New Book Looks at Redevelopment Battles Over Santa Ana Becoming “Latino City”

Downtown SanTana is bereft of Mexican immigrants bars these days while city officials continue waging war against the taco trucks that feed them. But developers and politicians pushing back against SanTana’s Latino reality is nothing new. The only recent difference is the all-Latino city council helping it happen—how’s that for progress! From cringe-worthy Brave New Urbanist videos erasing Mexis from their city to puff pieces about how great the new downtown is, they omit a history that Cal State Fullerton Chicana/o Studies Professor Erualdo Gonzalez masterfully retells in his new book Latino City: Urban Planning, Politics and the Grassroots.

Whether unearthing the 1974 Downtown Santa Ana Development Plan or a 1987 Orange County Register 20-year retrospective claiming the area used to be a place where “wealthy ladies bought Italian leather shoes” only to become home to “pawn shops, blood banks, and beer bars that catered to illegal immigrants” Gonzalez shows how Mexicans were scorned as undesirables. He recalls fonder memories of when his mother managed La Canada shoe store on La Cuatro during the 80’s and revives the narratives of Spanish-language media like Semanario Azteca that gave voice to SanTana residents who saved downtown and fought city hall.

After gentrification changed “Fiesta Marketplace” into “East End,” the activist scholar enlisted himself in the Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Development (SACReD)’s own effort challenging the city’s Renaissance Specific and Station District plans in the late 2000’s. Gonzalez is biased in the best way, giving future generations of santaneros the history needed to inform future struggles.

The Weekly spoke with Profe Gonzalez before his book event this weekend baptizes El Centro Cultural de Mexico’s brand new building!

OC Weekly (Gabriel San Roman): What set you off on this task of writing about about Santa Ana and its trajectory in becoming the Latino City?

I had exposure at a very early age to La Cuatro. I spent a lot of time on the corner of Main and Fourth—literally. Everybody has their upbringings and we don’t know what they’re going to mean to us later on in life. The other story is that growing up, I’ve always been fascinated by Santa Ana. I would always save newspapers and was fascinated about how the city was covered. As time went on, I started getting more into the politics of the city, learning more about cities in theory and getting involved with SACReD took me back to the heart of downtown, La Cuatro. I saw all this action downtown and that’s the city I grew up in. It was inevitable that I had to write about it.

What’s important to understand about the 1974 Downtown Santa Ana Development Plan that came as Santa Ana began becoming a Latino City?

How do decision makers make sense of what’s happening to the city that doesn’t fit the profile that fits them? From the 70’s to the 80’s, we have the sharpest increase in population numbers and immigration in the city’s history. But that’s also off the heels of the 1960’s where we have national trends of disinvested downtowns. In downtown Santa Ana, not only are the demographics changing, but the downtown that used to be a middle-class shopping district is turning into La Cuatro. The plan just happened to be released in 1974. The city had a lot of powers. The Civic Center Barrio was demolished. In ’74, the city felt they had a plan for a systemic mass overhaul in their imagination of what the downtown should be. But La Cuatro is still around today.

How key was Spanish-language media in understanding the Latino voice of Latino City?

I think that’s one of the most fascinating things in the book. To see and read materials that are capturing a lot of those debates from the Mexican-American and the immigrant community whether its residential or commercial is powerful. What’s also disheartening is that the reason why we have access to that information is that former professors from our department took initiative to hold to those papers and file them away in cabinets. That history, as told by the media in real time, is literally stored away in a file cabinet! A lot of these newspapers are local. They closed down. The archives don’t exist. It’s just by fate that I was able to access this information and weave it in.

For a period of time, Fiesta Marketplace seemed to embrace Santa Ana’s Latino reality, but ultimately (and predictably) flipped into the East End. What are key conclusions of your research into that period of time?

The city did respond and invested in cultural redevelopment but one of the takeaways from that was there was a  separation from the way the Fiesta Marketplace happened from broader, city-wide activism. We already know there was a lot of activism going on in the neighborhoods. Fiesta Marketplace got packaged with a select number of players. And yes, while the redevelopment was responsive and assigned to the broader Santa Ana community—which was the opposite to a lot of the visions and practices that the city was doing— the way it was packaged and implemented, we see now so many years later has implications to how easily it could be dissolved and turned into something different. There’s an irony there wasn’t any community-wide involvement. It was really among the partnership and they created their agreements. I didn’t mention this in the book, but they had to have the Fiesta Marketplace theme running for 25 years. As soon as that expired, that didn’t have to exist. Who knows? Maybe if there was community-wide involvement in crafting this partnership, maybe they would have said this has to be longer.

Being involved in SACReD, what came out of that community fight against the Station District plan that provides lessons for future SanTana activists?

While there’s no guarantees in getting into struggles and fights like this, there are some victories. It’s not easy. Cities, politicians and developers are moving targets. Activists come together to understand what developers, elected officials and city staff are up to. That takes a lot of homework. Often times, when you think you know what’s going to happen, it doesn’t. SACReD was able to hang in there because it was a large membership. Even though the Community Benefits Agreement they wanted didn’t get passed, there were victories that I mention in the book. It’s challenging. Sometimes, they’ll give just a little bit when fighting for so much. But that’s the whole tactic. The lesson learned is that activists have to plug away.

Latino City: Una Platica con Dr. Erualdo Gonzalez at El Centro Cultural de Mexico, 837 N. Ross St., Santa Ana, 3-5 p.m. Free!

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