The Return of the Nativo

Lopez rises from political graveyard to lead immigrants againbut will he harm more than heal?

In Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin's 1936 comedy of capitalist errors, there's a scene in which Chaplin's Little Tramp picks up a red flag that falls from the back of a speeding truck. He chases after the truck and tries to wave it down—with the red flag. Unemployed workers in the streets mistake the Tramp for a labor leader and rally behind him. Hilarity and jail time ensue.

There's something like that scenario playing out in Orange County, where longtime Latino activist Nativo Lopez seeks to rouse the immigrant masses again. Wherever you saw demonstrators rally on behalf of Mexican immigrants the past couple of weeks, chances are Lopez had already run to the head of the parade. There he was on March 25, arms locked with the Latino political elite of Los Angeles, as they joined 500,000 immigrant marchers in the streets of LA. That was his awesome silver pompadour matching the stormy skies on April 2, leading a rally outside Costa Mesa City Hall to protest that city's plan to transform its police department into migra. Lopez popped up yet again at an April 10 rally in downtown Santa Ana attended by about 400 people. And was that his sonorous voice at a March press conference in Los Angeles, babbling about the sleeping giant that had been "shaken and begins to awaken," a turn of phrase worthy of Don King? . It was.

But unlike the Little Tramp—a perpetually wide-eyed innocent who weathered the cruel world through pluck and chance—Lopez has always been the master of his destiny, a calculating man who never met a Latino cause he didn't immediately want to represent before cameras. Now he's back, and many Orange County Latino activists involved in the resurgent pro-immigrant movement aren't thrilled.

Take Sandy Restrepo, a 24-year-old Santa Ana native and the main Orange County organizer for a recent Tijuana-to-San-Francisco peace march. She says Lopez insisted the group plan its Santa Ana stop through his wife.

"Nativo told us he was going to start in Tijuana and walk all the way to San Francisco, but he never even showed up in Santa Ana," said Restrepo. Then Restrepo added this fashion critique: "Nativo wore sunglasses the whole time I talked to him in person—and it was a rainy day."

"We all know about his past," said another longtime activist who requested anonymity, referring to Lopez's school-board scandals and vigorous race-baiting. "We all know when there's a rally, he'll somehow get in front of the camera, and the media will quote only him. But where is he the rest of the time?"

Probably in the garage, souping up his sputtering political machine, Hermandad Mexicana Nacional (now rechristened Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana), and drag-racing the Mexican American Political Association, a onetime powerhouse in California politics whose most prominent recent battle was the high-stakes fight to decriminalize cockfighting.

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Many of his critics compare Nativo Lopez to the Reverend Al Sharpton, another man whose love of the camera is matched only by his penchant for natty suits and fabulous hair. But while Sharpton rose from his original niche as a firebrand activist to become a player in national politics, Lopez continues to see his star fall lower and lower.

It wasn't always like this. Lopez first appeared in county politics during the 1980s, when he successfully organized Santa Ana slum dwellers into withholding rent until their landlords made improvements. From there, Lopez fought the good fight for immigrants, decrying INS sweeps, police brutality and other issues facing county Latinos.

His peak may have been his 1996 battle against Republican Congressman Bob Dornan. Leveraging his contacts in Washington, Sacramento and the county's Republican Party, Dornan alleged that Lopez cost him a congressional election to Democrat Loretta Sanchez by illegally registering voters through Hermandad. A Weekly and congressional investigation exonerated Lopez.

That same year, Lopez ran for and won a seat on the Santa Ana Unified School District board of trustees, which serves the youngest and most Latino big city in America. Lopez used his seat to call for bilingual education and the rights of immigrant parents; conservatives reviled him for that and learned, like Dornan, that their opposition made Lopez more popular among new Americans.

Then he faltered. Lopez accepted campaign contributions from developers and rewarded them with construction contracts; his organization recorded radio segments calling then-Governor Gray Davis a pinche guerito ("fucking little white man") for not allowing illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. Smelling blood, conservative opponents launched a recall. In early 2003, 71 percent of Santa Ana voters threw him off the school board.

Lopez has wandered the political desert since, reappearing occasionally to pen a short-lived newspaper column and act as a reliable punching bag for influential conservative magazines ranging from WorldNetDailyto The Weekly Standard and The American Spectator. But the recent marches have put Lopez in the spotlight anew. He's making the rounds of all the talk shows—outside rap, there's no one faster to the microphone. His most memorable appearance so far aired April 10 on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, where Lopez objected to the commentator's use of the term "illegal alien."

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