East Palo Alto's leadership doesn't necessarily
reflect its population
by Jennifer Deitz-Berry
Eying a list of city government officials -- past and present --
you'd hardly guess the solid majority of East Palo Alto's population
is now Latino.
Ruben Abrica is the only Latino to have served on the City Council
or the Ravenswood school board. In a recent interview, the Weekly
asked Abrica to talk about the challenges the city has faced in
bringing in more Latino leadership.
All sorts of explanations are offered up as to why Latinos haven't
taken a more active political role as their numbers in the city
have grown. Some will say it's that Latino immigrants have simply
been slow to gain citizenship and voting rights. Others will point
to the language barrier. Or, they suggest that immigrants bring
with them a cynicism for government fostered by the corruption rampant
in Mexico's political system.
Ruben Abrica, a member of the Ravenswood City School District
board, has encouraged other Latinos to run for public office,
but has had little luck.
But Abrica says there is another side of the story to consider.
"In the '80s, I'd say that we were represented. We were involved."
Early in that decade the community was bitterly divided over incorporation.
Abrica joined efforts to turn East Palo Alto from an unincorporated
region, governed by San Mateo County officials, into its own city.
In the midst of the push for incorporation, Abrica won a seat on
East Palo Alto's Municipal Council, setting the stage for his election
to the very first city council when East Palo Alto was incorporated
Working from within the system, one of Abrica's goals was to "twist
arms" to ensure Latino representation stretched to all corners of
city government. During his tenure in the '80s, "there was a Latino
on every city commission," he says. "The planning commission, the
rent commission, parks and recreation, every one had a Latino person
After term limits forced Abrica to abandon his seat, Latino leadership
in city offices began to wane. As he sees it, the '90s were a disappointing
decade for Latino leadership in East Palo Alto not only because
of a dearth of strong Latino candidates, but also because incumbent
city officials missed opportunities to bring in Latinos when they
could have. "We can look at our community as not being represented...but
you also have to look at the people who have power."
In 1993, the city council had an opportunity to appoint a Latino
council member when board member Nevida Butler resigned. Instead,
the board agreed to hold a special election. Myrtle Walker, an African
American, came out on top.
An opportunity to appoint a Latino arose again in 1998, after Rose
Jacobs Gibson left her seat to join the San Mateo County Board of
Supervisors. But that seat went to Pat Foster, another African American.
Being outsiders to city politics for so long has had a dual effect.
Fewer Latino leaders inside the system has meant less attention
is geared toward appointing Latinos to city offices. After years
of growing frustration, some Latino activists have turned to a more
radical brand of politics, focused on wresting back power from African
Americans rather than on looking for ways to work together, Abrica
Understandably, these more radical Latino political campaigns have
failed to win broad community support. Despite Abrica's eagerness
to see Latinos represented on city council, he did not endorse three
Latinos who recently ran as a slate, because of his concerns about
"It's important to have representation, but we should do it in
a way that doesn't polarize our community," Abrica said.
The three candidates, Victor Perez, Everardo Luna and Jose Beltran,
lost badly in last November's city council election.
For Abrica, the city's best interests depend on having leaders
who are committed to working across ethnic lines.
"I know what it feels like not to be in the majority," Abrica says.
"More and more I think we have to emphasize how we can all work
together, and as much as we can, have representation from all the
This thinking helps explain why Abrica supported appointing Chester
Palesoo to the school board in 1993. At the time, Pacific Islanders
were a growing population in the district, but until Palesoo came
along, the group had no representation on the board.
Even if Latinos haven't been able to contribute to the city through
more official channels, they've found other ways to participate.
As just one example, Abrica points to a growing community soccer
league, which is almost entirely Latino. In addition to the players,
nearly 100 Latinos volunteer on weekends to manage the games, often
helping out as referees or linesmen.
Perhaps an even more valuable asset to the city are the Latino
children who grew up in Ravenswood schools that are now returning
as teachers. "They represent that generation that is now taking
root right here in their own community," Abrica says.
Email Jennifer Berry at email@example.com