Saturday, April 19, 2014

Chicano Democrats Ask “What the Heck Happened?”

They Say Low Voter Turnout Didn’t Sink Alvarez, But Their Numbers Say It Did


Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

City Councilmember and Mayoral candidate David Alvarez

Gabriel Solmer, Carmen Lopez & Dr. Isidor Ortiz

Georgette Gomez

Richard Barrera

“What the Heck Happened?” was the title of a forum the Chicano Democratic Association (CDA) of San Diego County held April 12 at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park. The aim of the meeting was to analyze the February 2014 special election for Mayor of San Diego and determine why Latino Democrat David Alvarez lost to white Republican Kevin Faulconer — and what’s more, why he lost by a much wider margin (almost 10 percent) than the last pre-election polls said he would. The presenters praised the determined grass-roots voter contacts CDA and other organizations supporting Alvarez had made on his behalf — but their own numbers showed those efforts hadn’t been enough: Latino and Asian voter turnout in the special election still lagged 10 percent behind whites.
The meeting was kicked off by Alvarez himself, who began by thanking “the CDA and all of you who were supportive in the race. I’m proud of how much we were able to move the ball on the minimum wage, economic and environmental justice, and how the city has not invested in our communities.” Alvarez argued that his campaign was so successful at setting the agenda that “the other candidate came out for all that.” Faulconer, Alvarez argued, felt compelled to claim the same goals of neighborhood empowerment as he did.
“This campaign showed a lot of potential,” Alvarez said. “We built a coalition, including Latinos, African-Americans, old people, young people.” Acknowledging that “most people care about the Presidency and the Senate but don’t pay attention to the Mayor’s race and other local races,” Alvarez argued that the efforts of CDA and other groups supporting him “got people who’d never cared about local politics before to walk precincts, make phone calls and host fundraisers. We got people to participate through social media. We tried to reach out or call to all potential voters. We just came up a bit short.”
Alvarez admitted some of the handicaps he faced in his campaign. “It was a special election,” he said, “and they tend to bring out older voters and Republican voters.” He also had to deal with primary opposition from Republican-turned-independent-turned Democrat Nathan Fletcher and fellow Latino Democrat Mike Aguirre — who endorsed Faulconer over him in the general election. Still, he said, the aggressive door-to-door campaign waged on his behalf was so effective that a Republican who sits with Alvarez on the City Council admitted to him that “the last week they were really scared.”
The opening remarks by Alvarez set the tone of the rest of the meeting. Speakers praised the intensity and effectiveness of the volunteer efforts for Alvarez and said that, even if they weren’t enough to elect him, they did point the way to electing a future mayor who’s progressive, Latino or both. “Working with David both in his city council office and on the campaign was a pleasure,” said Gabriel Solmer, Alvarez’ representative and advisor on environmental and land use policy. “We talked to a lot of voters who got five to six calls a day” — an indication of how many groups were mounting grass-roots campaigns for Alvarez, including the Democratic Party, organized labor and party clubs.
“What were our goals?” Solmer said. “To win, to build a coalition for the future, to hold fast with disenfranchised communities.” She argued that though they didn’t win, they accomplished the other two goals. “We focused on turnout south of I-8 and persuasion north of I-8,” she explained. “We were using very tested models: field, mail, TV and earned media.” “Earned media,” formerly “free media,” means getting mainstream media outlets to cover your candidate and thereby winning exposure for which you don’t have to pay for advertising. Not surprisingly, she hailed the “field” operation — the door-to-door precinct walking for Alvarez — as the most important part of the campaign.
Not that getting out potential Alvarez voters was easy. As part of her presentation Solmer showed a dizzying array of PowerPoint slides that salami-sliced the electorate not only by ethnicity but also by party registration and what political activists call “propensity.” Propensity simply means how likely the person is to vote, based on how often they’ve voted before: a “high-propensity” voter has cast a ballot in all five of the most recent elections, a “mid-propensity” voter has voted in four of the last five, a “low-propensity” voter in just one or two and a “no-propensity” voter hasn’t voted in any. A key part of the Alvarez campaign effort, Solmer explained, was getting low- and no-propensity voters to turn out and vote for him.
“We identified 83,000 supporters” in those “low-propensity” and “no-propensity” groups, Solmer said, “and 60 percent actually voted for David. That’s much higher than in most campaigns.” The key to getting these voters out, Solmer added, was repetition. “We touched these people two to four times.” Solmer showed a graph comparing the turnout in February 2014 with the general election from 2010 — chosen because it was a non-Presidential year and turnout is always lower when the presidency isn’t at stake — and noted that in the areas where they contacted voters and got them excited about the Alvarez campaign, the “drop-off” in turnout between November 2010 and February 2014 was less than it was where they didn’t have a field campaign doing multiple voter contacts.
But despite the efforts the Alvarez campaign and groups like CDA put into the effort, it still wasn’t enough to close the turnout gap between voters of color and whites. Perhaps the most important table in Solmer’s blizzard of statistics and graphs was “Turnout in 2014 by Ethnicity,” which showed that among Latinos and Asians turnout was more than 10 percent lower than among whites. (African-Americans weren’t included in Solmer’s analysis.) Here are the numbers Solmer presented, showing that despite the herculean efforts made by Alvarez’ supporters, much more needs to be done to get Latinos and Asians to turn out at the same rates as whites:

