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Humberto Caspa chronicles the fear and loathing of Mexicans in Costa Mesa
If Orange County is the Mexican-hating capital of America, then Costa Mesa is its capitol—the crucible where anti-immigrant measures get debated, adopted, executed, and then mimicked nationwide. The past four years alone have seen the city introduce America to Minutemen mayors, migra agents in city jails, shuttering of day-labor centers and human-relations commissions, and arresting local activists. Couple that with xenophobic NIMBYers, and no wonder Humberto Caspa titled his book chronicling Costa Mesa's Mexican madness Terror in the Latino Barrio: The Rise of the New Right in Local Government.
Caspa, a political-science professor who has taught at UC Irvine and Orange Coast College, approaches his book as both observer and participant. He was a columnist for Costa Mesa/Newport Beach's Daily Pilot for a couple of years, frequently getting bombarded with negative feedback by readers for daring to portray Latinos as more than banditos. And, as an activist who fought alongside others against the city's Know Nothings, Caspa got to know the main activists on both sides.
Terror in the Latino Barrio is valuable as a document of Costa Mesa's immigration skirmishes. Caspa divides the book into subsections that focus on the various issues, personalities and chronologies leading to Costa Mesa's current situation. He starts with a curious anecdote: the labeling of Costa Mesa as Goat Hill by Newport Beach residents. It seems out of place, even silly, until one remembers Costa Mesa's perpetual inferiority complex about its wealthier neighbor. It's this constant psychosis, Caspa argues, that has motivated Costa Mesa politicians and their supporters to remake the city—but instead of drawing businesses, the new ticket out of Stanton status is cracking down on the Latino immigrants who have moved to Costa Mesa in droves over the past two decades.
"This new breed of politicians and political activists is making every effort possible, including the use of Nazi propaganda, to stop the flow of immigrant Latinos and U.S. Latinos into Costa Mesa," Caspa writes. "Their main objective, in my opinion, is to kick Latinos out of this city."
The main catalyst for this harassment, Caspa maintains, is Martin H. Millard, a Costa Mesa resident nationally notorious for his writings dealing with race for various nativist websites (endorsed by David Duke!) who just happens to be heavily involved in city politics. It's been through Millard's urging, for instance, that Costa Mesa officials outlawed soccer at Paularino Park and began cutting off funds to nonprofits that help the city's Latino neighborhoods. Caspa—who calls Millard "the Costa Mesa Aryan"—does a good job detailing Millard's rise but unfortunately sometimes lets his ire dictate the prose. "Today, I am his nemesis, and I have become his worst nightmare," he writes in his most over-the-top passage.
Others get brief profiles: former mayor and current council member Allan Mansoor, who spearheaded the city's push to train its officers as immigration officials; former council member Gary Monahan, a former liberal vote who transformed to become a Mansoor ally; and community activists such as Mirna Burciago, the owner of the Salvadoran restaurant El Chinaco who earned national attention for selling "Minutemen Tacos" (stuffed with chicken) after protestors began targeting her business for publicly criticizing Mansoor. To his credit, Caspa doesn't shy away from criticizing allies. Of Coyotl Tezcatlipoca, who the city tried to sue for disrupting a city council meeting, Caspa thought the Chicano activist and his friends—who insisted on framing Costa Mesa's problems through the lens of indigenous struggle—"were marginalizing themselves to such an extent that they would soon disappear from the political scene."
Terror in the Latino Barrio has all the faults expected of a book printed through a small publisher. Typos abound, sentences and thoughts get repeated within the same page, sometimes the same paragraph, and there are embarrassing mistakes—in one chapter, he calls a Minuteman activist Chris Gilchrist, conflating Minutemen icons Chris Simcox and Jim Gilchrist, and identifies Richard Wagner primarily as a sociologist instead of a composer. And Caspa's hatred of Mansoor, Millard and amigos wears thin after a while. But Caspa reads best when weaving these players into a narrative that begins with the city-sponsored opening of a day-labor center in 1989 to deal with residents' complaints about Mexicans and ends with the 2006 election, when Caspa and others labored mightily to vote Mansoor and his allies out of office—only to fail. Hopefully, Terror in the Latino Barrio will stand as a historical document of a time when Mexicans were misunderstood—rather than a portent of what Latino USA can expect in the years to come.
Terror in the Latino Barrio: The Rise of the New Right in Local Government by Humberto Caspa; Seven Locks Press. Paperback, 237 pages, $16.95.