodist University professor in which the trustee states the board's decision came down to money, not politics. The program is too costly, Spain is too unstable and if something tragic happened to a student, SOCCCD would be liable, Fuentes wrote. He advised the SMU professor to not "believe the rhetoric and hyperbole that follows such a matter in academia" and claimed "a 'PC' environment does not contribute to a good exchange" of ideas.
It's strange that Fuentes and the other trustees are suddenly concerned about study-abroad programs in countries that refused President George W. Bush's invitation to join—or, in Spain's case, dropped out of—the Coalition of the Willing. For the 2004-'05 academic year, SOCCCD trustees have approved study-abroad trips to Cambodia, China, New Zealand and Vietnam, all countries with administrations that oppose the U.S. Invasion of Iraq. And Fuentes & Co. also permitted district-funded student trips to Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C.; last year, each of those cities passed resolutions condemning the Iraq war (and on Sept. 11, 2001, each was as dangerous as Madrid was on March 11, 2004).
Last September, the same board approved Saddleback College's request for a spring 2005 study-abroad session in Spain. And only a couple of months after the Madrid bombings, a group of Saddleback College students visited the country with the board's blessing—and paid from their own pockets. "That confuses me," says Professor Carmenmara Hernández-Bravo, who has accompanied Saddleback College students to Spain for the past 14 years. "If Fuentes also said no to the Cambodia and Vietnam trips, then I would understand—he'd be appealing to the Right. But he only chose Spain. I'm really confused."
The professor did not attend the Feb. 28 board meeting—she was teaching that night. But when Hernández-Bravo checked her cell-phone messages after class, dozens of friends and colleagues had left messages disclosing the news. She finds Fuentes' various rationales to end her overseas lessons insulting.
"When he talks about costs, he lies," Hernández-Bravo asserts, claiming that to study in Spain doesn't cost any more than in the other SOCCCD-approved countries. She noted that while Spain did send troops to Iraq initially but Vietnam and Cambodia didn't, Spain's democratic elections ushered in a leader who didn't want Spanish troops in the country. "The Republican Party is for democracy, right?" she asked.
Hernández-Bravo tried to remember any serious problems she and her students have encountered in Spain: "A student once had kidney stones," she recalled. "Sometimes, they've drunk too much liquor—but they do that here, too. And nine years ago, someone stole my purse and passport, but I didn't realize it for a while. Some people are good pickpockets!"
This wasn't Hernández-Bravo's first sour Hispanic encounter with the SOCCCD board. She has twice tried to take students to Cuba, and the United Nations once invited her to give a lecture at an academic conference in Havana. Thrice, the board rejected her requests for intellectual visas.
"I know everyone can tell you you can't be shocked at what happens at Saddleback," she said. "But I was. I don't know why Fuentes said those things against Spain in public. I am horrorizada. No entiendo."
A version of this story was posted March 4 on ocweekly.com.