Embrace the Mexican

Photo by Matt OttoThe frenetic ranchera music subsided; the ancient carnival rides groaned to a halt. It was downtown Santa Ana's 2004 Mexican Independence Day celebration, and it was time for el Grito: the litany of boasts first uttered from a church steeple by Father Miguel Hidalgo in 1810 that the mestizo republic has repeated at midnight every Sept. 16 since.

Luís Miguel Ortiz Haro, head of the Orange County Mexican consulate, took the microphone before a crowd of tens of thousands of his countrymen. He began el Grito: “¡Viva la Independencia!” “¡Viva!” the crowd roared back, and they traded “¡Vivas!” back and forth. But when the climax of el Grito came—”¡Viva Mexico!“—the sound system inexplicably turned off.

Organizers now say a technical glitch was the culprit behind the fade-out, but Ortiz Haro was so insulted he moved this year's official Grito ceremony to San Juan Capistrano. But whether Ortiz Haro overreacted or not, the incident remains the best metaphor for the relationship between Santa Ana officials and their Latino supermajority population.

Santa Ana is the youngest, most Latino, most Spanish-speaking big city in the nation, yet city fathers seem determined to make it Darien, Connecticut. Last year, Mayor Miguel Pulido made headlines when he told residents that an all-Latino city council would lead to “corruption.” In June, KPCC-FM 89.3's award-winning AirTalk with Larry Mantle invited council members and city planners to a panel discussion of the city's immigration problems; only Council Member Mike Garcia accepted. The city is waging a war against produce trucks, the markets on wheels many Latino families rely on for fruits and vegetables. And problems between the city and Mexican Independence Day festival organizers caused this year's Mexican Independence Day celebration and parade to fall on separate weekends.

If Santa Ana city fathers are smart—if city officials want international fame and increased revenue to improve infrastructure, fund social programs and fill in those Standard Street potholes—they've got just one solution: embrace the Mexican.

Promoting Santa Ana's mexicanidad could put the city on the cultural map with Miami and San Antonio. On the other hand, continuing on the present course, running in fear from demographic inevitability, could turn Santa Ana into Orange County's Huntington Park—a great place for bulk-rate tequila, hubcaps, crack and putas, but not the kind of place you'd want to drive through.

Here are four mexcellenteways to improve Santa Ana:

CREATE A TOURIST DISTRICT Santa Ana's most vibrant area is Fourth Street, where Mexican-themed restaurants, bridal shops and check-cashing stores draw Latinos from across Southern California. But city planners have long complained those tenants don't draw a “diverse” (read: gabacho) clientele. We say it's not Mexicanenough. Declare all of downtown Santa Ana an ethnic district like Little Tokyo or Koreatown. Block off streets to create pedestrian walkways. Entice Latino entrepreneurs, artists and other smart boho types with relaxed zoning and subsidies. Let burros run wild—kidding! But by creating an ethnic-friendly district, Santa Ana can publicize the area to tourists worldwide as an alternative to such tired standards as East Los Angeles, Miami's Calle Ocho and Olvera Street.

INSTITUTE BILINGUALISM—FOR REAL THIS TIME In San Clemente's Las Palmas Elementary School, a bilingual-immersion program—where Mexican and white kiddies learn English and Spanish together from kindergarten through fifth grade—continues to attract students from across South County. Why let South County dominate the language wars? Gabachos want their kids to learn Spanish (bilingualism is a sure ticket to higher incomes in the global economy), and the Santa Ana Unified School District could attract those parents and students—and their money. It could also set a bold standard for the rest of the country if it instituted a full bilingual education program. Bilingual education in this city is controversial, of course—that was one of the many reasons voters recalled then-school board trustee Nativo López in 2003. But of the man's many faults (check out my colleague Steve Lowery's report on López's penchant for cockfighting), love of Spanish and English wasn't one of them.

LEAVE THE MEXICANS ALONE All good ethnic enclaves attract tourists, but the great ones cultivate visionary natives who live and breathe their neighborhoods. Little Saigon has Chinese-Vietnamese developer Frank Jao, while the Camp and Lab are the offspring of Shaheen Sadeghi. Santa Ana teems with such organizations and individuals, but the city seems to delight in making their lives more difficult. All-ages spaces like the Centro Cultural de México and Sol Art Gallery have repeatedly encountered zoning and permit problems with overzealous police officers. The Grain Project, a nonprofit that runs the city's Wednesday-afternoon Farmers Market, spent two years convincing the city their plan wouldn't draw too many Mexican shoppers. Instead, Santa Ana embraces mega-developers like Mike Harrah, whose idea of culture is to build 37-story buildings that overshadow the barrio.

ASK THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT About 250,000 people—all Mexican; okay, a few Latinos—enjoyed the Fiestas Patrias, the annual downtown celebration marking Mexican Independence Day that's one of the largest such festivals in the United States, and the Sept. 25 parade marking the same holiday. The rest of the year, Santa Ana's downtown—where the city has poured millions of dollars in subsidies and redevelopment funds into lofts and an artists' village—remains as lonely and lively as Baghdad come sunset. What's it going to take to make Santa Ana world famous? The natives will know.


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