Total Registered Voters
Voted in 2014 Special Election
Turnout Ratio

Dr. Isidro Ortiz, political science professor at San Diego State University and a San Diego resident for 22 years, continued with the meeting’s main theme: that even though Alvarez didn’t win, his campaign advanced the progressive agenda for San Diego and helped the Latino community in particular. “What was this election about, and what was at stake?” he said. His answer: it was the latest step forward for the Chicano movement, which as early as 1972 committed itself to electing Latino officeholders and challenging laws that made that more difficult.
According to Dr. Ortiz, District 8 — the City Council district Alvarez represents — “was formed as part of a lawsuit by the Chicano Federation” and was “made possible by the [Latino] insurgency of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.” He also noted that the election featured two Latinos among the four major candidates: Mike Aguirre, from what Dr. Ortiz called the “Chicano generation,” and Alvarez, from what he called the “post-Chicano generation.” While various theories have been offered for why Aguirre endorsed Faulconer over Alvarez in the general — including Aguirre’s ongoing battle with the city employees’ unions, which heavily backed Alvarez and were the principal source of independent expenditures on his behalf — Dr. Ortiz suggested it was as much a generational split as anything else.
Dr. Ortiz, who said he registered as a Democrat in 1970 but quickly changed to “decline to state” — the circumlocution you have to adopt if you want to register in California without affiliating yourself with a political party — also quoted the Republicans’ explanations for why Faulconer won: “a superior candidate, a stronger team and a more inspiring message.” Though the orthodox opinion among San Diego’s media outlets has been that Alvarez lost because his potential voters didn’t turn out, Dr. Ortiz said that’s not how the Republicans explain their victory. His own view? Alvarez lost “because of the conditions that existed,” not only because it was a special election but because Faulconer and Alvarez were running to replace Bob Filner, a Democrat who had been driven from office in disgrace and had therefore tarnished the Democrats’ political brand in San Diego.
Carmen Lopez, who was hired in 2004 as an outreach coordinator for the San Diego County Registrar of Voters as part of the settlement of a lawsuit alleging violations of Latinos’ voting rights, said part of the problem is that Latinos in San Diego are “not voting correctly.” She discussed one of the most powerful pieces of data available to chart the ethnic vote: the way people register at citizenship ceremonies where they’ve just taken the naturalization oath and are thus eligible to vote for the first time.
While the percentage of new citizens who sign up to vote by mail is steadily increasing — from 70 percent in 2011 and 72 percent in 2012 and 85 percent in 2013 — Lopez said new voters who choose to vote by mail don’t always do it right. “A lot of them turn in their ballots late,” Lopez said — reflecting the common error that their votes will be count if the ballots are postmarked the date of the election. In fact, they’ll only be counted if they’re mailed far enough in advance that they’re received by election day. Another common mistake is they forget to sign their name to the outside of the ballot envelope.
“A lot of them come from countries where votes by mail and write-in votes don’t exist,” Lopez explained. “We have to educate people to get their ballots in on time.”

