By Tony Castro
California’s oldest Latino political organization has likely made its last hurrah without even a celebration, having become a victim of its own success and the misfortune of its longtime state president.
The more than half-century-old Mexican American Political Association used to be one of the endorsements all California politicians wanted, so much so that at the height of his political power Jerry Brown — in his first incarnation as governor and with eyes on the White House — told a MAPA state convention:
“It’s your time in the sun — and I want to be part of it!”
Brown is governor again, but his political expectations are significantly lowered, just as there are no more MAPA state conventions to get excited about. Its last ones have drawn only several dozen people. Today, many former members are embarrassed by what has happened to the once proud organization and prefer remembering what it once was.
“MAPA was an important organization that was formed when there were hardly any Latino elected officials,” says longtime Los Angeles political strategist James Acevedo.
MAPA’s final breath in California appears to have been taken in recent years as its controversial state president — Nativo Lopez, 63, of Orange County — fought to stay out of jail for alleged voter registration fraud and ultimately pleaded guilty. In 2012 he finally resigned as head of MAPA.
But Lopez likely has taken MAPA to the political graveyard with him. MAPA’s membership and credibility have fallen to all-time lows. Where once there were MAPA chapters in each of the state’s 80 Legislative Assembly Districts, today there are fewer than a dozen identifiable operating chapters — and only two in Los Angeles, which had long been the group’s stronghold.
It is a sad end for the group that was organized by the late Edward R. Royal and others around the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign in 1960 when he was the only Latino elected official in Southern California, serving at that time on the Los Angeles City Council. In 1962, Roybal became the first Latino elected to Congress from California.
In the 55 years since, the rise of Latino elected officials has been dramatic. Today, Los Angeles has a Latino mayor; five Latinos sit on the City Council; and one on the county Board of Supervisors. Latinos hold 15 seats in the state Assembly, seven in the state Senate and six in Congress from California alone.
“As Latinos have met many of the goals MAPA set out,” said Acevedo, “the role of MAPA began diminishing. The needs of the community have evolved — to education, unemployment, hunger – and other organizations have filled that need.”
But as more Latinos were elected to office, MAPA was unable to maintain its hold over them — in part because the group never developed a major fundraising apparatus necessary for those wanting to stay in office and also because of the rise of other more politically attuned organizations.
MAPA lost its thunder, say experts, to national organizations like the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and local groups springing up throughout California.
“To us, MAPA is such an old school Chicano organization that my parents belonged to but which isn’t very relevant to my generation today,” said Jose Sandoval of Panorama City, founding president of the Young Latino Democrats of the San Fernando Valley.
In places like the San Fernando Valley, the rise of locally elected Latinos whose success stemmed from their own independent organizing kept MAPA from ever fully developing in the area, according to Jorge Garcia, Chicano Studies professor at California State University, Northridge.
“The politicians who came to power in the Valley — from (City Councilman) Richard Alarcon to (state Sen.) Alex Padilla — each were their own men with their own groups that they built and groomed,” said Garcia.
The turning point for MAPA, say some former members and experts, came in 2004 with the election of Lopez, an aspiring politician with a penchant for self-destruction. A former school board member in Orange County, he was recalled from office in 2003. He also had a long list of allegations that he had wrongly registered illegal immigrants to vote, including in Loretta Sanchez’s surprise congressional victory in 1996.
Lopez was also a champion of immigrants rights, and he headed Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana, a group assisting immigrants. But he ran afoul of the law there, too. In 2002, prosecutors alleged he used hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal education grants to pay the mortgage on his headquarters in Santa Ana. The group agreed to pay a $600,000 settlement without admitting any wrongdoing.
Disgraced in Orange County, Lopez turned to MAPA, getting elected state president in 2004, and immediately turning off old MAPistas, as they called themselves. Many MAPA members from the 1960s and 1970s were veterans and second- and third-generation Mexican Americans who were seeing many of their friends lose jobs to illegal immigrants. They couldn’t stomach Lopez steering MAPA heavily toward immigration reform advocacy.
“MAPA became too ‘Mexican’ for me — supporting and protecting illegals — and that’s why I dropped my membership,” says Joe Lozano of Mission Hills, who formerly belonged to the MAPA chapter of San Fernando.
The last straw for Lopez — and for what was left of MAPA — may have come when he called on Latinos to boycott participation in the 2010 Census. Most Latino officials and leaders criticized that campaign, pointing out that the census is used to determine federal funding allocations to cities.
“To say no to the census is to say no the future,” said Sandoval. “It’s saying no to what we’ve been fighting for for years.”
Meanwhile, many former MAPA members feared Lopez was dragging MAPA down in his legal troubles. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office had indicted him on voter registration fraud charges. Prosecutors alleged he lived in Orange County — all indications seem to show that to be true — while having registered to vote in Los Angeles County.
Lopez also became a joke in court, acting so irrationally that at one point a judge ordered a competency hearing. Ultimately, Lopez pleaded guilty to a felony count of voter-registration fraud. He was sentenced to probation and community service.
For MAPA, its glory days are now gone. Latino candidates who don’t know any better have looked hopelessly for a link on the Internet or any news of an upcoming state convention. Apparently there will not be one. There are no offices. The web site — http://www.mapa-ca.org — has nothing current on it. Longtime members shake their heads, partly in disappointment, partly in disgust on how it all came to an end.
“It was a helluva organization in the old days,” said former MAPA member Joe Barrajas of Los Angeles, “and to think of what it’s become …”
This article was first published on April 8, 2015 at Voxxi News http://voxxi.com/