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Lodi's Hispanics see emerging leadership

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Posted: Friday, December 16, 2005 10:00 pm

When Eddie Aguirre died suddenly in November at the age of 44, Lodi lost the chairman of its Planning Commission. But the city also lost one of its highest-ranking Hispanic appointees - and role models.

Despite Lodi's large and growing Hispanic community, the faces on the Lodi City Council and other civic boards and commissions are mainly non-Hispanic.

Compare that to the city of Stockton, whose mayor, Ed Chavez, has been a prominent Hispanic leader in that city for decades, or the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors that has had a few Hispanic members.

Those Hispanics who have taken leadership roles in Lodi say it's a combination of the city's reputation as resistant to change and a cultural gap that has left the city's Hispanics under-represented.

While they see a need for more leadership at the local level, the growing number of Hispanic-owned businesses and sense of community should mean more representation in the near future.

Currently, the Lodi Chamber of Commerce's Hispanic Business Committee is conducting a survey of Hispanic-owned businesses in Lodi to better understand their role in the community as well as economic value.

Lodi's Hispanic population has seen remarkable growth in the past decade.

In 1990, Hispanic residents numbered 8,766, or 17 percent of Lodi's total population, according to the U.S. Census. By 2000, that number was 15,464, or 27 percent, representing most of the city's population growth over that decade.

Challenging the perception

Maria Elena Serna, 64, has served on the San Joaquin Delta College Board of Trustees since 1990.

Since then, she has become a leading Hispanic voice in San Joaquin County and the region, and said, quite frankly, that Lodi's reputation as a "hotbed of conservatism" has minimalized Hispanic participation.

Late Sacramento Mayor Joe Serna points while talking with City Council members during a meeting in August 1999. (News-Sentinel file photo)

"The perception has always scared people about coming into Lodi," she said. "In the past it's been known as conservative German-American."

That perception likely has made successful, local Hispanics ask themselves if they want a more high profile role in the community and risk "subtle and overt prejudice," Serna said.

However, she said today Lodi has great opportunities for Latinos to take leadership roles and they just need to take the chance.

But leadership comes with extra responsibilities and Serna said many people don't want, or can't, make the sacrifice of their time to be leader in the city.

Many people not only don't want to lose time with their families, Serna said they also don't want to expose themselves to the heat of public office.

"I think (Latinos) are encountering the same problems when it comes to public service," she said. "They're afraid to come forward because they don't want the criticism. They think it's too much work with very little pay or 'thank you's involved."

A matter of time

It's only a matter of time until new leaders step forward, said Jose Rodriguez, director of El Concilio-Council for the Spanish-Speaking.

"As you begin to see a shift in the population and as they become more fluent there will be some Hispanic candidates who would emerge as leaders," he said.

An apparent breeding ground for Hispanic leaders is the city's burgeoning Hispanic business community, Rodriguez said.


Bertha Castro
Community liaison and translator at Washington Elementary School

Bertha Castro

Castro has been an active leader in the Eastside community for years, serving on the Lodi Improvement Committee and working with the Lodi Unified School District to address concerns of the local Latino community.

The Lodi Improvement Committee was originally founded as the Eastside Improvement Committee and Castro has been true to that original focus keeping attention on the needed improvements in that part of the city.

Sandra Gonzalez
Co-owner of Casa Gonzalez Bridal Boutique

Sandra Gonzalez

More than a year ago Sandra Gonzalez noticed a lack of representation for businesses that cater to the city's Hispanic community.

So she took on a leadership role and became the first person to chair the Hispanic Business Committee, which she saw as a way to gain that representation.

Under her direction in its first year, the committee set in motion a survey to gauge the state of Hispanic businesses in the community and identify ways the committee can assist. Gonzalez is also a columnist with the Lodi News-Sentinel.

Manuel Luna
Machine operator at General Mills

Manuel Luna

A lifelong Lodi resident, Luna runs General Mills' Challenge U scholarship fund, sits on the board of director for Su Salud, runs an insurance agency and coaches a Runnin' Rebels 18-and-under softball team.

Seven years ago, he got involved with United Way through General Mills, and for four months out of the year Luna speaks with other companies, civic organizations and schools to raise money for the United Way.

There's leadership in his blood, too. His niece is Anna Cabral, treasurer of the United States, and his nephew is a vice president at NBC. He doesn't see himself as a leader, however.

"I just try to help," he said.

Luis Olivares
Co-owner of L&M Tax Services

Luis Olivares

One of the Hispanic Business Committee's founding members, Luis Olivares has seen his community involvement grow in the past year.

Olivares has been working to get more Hispanic businesses and groups involved with the Hispanic Business Committee. He's been approaching Hispanic-owned businesses and telling them about the group, as well as working to build ties with a local Hispanic basketball league and St. Anne's Church.

Mosr recently, Olivares and other committee members organized a blood drive at the Pregnancy Resource Center in Lodi. He has also undertaken fund-raising efforts for the Muscular Dystrophy Association in recent years.

"We're building relationships, and it is all positive," he said.

Tom Sanchez
Director of Business Development, Waste Management

Tom Sanchez

Longtime Lodi resident and graduate of Lodi High School, Sanchez has been a member of the Kiwanis for 25 years serving as president and as a lieutenant governor designate for Kiwanis International.

