At a Santa Ana City Council meeting in August, Mayor Pro Tem Claudia Alvarez compared a Jewish business developer to Adolf Hitler and talked of ethnic cleansing in the downtown area, where some Latino retailers feel they have been marginalized.
The reaction was swift. The Anti-Defamation League called for her resignation. The City Council censured her and sought ways to defuse the racial and religious tensions Alvarez’s remark revealed. By the next day, she had apologized, but the fury did not subside.
On Thursday, it was Alvarez who was helping lead a forum on cultural diversity to examine issues of hate that have cropped up not just in Santa Ana but throughout Orange County.
The invitation-only event quickly underscored the anger and frustration still being felt.
“How is this going to help anything?” one woman asked.
Said another: “Our civil rights are being violated, and it is kind of a secret thing to get rid of the Mexican community in downtown Santa Ana.”
The battle by Latino business owners against a special property tax, which is what led to Alvarez’s Hitler comment, looms large in Santa Ana, where 78% of the 324,000 residents are Latino. Some contend that the tax money benefits businesses that don’t cater to families or the Latino clientele.
Alvarez’s remark, however, is not an aberration in the county of 3 million, according to Kevin O’Grady, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Orange County and Greater Long Beach.
“We’re here talking about Latino and Jewish relations, but there’s a lot of discrimination and bigotry in Orange County,” O’Grady told participants at the forum, which was streamed live.
He outlined instances of bullying, including one in which sixth- and seventh-grade boys were beaten in north Orange County because they were Jewish. He also said Temple Beth David in Westminster is one of the most targeted temples in the country in terms of swastika graffiti.
“There have been some very troubling and racist statements,” O’Grady said in an interview before the forum, adding that his organization looks at the rhetoric elected officials use and the level of civility in political dialogue.
But the county has also undergone drastic demographic changes in recent decades.
“Orange County, if you go back 30 years, it was quite homogeneous,” said Rabbi Marc Dworkin, president of the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee. “Now it’s one of the most diverse communities in the nation.”