Census 2001
Latino Leadership vacuum
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 in 1983.

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 on it."

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 says.

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 their politics.

"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 groups."

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 jberry@paweekly.com