A past board member of the Lodi BOBs organization and a volunteer coach for the city of Lodi Parks and Recreation Department.

Sanchez said many local Hispanics already serve in leadership roles throughout the community, but even more representation is needed.

Success in business, and the financial gains that typically follow, might prompt Hispanic business people to venture into politics - whether in the school district or in city government, he added.

Education, too, can serve as a launching ground for emerging Hispanic leaders - whether still immersed in studies or helping to guide student development from outside the classroom.

"Education, we know, is the key to success in this country. And I would like to see more Latinos run for school board to make a difference and let Latino parents know they can get involved in their child's education," Rodriguez said.

Rosa Harnack is the chair of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce's Hispanic Business Committee which is conducting the survey on Hispanic-owned businesses.

Harnack sells insurance through the local New York Life office, and said she became involved in the community because she saw a lack of Hispanic-orientated organizations.

She believes there is a need for local Hispanics to move into more local leadership roles and feels a vibrant Hispanic business community will provide the springboard for more people to jump into those roles.

"I think it's the beginning of a snowball effect," Harnack said.

The chamber's committee is not just for Hispanics, and Harnack said more networking should bring greater representation for Lodi's Hispanic community.

One reason behind the lack of elected Hispanic leaders in Lodi could be that some Hispanics are unaware of exactly how the system of municipal government works and how they can get involved, said Genevieve Picone, a Lodi resident and adviser for El Concilio. Some may also be wary that their voice may not carry if they do get involved, she said.

"There needs to be a Latino voice on the council," she said.

Such a voice could give Lodi's Hispanic population a tangible connection to the community and an outlet for concerns, Picone said.

"You have to tap into a powerhouse that will support you, and if you do not do that you're not going to be heard. Power does come in numbers."

Another reason could be that since many Hispanics are imbued with a strong sense of community, energies and efforts are currently focused on that grassroots community, instead of in civic government.

"They feel serving in that capacity is better and they can make a difference at that level," Picone said.

She agreed that a leader would probably come from the Hispanic business community.

Rising from the Hispanic community to positions of power and influence is a step-by-step procedure perhaps best personified by Joe Serna, said David Leon, professor of Chicano studies at California State University, Sacramento.

Serna began his ascent to the mayorship of Sacramento as an activist for United Farm Workers. Then came an appointment to a Sacramento city commission.

"That gave him more insight of how city hall works," Leon said.

From the commission, Serna successfully ran for the Sacramento City Council and eventually the city's mayoral office. There was even talk about a run for statewide office before Serna's death, according to Leon.

"Basically you start at the local level and move yourself up," Leon said. "You have to know what community members want and need, and voice that as your political agenda in your political career."

Leaders needed

City Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce said she simply doesn't know why more Hispanics don't make a run for the council or apply to serve on the city's boards and commissions.

Elected in 2002, Mounce often rails against what she sees as the city turning a blind eye to the issues facing the Eastside. She said she has tried repeatedly to get residents in the area more active in the city but doesn't know what it will take to get more people to step up.

"I don't have an answer as to how to make that happen," she said. "Eddie was a passionate person. He just happened to be Hispanic."

Mounce, too, believes the Lodi Chamber of Commerce's support of the Hispanic business community will encourage the city's prominent Hispanics to move into leadership positions.

Thom Sanchez said he's often asked by city leaders for guidance on how to approach the Hispanic community.

The director of business development at Waste Management said he's happy to do that and added many local Hispanics already serve in similar leadership roles, such as owning their own businesses or working with local service groups.

While they may not have as visible or prominent positions like serving on the city council or commissions, they are representing their community.

"They have to speak up at council meetings or some business meetings so they get their fair share of opportunity or just to get their concerns answered," he said.

Many Hispanics feel they are well served by the current City Council, but having a civic decision-maker from the Hispanic community, especially a bilingual individual, could open new avenues of communication between city government and that community, said Fernando Gomez, a local business owner.

"It would be somebody you could associate with. Not that you can't associate with the city council now, but it would be easy for Hispanics to communicate with them," he said.

Lifelong Lodi resident Manuel Luna posits that the Hispanic community may not need just one leader but a team of leaders, each with their own focus.

"You have to have a leader in education, you have a leader in health care - not one person can do it all," he said, adding that a Hispanic voice on the city council could be a strong base of support for that.

Once Hispanics secure those roles, they can hopefully address what Maria Cervantes sees as a disparity between Lodi's Eastside and the rest of the city.

"Everybody on the city council needs to look at the broader view of the community because if there's a part of Lodi that's not receiving the support and services that another part is eventually it's going to affect the entire community," she said.

Cervantes, the principal of Heritage Elementary School, said she wanted to run for the council a few years ago but is ineligible because she lives outside the city limits.

Her inspiration to be a leader comes from watching her immigrant mother struggle to adopt to a new culture without being able to speak English.

She said she hopes to help Lodi's Hispanics, as well as Pakistani residents, make a successful integration into the community.

"When you first come here and don't understand the language and culture it's an enormous challenge," she said. "My heart is in this community."

Contact reporters Andrew Adams at andrewa@lodinews.com.

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