Barrio Logan and the Minimum Wage

The April 12 program continued with two presentations on upcoming issues San Diegans will have to vote on, which the meeting’s organizers see as the next big test for San Diego’s Latinos and the progressive community in general. Georgette Gomez of the Environmental Health Coalition told the sad tale of Barrio Logan, a neighborhood formed when a state freeway bisected it from Logan Heights. In 1978 the city created a community plan for Barrio Logan that called for turning it into a total industrial zone and forcing out all its residents. The residents protested, and over the last five years they worked with the city to create a new plan that would allow residents and industries to coexist and create enough buffer spaces so the people living there wouldn’t be poisoned by industrial pollution.
But that wasn’t good enough for the owners of the companies, especially shipyards, that operate in Barrio Logan. They circulated signatures to have the new Barrio Logan Community Plan put on the ballot to be voted on, not just by Barrio Logan’s residents but the whole city. What’s more, said Gomez, they got the signatures they needed by flat-out lying about the community plan, saying it would drive the Navy and the shipyards out of San Diego and cost the city jobs.
“All of that is untrue,” said Gomez. “The reality is these people are challenging the plan because they want to control the way the city makes policies. It’s about the Republicans wanting to control what goes on throughout the city. … We supposedly have a Democratic-majority City Council, but [the Republicans and the business interests they represent] are trying to change the dialogue and take everything to the voters.” Already, said Gomez, they were able to get the Council to cancel an increase in the fees paid by developers to fund affordable housing by circulating petitions to place it on the ballot — and instead of going ahead with the vote, as with the Barrio Logan plan, the Council wimped out and backtracked on the fee increase.
The Barrio Logan Community Plan will come before voters throughout San Diego — most of whom, Gomez said, don’t know anything about Barrio Logan — in June 2014 as Propositions B and C. Gomez asked people to vote yes on Propositions B and C to protect Barrio Logan as a mixed-use area and allow people to live there in relatively healthy conditions. If B and C lose, she warned, the 1978 plan comes back into effect and the city will have the authority to drive all Barrio Logan’s residents out.
“We ran a campaign for Mayor and came within three percent of electing David Alvarez,” said Richard Barrera, recently appointed secretary-treasurer of the San Diego/Imperial Counties Central Labor Council and an elected member of the San Diego Unified School District Board of Trustees. He was there to promote an initiative campaign, aimed at the November 2014 ballot, to increase the minimum wage in San Diego to about $13 per hour. But, in what was probably the most powerful and dramatic speech on the program, he held off on advancing that proposal and “worked the crowd” with an emotional appeal to community solidarity and advancing the overall progressive political agenda.
“We did a lot of work that is positioning us to go forward and win,” said Barrera. “We did the right thing. When Bob Filner fell apart, there were choices. We could have stayed home and capitulated — and a lot of people were arguing for it. We didn’t. We could have made a second choice, to let political expedience determine what our agenda is. We said no, because if we’d made either of those choices, none of us would be here. If we’d made either choice, Kevin Faulconer would still be Mayor, and we would have nothing to build on. Instead we made the third choice, to dig in and find extra money, extra energy, and get people involved who weren’t involved in 2012. All of us became organizers, and now we’re able to push forward on the issues that matter to our people.”
Barrera referred to the latest edition of Making Ends Meet, a report by the progressive San Diego think tank the Center on Policy Initiatives (CPI), which said that four out of every 10 families in San Diego can’t pay their rent and all their bills on the money they earn from working. For Latinos, according to CPI, it’s six out of 10. “This is not an issue of people not having jobs,” Barrera stressed. “It’s about people working and not making enough to make ends meet. So what’s our agenda? Working families need to be able to support themselves and create better opportunities for their kids. Many of them are children of immigrants who came to the U.S. for better opportunities.”
But Barrera’s critique of the way things are in the U.S. in general, and San Diego in particular, went far beyond that. “We continue to disinvest from public schools and reinvest in prisons,” he said. “Public schools have to be places that democratize our society.” Like Gomez, he said progressive San Diegans have an obligation to defend the Barrio Logan community plan and the health of its residents against the corporate attack at the ballot box. “The polling is pretty clear,” he said. “If voters understand the choice, they’re on the side of the Barrio Logan community. They’re going to spend a lot of money; we’re going to beat them with a lot of people.”
Then, and only then, did Barrera get to labor’s main priority in this year’s elections: a ballot measure they’re working to qualify for November which will raise the minimum wage in San Diego to $13 per hour and give workers at least five guaranteed days of paid sick leave per year. “Eighty percent of people in our restaurant industry don’t have earned sick days,” Barrera explained. He added that this forces restaurant workers with communicable diseases to come in to work, thereby exposing customers to those illnesses. As for the minimum wage increase, Barrera said the $13 figure was picked because “you have to make at least $13 per hour in San Diego to make ends meet.” He said they plan to put the initiative on the ballot in Chula Vista and National City as well.
“The other side will tell us all hell will break loose if working people can pay their bills,” Barrera said. “What we need to do going forward is to say who’s got the power, and to use our power to do right by our families and our kids.”

