Illustration by Bob AulThe pilgrims trek through the frigid darkness on this Dec. 12—the festival day of Our Lady of Guadalupe—toward El Mariachi Restaurant in Orange. They quickly fill the dimly lit house of worship, filled with love for their patron saint, their protector against earthly evil: Nativo Lopez.
The Santa Ana Unified School District trustee had publicized this evening's veneration as "Nativo's Posadas," a reference to the Mexican Christmas tradition in which Catholics re-enact Mary and Joseph's arduous search for lodging. But the commemoration tonight is not about the parents of Jesus or even the Empress of the Americas. Tonight is a religious revival urging the faithful to remain strong as they prepare to battle the blasphemers who wish to dethrone Lopez.
Before the night's service began, Lopez acolytes (and fellow school board members) John Palacio and Sal Tinajera passed out the missal—a press release by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) announcing its federal lawsuit seeking to stop the persecution of Lopez.
Critics say Lopez has willfully violated state law in allowing bilingual education; Lopez says state law provides for parental choice in the matter. Hence a scheduled Feb. 4, 2003, recall election. MALDEF wants the election killed, contending that heathens at the Orange County registrar of voters willfully misled English-deficient Santa Ana residents by not printing recall petitions in Spanish and Vietnamese.
"Please join me on Thursday, December 12, to celebrate the Day of Guadalupe, the beginning of the POSADAS, as we search for peace, justice, and dignity for our children of Santa Ana," Lopez wrote in a Dec. 3 letter to believers. Tying his earthly sufferings with the celestial, he transformed into the baby Jesus, Juan Diego (the Indian who revealed Guadalupe to the world only to be met with ridicule) and la virgencita simultaneously, in a mystery greater than the Trinity. Those against Lopez were now against her, against Jesus, and against the salvation Lopez and Juan Diego so unselfishly offered.
Lopez greeted each disciple as they entered the sanctuary, most offering tithes that entitled them to a buffet. Shepherds in Armani robes spoke of Nativo, touched Nativo, and vowed to defend Nativo against all infidels. Lopez—ever the humble deity—broke bread with them.
Tinajera then began the Mass.
"Tonight's a special occasion," he announced, "a time where we have to take a look at where we came from, where we're at, and where we're going."
He introduced the first testifier to Lopez's holiness, Nadia Maria Davis.
Davis was a martyr for Lopez; she lost a re-election bid for trustee earlier this year because voters thought she worshiped Lopez too much. Now beatified, she proclaimed her belief in all things Lopez with a string of hosannas. "I want to thank you for the strength, tenacity and courage for everything you believe in, Nativo," Davis said. "You're a role model." She went on to condemn the heretics ("I can now call them enemies," she asserted) and urged everyone to find solace in their convictions. "Nothing can stop us now," Davis said, her voice trembling in ecstasy as Lopez stood by silently. "It's the right fight. He's one of the few people I could look in the eye and say, 'Thank you.'"
The next preacher was Palacio. "I feel like Rodney Dangerfield. I never get respect. That's the story of my life," he strayed selfishly. But he quickly corrected his course: "One thing we know: he represents his community. We're going to beat the recall. Nativo, thank you for being the leader that you are. Thank you."
Tinajera then launched his sermon. "I teach history, and I make sure that our children know . . . our civil-rights leaders didn't have it easy," he thundered. "People think Martin Luther King, César Chávez and Bert Corona had it easy. But they were hated! History will show that after all the lies—I'll repeat—after all the lies, after all the attacks, history will prove that Nativo opened the doors for people to serve. You don't understand: it's all because of him people like Lou Correa, Joe Dunn and Loretta Sanchez were elected."
To a standing ovation, the Messiah took the stage with a confirmation of his divinity: "The Orange County Register has called me a prophet in his own land, and in many ways I feel that way."
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He thanked all his supporters and denounced the wicked—Santa Ana's chamber of commerce; police and firemen's unions; the mayor and council members; the Los Angeles Times, and most egregiously, The Orange County Register, with whose editors and reporters Lopez is no longer speaking.
He shared an earlier conversation he had with Reg reporter Sarah Tully Tapia: "I thought I told you not to call me anymore," he repeated as parishioners cheered. "I told all of you not to call me—your editor, publisher, everyone. Please don't bother me any longer. I will not cooperate."
Lopez then addressed the missal, calling it "history-making," and applauded the lawsuit's plaintiffs for being willing to "sue the pants" off enemies mounting the recall campaign against him.
He finished with a solemn vow: "I have every confidence that we have what it takes to defeat them. It doesn't matter when or if ever the recall election happens, we will defeat those bastards. Thank you very much."