Vicente Sarmiento remembers when the local Republican Party here posted uniformed guards at polling stations in a closely fought State Assembly race three decades ago and they hoisted signs in English and Spanish warning that noncitizens were prohibited from voting. The guards were removed after state elections officials threatened legal action.
Such tactics would never take place today in this city 35 miles southeast of Los Angeles, where Mr. Sarmiento is now the mayor pro tem. All seven members of the City Council, including Mr. Sarmiento, are Latino, as are 78 percent of the 343,000 people who live here.
These days, Santa Ana stands as the face of a new California, a state where Latinos have more influence in everyday life–electorally, culturally and demographically–than almost anywhere else in the country.
There are limits to the transformation here, both in economics, where Latinos still lag far behind the state as a whole, and in politics, where remarkable gains in Latino power have not yet translated to the most powerful statewide offices. But the Latino progress in this state offers a glimpse of how much of the country will probably look in coming decades.
Immigrants living illegally in California are entitled to driver’s licenses. Their children can receive state-funded health insurance. Local law enforcement officials generally do not provide information to federal immigration authorities, as they do in many other parts of the country. On a smaller, if no less symbolic, level, the first thing the Santa Ana City Council did when it went all-Latino in 2006 was pass a law requiring simultaneous translation of all of its meetings to Spanish.
“There’s no attempt to whitewash the city anymore,” said Aurelia Rivas, 26, a student working at her parents’ fruit and snack stand one afternoon. Referring to the annual Day of the Dead celebration, she added, “It’s like everyone knows that Día de los Muertos is going to be just as big and important of a celebration as the Fourth of July.”
Still, job postings across California routinely require applicants to speak Spanish. Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, who is fluent in Spanish, said he makes a point at news conferences of setting aside time to speak to Spanish-language media.
“We are well past the tipping point–everywhere,” Mr. Garcetti said. “The shift within 20 years from being the most anti-immigrant state to being the most embracing state for the integration of immigrants has been pretty breathtaking.”