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Claire Joysmith: Bringing Mexican-American Literature to Mexico


Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Claire Joysmith is a woman on an 18-year mission. It’s taken her that long to publish an anthology of Mexican-American literature, particularly poetry written by Chicana women authors, called Cantar de Espejos: Poesia Testimonial Chicana de Mujeres. She recently presented the book at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park April 4 after stops at the Centro Cultural in Tijuana and the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) campus. Indeed, her mini-book tour (from which she made no royalty income since she doesn’t get any money from the book) did so well that most of the copies she had with her sold out at UCSD and only a few were left over for the Centro.
Contrary to what you might think from her name, her Anglo appearance and her flawless American-accented English, Joysmith is actually a native-born Mexican, the daughter of immigrants from Great Britain. “I’m a first-generation Mexican, though I don’t look it,” she said. “I identify as Tepostista, from a small village outside Mexico City where I live. It becomes an alternate way of identity-building, especially in the state of Morelos, a major area of violence, where looking like a gringa can be dangerous. I have narco neighbors. We say hello and are polite to each other.”
For years Joysmith has made her living as a professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico City (UNAM), and her idea behind Cantar de Espejos was to introduce Mexican readers to the best writing, especially poetry, by Mexican-American women. That meant that their poems, originally written in English — albeit sometimes the mash-up “Spanglish” dialect that incorporates a lot of Spanish words, idioms and sentence structures — needed to be translated into Spanish. That was Joysmith’s job, though she admitted she made the controversial decision to leave English words in some of the poems to preserve the bilingual mash-up aspects of the originals.
“This is the first anthology of Chicana poetry in Spanish to be published anywhere, in Latin America or in Spain,” Joysmith said. Though she would want to introduce Mexican readers to Chicana prose as well, she added, “I began by translating poetry because of its immediacy. Poetry goes back to our roots in every way. The 23 poets [represented in Cantar de Espejos] are a testament to our lives and their rich and oral poetic experiences, and heritage of mestizaje” (a word referring to the interracial blending of Spanish and Native people that produced most modern Mexicans). A few of the poems in Cantar de Espejos are presented in both English and Spanish, but the principal audience for the book is Spanish-speaking; Joysmith’s introduction is in Spanish and most of the poems appear only in her Spanish translations.
“This volume is meant as building a bridge” between Mexican and Mexican-American cultures, Joysmith explained. “I decided to look for poems representative of Chicana literature and poetry, and poems that would speak to Mexicanos and Mexicanas. They kind of fell together. Some got left out, some got brought in.” Joysmith said that her criterion for whether or not to include a piece was, “If I were reading Chicana literature and poetry for the first time, how would I feel if I read this?”
Her first big problem was securing the rights to republish the poems from their American authors and publishers. “Permissions to reproduce and translate U.S.-published material are very costly,” Joysmith noted. “I had to e-mail people saying there’s no money, this is Mexico, this is UNAM, can you waive the fee?” Her third step — after selecting the works she wanted and negotiating for the rights — was actually doing the translations. The fourth step — and, it turned out, the most difficult — was getting the book published.
