March 3, 2000


COMMENTARY

MAPA Faces its Greatest Challenge

By Julio C. Calderón

History, although written as seen by those who survived it, is still the ultimate teacher for those who will lead into the future. When more than 140 Mexican American and Latino political activists heeded Ed Roybal and Hank Quevedo's call to convention in April 1960, they gave birth to the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA).

"We came to the conclusion that the Democratic Party in fact did not support him (Hank Lopez, the only Democrat to lose in 1958's election.). Not the Democratic Party, but Governor Pat Brown Sr. and those on the ticket, did not fully support him. That is why we organized MAPA, to get a political organization established so that things of this kind could not happen again." Congressman Ed Roybal told Kenneth C. Burt in his "The History of the Mexican American Political Association and Chicano Politics in California."

The challenge for MAPA and Mapistas in 1960 was to be recognized as equal players in the Democratic Party, and to mobilize a politically apathetic community to political action. Fast-forward 40 years to the years and find MAPA facing its greatest challenge, not against the entrenched powers of the Democratic Party; not against the forces of bigotry or racism; but from itself.

In the last six months MAPA has held two elections for State-National officers. One executive committee hasn't replaced another instead MAPA has two executive boards.

MAPA has been embroiled in court battles for most of the 1990's while the community's stock in California's political arena has soared as if there was a dot com company.

When Ben Benavidez from Fresno took the MAPA presidency in 1988, he quickly moved to control the executive board to ensure a firm hold over the organization. Those who refused to follow his lead without question, were ostracized. This included individuals and chapters, among them, MAPA Del Valle and the San Francisco chapters. Although the MAPA by-laws have specific procedures for expulsion of a member or chapter, Benavidez believed that he and his hand picked executive committee had sole powers.

Former State/National President Eduardo Sandoval challenged Benavidez in court, and for the last six years has been waging a battle to force Benavidez to comply with the by-laws. In April 1999 Benavidez and his treasurer, Gloria Torres signed an arbitration agreement to make available a statewide membership list and a treasurer's report prior to the next constitutional election only to renege on the agreement.

Benavidez went ahead with plans for the convention. The arbitrator retired Superior Court Judge Victor Barrera, himself a former MAPA state vice president during Sandoval's first term, issued an order canceling the convention in August 1999. The elections were held in spite of the threat of court sanctions.

Barrera's qualifications as a fair arbitrator were challenged in a San Francisco superior court citing his previous relationship to MAPA and Sandoval. However, this relationship, according to affidavits from Sandoval to the court, were made known prior to Barrera's selection as arbitrator by Benavidez's legal counsel Fernando Tafoya. The court rejected the claim and confirmed Barrera as fully qualified. Barrera ordered new elections to be held in Los Angeles on February 26, 2000. Eduardo Sandoval was elected State/National President.

The contrast between the two elections is in those who were in attendance. The election in Fresno, and in Los Angeles had uncontested slates officers; both had enthusiastic participants, but that is where the similarities end.

Benavidez was dedicated to the Jesse Jackson Rainbow Coalition form of community action. The forces he organized held civil rights issues paramount to political action. He focused on problems faced in the farming communities in the Central San Joaquin Valley, and all but ignored the chapters in the Los Angeles Metro Region and Northern California.

MAPA's lifeline has always been its chapters. The Mapistas in the urban areas of the state, such as Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, focus on the politics of their communities as their primary activities. In the past, these chapters chose to support civil rights activities of Latino organizations established for this purpose. The practice was for MAPA to lend its political muscle to the civil rights activities of others.

MAPA's history is a roller coaster ride of highs and lows. The changes in size and influence were never gradual, always drastic and difficult to reverse. The fortunes resulted from the attitude of the president and his or her executive board towards the relationship between them and the chapters. Those who tried to dictate to chapters soon found themselves with dwindling numbers of chapters and/or participation at executive board meetings. The chapters, that have always been the foundation of MAPA's strength and influence, ignore the state and concentrate on their local and regional politics. This happened during the presidency of Abe Tapia between 1968 and 1970, and has to a greater degree during Benavidez's ten-year reign.

