A historic milestone for Latino empowerment
by Soledad Espita, Contributed
WATSONVILLE, CALIF. – On Dec. 5, Oscar Rios be came the first Latino to win a Watsonville City Council seat through court-ordered district elections.
On Dec. 12, Rios was sworn in, and the new Council elected him vice mayor during a session at which Chicano/Mexicano families overflowed into the hallway. Most had never before set foot in City Hall.
With Rios’ victory. Latinos here feel they have an officially recognized voice in making change. Retired cannery worker Sofia Aceves told Unity, “For a long time we didn’t have a Mexican to help us, the poor. We have confidence that Rios can improve things for us.” Rios, an organizer for the Cannery Workers Project, was a leader of the 18-month Watsonville cannery workers’ strike (1985-87), and he is widely viewed as a leading advocate of workers’ rights and Latino empowerment.
The December 5 elections dramatically shifted power in Watsonville. After years of domination by the agribusiness/developer sector, the new elections swept in a four-person liberal progressive majority.
In District 4, workers’ compensation attorney Todd McFarren defeated conservative incumbent Gwen Carroll; Lowell Hurst and Parr Eves, who favor affordable housing and preservation of agricultural lands, were elected in Districts 3 and 5. McFarren is serving as the new mayor.
But attention throughout the election focused on the Latino candidates. District elections were won only after a long battle by many Chicano groups and a lawsuit filed by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund). Last March, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously to uphold a lower court ruling for district elections in Watsonville on the grounds that at-large elections discriminated against Latinos, who make up at least 69% of the city. This court victory opens the way for numerous challenges throughout the valleys of California, and is expected to bring a massive expansion of Latino political strength.
As Joaquin Avila, an attorney in the MALDEF lawsuit, told Unity, “Watsonville and Salinas are the harbingers of the coming decade — the decade of Latino political empowerment.”
Many were disappointed that more Latinos did not win. In District 2, Rios won by running what was generally acknowledged as a well organized, grass-roots effort. New voters were registered, neighborhoods were canvassed, and an elaborate precinct system more than doubled the Latino voter turn out. Julia Balidoy, a retired cannery worker and Rios campaign volunteer, told Unity, “We worked hard, and had confidence that people would support Oscar because they know that he is one of us, a worker, someone who will always fight for our interests.”
Though other Latino and minority candidates lost in their districts, a major barrier to Latino voting rights has been lifted. Future district elections are bound to bring more Latinos onto the City Council to reflect the actual majority of the city.
The political impact of Watsonville’s district elections is far-reaching.
In the wake of their victorious strike, cannery workers emerged as a rising force in the political arena in the agricultural valleys of California. District elections also mean the City Council can now intervene to change the direction of the town. In recent years, Watsonville has moved toward becoming a “bedroom community” for Silicon Valley cities like San Jose. Rents have skyrocketed, and the median price of a new house is now $200,000. For farm and cannery workers to buy a home, it often means moving to nearby unincorporated areas such as Pajaro or Freedom.
The October 17 earthquake made conditions worse. “Our number one priority has to be housing, ” Councilman Rios told Unity. “That and rebuilding the downtown businesses, where 1,500 people used to work.”
Federal earthquake relief monies and other resources are available to rebuild the town. The new City Council has the opportunity to utilize these resources with a sense of social responsibility–to make Watsonville livable and affordable, especially for the workers. The Council has the power to decide whether Latino and minority contractors and workers will get their share of reconstruction jobs, and what percentage of new housing will be set aside for low and moderate income families.
That the new City Council is even addressing these questions is a result of district elections, which gives the Latino communities a voice and a way of making their needs heard.
“Our continued support will determine how much Oscar Rios can accomplish in the City Council,” noted Rios supporter Jose Luis Hernandez. “This is only the beginning.”
Soledad Espitia was campaign manager for the Committee to Elect Oscar Rios, District 2.