“I found a small independent press,” she recalled, “and Yolanda Lopez was willing to illustrate, and then the press closed down during the economic crisis. Then I tried to get a U.S. publisher, and they all said they couldn’t do it. It was too expensive. So it sat in the drawer for over 15 years. … In 2011 I finally found a home for the book at the Centro del Mesoamerica Norte. It’s the only place in Mexico City where you can find a good collection of Chicano/a writing.”
Joysmith said that part of the problem getting the book published was that her translations, particularly her attempt to reproduce the linguistic clashes and mash-ups of the original texts even while turning them from (mostly) English to (mostly) Spanish, kept confounding Mexican copy editors. At the small press that first accepted the book and then went out of business, she recalled, her copy editor was “very much a purist. He gave me back the manuscript full of red markings. He must have had a dictionary in one hand and a red pen in the other. He marked up not only the translations but the originals as well for ‘misuse’ of Spanish.”
Understandably upset that the copy editor had missed the whole point of her work, Joysmith wrote a response that “practically became an exegesis of Spanish writing in purple ink. I explained all the cultural-literary identity markers. I also pointed out that already published work cannot be changed — and he still wouldn’t work with it.”
Even when the Centro del Mesoamerica Norte agreed to publish the book, Joysmith’s struggle to preserve the binational and bicultural integrity of the material continued. “I found myself working with a team,” she said, “and some of them asked me why Chicanos use Spanish in this part and not in others. The next question they had was, ‘Wouldn’t this be confusing for the reader? Why do you, as a translator, leave this word in English when there’s an acceptable word in Spanish?’”
Fortunately, Joysmith found allies at the Centro, a group of women that were enthusiastic about the book and paved the way for it to be published as Joysmith and the original authors would have wanted. “The cover was done by a Mexican designer,” she recalled. “I gave her the books I had on Chicano/a art, and they inspired not only the cover but the nice drawings inside. Working with these women, I found they were open to new experiences and visions. It was so interesting that we’d got beyond all these barriers and all the explanations in the text. But the computers and their spell-correction features went berserk.”
Cantar de Espejos contains 56 poems by 23 authors; 12 poems were originally in Spanish, while the other 44 were translated by five other women as well as Joysmith. In her own translations, she said, she drew on Chicano/a literary theory and in particular the concept of “bilingualism.” “When a Chicano/a text is translated from English to Spanish, it begins to speak in a different voice with intriguing realism,” she explained, adding that the two languages “coexist into a new life” even though, in her versions of the poems, Spanish is the main language and “the Chicano/a markers of difference disappear.”
Much of Joysmith’s appearance consisted of readings of some of the poems in her collection. Instead of reading all of them herself, she called on various guests — including Abel Macias, who introduced her on behalf of the Centro and joked about his bad “pocho Spanish.” Joysmith explained that for some of the poems in the book, including Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s “Vivir en the borderlands quiere decir que,” she had used different typefaces for some of the lines to reproduce some of the linguistic mash-up effects of the original.
Joysmith said that for a book that took 18 years to produce, Cantas de Espejos has been surprisingly successful. “This is the second printing,” she said. “For a book of Chicana poetry, that’s amazing. It has been really well received by different audiences, not only in Mexico City. In Durango, the reading room was packed by an audience mostly of high school students, youngsters who asked the most revealing questions. I asked them why they were so interested in reading about Chicanas, and one man said this book grounded for them what their relatives in the U.S. were experiencing.”