The Mapistas that gathered in Los Angeles and elected Sandoval are those who have grown gray with MAPA. One prominent figure was Burt Corona, whose name is seen in MAPA's history since its beginning in 1960. The participants represented people, such as Corona, with 20 and thirty years or more of involvement in MAPA. They were the same people who kept MAPA alive and rebuilt it after a number of failed administrations had virtually destroyed the organization. There were also those who are relatively new to the organization, but hold to its original intent. They left the one-day convention dedicated to rebuilding MAPA one more time.

To say that all that Benavidez created was a destructive force to the ideals and mission of MAPA would be a gross injustice. MAPA has become a formidable political and civil rights force in the Inland Empire of San Bernardino and Riverside counties. In fact, while the rest of the state's growth, including Benavidez's home region in the Central Valley, remained stagnant or declined in chapters and membership, the Inland Empire Region under the leadership of Benavidez's vice president, Steve Figueroa from Victorville, has grown in both chapters and members. Figueroa has blended the passions for civil rights with the understanding that solutions are in the political strength of the community. Figueroa's chapters and members are also a blend of Democrats and Republicans and they have supported candidates from both parties in past elections. In a sense, exemplifying the very original articles of MAPA's incorporation.

MAPA now has two executive boards. Ben Benavidez's intent was to retire from the MAPA presidency and turn the reigns of the organization to his treasurer, Gloria Torres. But the election was against the arbitrator's orders, therefore, is a rogue board. The arbitrator oversaw Sandoval's election. Every phase of it, from the call to convention to certification of membership and the final vote, were monitored by Barrera. Barrera will make a final order on March 11, 2000, and a superior court judge will then certify that.

Torres has vowed to continue the fight and will not yield to the orders of the arbitrator, thereby taking her loyal board through court sanctions, even though she has lost two superior court challenges to the orders of the arbitrator, one in San Francisco in December 1999 and more recently, in a Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland in February.

The danger for MAPA's future isn't in the war between Sandoval and Torres. The danger is in what this conflict will do to the organization's chapters and members. Whenever battle lines between leaders are drawn so tight dedicated Mapistas are forced to choose between leaders and abandon what is best for the association. This breeds destructive results for the association.

The losers will take with them those who followed them. They will attempt to form a new organization or the disenchantment will drive others out of MAPA. As it is, MAPA's membership is below 800 members statewide.

If, after all is done, the Inland Empire for example were to abandon MAPA, it would lose one third of its membership and chapters. MAPA would lose its presence in a fast growing area of the state where more and more Latinos are running for legislative office from both parties than anywhere else outside of the Los Angeles Basin. The Inland Empire Region of MAPA is, without question, MAPA's most active and united and influential region in the state.

If we use the two lost challenges to Sandoval's efforts in the courts, we can assume that his executive board will be declared the official MAPA executive body by the courts. Winning the battle in the courts will only be the beginning for Sandoval. The real challenge will come in moving forward with MAPA intact.

Sandoval's history with MAPA has been one of loyalty to the organization and a dedication to its by-laws. He is among those presidents that never profited from the MAPA presidency. MAPA was moving toward becoming a national organization; he was organizing in Utah, Arizona, Washington State, and New Mexico. He has proved himself, but he has also been involved in a bitter six-year struggle, as have members of his new executive board.

Sandoval and MAPA's challenge is in allowing logic to rule, rather than in reaping the spoils of victory by destroying those who opposed him and those associated with them. If MAPA is to survive this last attack on its existence as a viable political force, vengeance must not be the objective.

The men and women who tired of second-class status in the state's political arena formed MAPA 40 years ago. Now the Latino community has realized many of the dreams that motivated them to gather in Fresno in opposition to their party's leaders. Latino numbers are at historical proportions in the state Legislature. A Latino sits in the Lt. Governor's office for the first time in more than 120 years. Candidates from both parties are vigorously courting the Latino voter.

This is what was envisioned forty years ago. This is what MAPA is all about. Were it not for this division, MAPA would be poised for national prominence. Therefore, MAPA's house needs to be put in order before summer. MAPA needs to cease hostilities, or take the last steps to oblivion.

(Julio C. Calderón is a former State/National President of the Mexican American Political Association (1981-1983) and attended both recent MAPA elections. He has been a member of the Association since 1968 and served as Central Region Director, National/State Organizer and is presently the Interim Northern Region Director.)

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