Sunday, April 06, 2014

U.S. Is More Like Panem Every Day

Activist San Diego Hosts Program on Income Inequality April 21, “Inequality for All” showing April 26

The last time in American history wealth and income were as unequal as they are now was in 1928, just before the Great Depression. According to UC Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez, U.S. income and wealth inequality have been steadily increasing since the 1970’s. In 2012 the top 1 percent of the U.S. population received nearly 22.5 percent of all pre-tax income, while the bottom 90 percent’s share dipped below half for the first time (49.6 percent). The last time U.S. income was so unequally distributed was in 1928, when the top 1 percent got 23.9 percent and the bottom 90 percent got 50.7.
As wealth and income become more unequal, and as opportunities to move up economically dwindle, the U.S. is starting to look ever more like Panem, the dystopia of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games books and the films being made from them. A handful of people in the Capital live lavishly, eat heartily and give themselves drugs to throw up so they can keep eating, while working-class people struggle harder every year to pay an ever-higher cost of living on wages that are staying still or going down.
Some Americans, including members of the 1 percent themselves, think this is just fine. Kevin O’Leary, host of the hit TV show Shark Tank, responded to a recent report by the British charity Oxfam that the world’s richest 85 families have as much wealth as the lower 50 percent of the entire global population by saying, “It’s fantastic. And this is a great thing because it inspires everybody. They get the motivation to look up to the one percent and say, ‘I want to become one of those people. I am going to fight hard to get up to the top.’ This is fantastic news and of course I applaud it. What can be wrong with this?”
Others, like libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, say that growing inequality is inevitable and we’re just going to have to live with it. In his book The Great Stagnation, Cowen said America’s economic future is going to be a three-class division between a super-rich 1 percent, an increasingly impoverished 90 percent and a so-called “infoclass” of 9 percent of the population working jobs requiring heavy intellectual training and talent. Cowen argues that the only chance most Americans will have for upward mobility is to work their asses off to get out of the 90 percent and into that 9 percent “infoclass.”
Still other Americans believe that the growing inequality of wealth and income were caused by deliberate policies pursued by politicians increasingly in thrall to wealthy individual and corporate contributors. What has been done, they believe, can be undone — if the people who are suffering from increasing inequality come together and get active. Activist San Diego is presenting a program with four local activists with long histories battling inequality and working to enable all Americans to have basic economic security, including access to adequate food, shelter and health care. The event will take place Monday, April 21, 7 p.m. at the Joyce Beers Community Center, 3900 Vermont Street, just north of University Avenue in Hillcrest. The speakers are:

• FLOYD MORROW, former San Diego City Councilmember.
• SANDY NARANJO, staff member, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135.
• TONY PÉREZ, Fight for 15 Campaign and Coalition for Labor and Community Solidarity.
• ROBERT NOTHOFF, Center on Policy Initiatives.

A representative of the Center on Policy Initiatives, a progressive think tank in San Diego, has also been invited.
The panelists will be discussing the following issues:

• Why is income inequality increasing in the U.S. and San Diego?
• Is this good or bad?
• What are the potential ramifications for economic growth and the existence of a middle class?
• What, if anything, can or should be done to reverse the growth of income inequality?

Also, Activist San Diego will be sponsoring a screening of the 2013 documentary Inequality for All, featuring former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. The screening will take place Saturday, April 26, 7 p.m. at the same location as the panel: the Joyce Beers Community Center, 3900 Vermont Street, just north of University Avenue in Hillcrest. In an unusual move, Reich and his producers have encouraged people to put on informal screenings of his film to build awareness of what can be done to fight back against increasing economic inequality.
“There is this popular misconception that the economy is kind of out there, it’s kind of natural forces that can’t be changed. They’re immutable. We all sort of work for this economy,” Reich told TV host Bill Moyers last September in an interview to promote his film. “But in reality, the economy is a set of rules. There’s no economy in the state of nature. There are rules about property and liability and anti-trust and bankruptcy and subsidies for certain things and taxes for certain things. … They determine economic outcomes. If we don’t like them, we can change the rules. If we had a democracy that was working as a democracy should be working, we could adapt the rules so that, for example, the gains of economic growth were more widely distributed without a sacrifice of efficiency or innovation.