Who are the emerging leaders in Anaheim, after the police clashes?

Smith carries some of the ashes of her son, Caesar Cruz, around her neck. Cruz was shot and killed by Anaheim police in 2009.
Smith carries some of the ashes of her son, Caesar Cruz, around her neck. Cruz was shot and killed by Anaheim police in 2009.
Bear Guerra/KPCC

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No Latinos sit on Anaheim's city council, even though they make up half the city's population — and a third of its electorate. Now, two recent police-involved shootings of unarmed Latinos have shoved that issue onto the front burner, while also pushing some emerging local leaders into prominence.

Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait and three of four city council members live in Anaheim Hills, an affluent neighborhood that’s home to 16 percent of the city’s population. Most of the city’s Latinos live in low-income neighborhoods with poor schools and few programs for young people.

These disparities resonate with Martin Lopez, an organizer with Unite Here Local 11. That union represents more than 20,000 hotel, restaurant and airport workers throughout Southern California.

Outside Anaheim City Hall, Lopez says one way to ease the disparities is to get Latinos inside the council chamber, alongside the present city leaders.

“If these guys are not representing the Latino community, they’re not going to push the police to represent the Latino community," says Lopez. "So when these guys go to our communities, they see them as the enemy, and that’s someone that they are there to protect.”

Lopez is one of about a dozen homegrown Latino, Muslim and Asian American leaders who’ve worked in Anaheim (behind the scenes) for more than a decade. Their coalition is asking the city council to shift from at-large elections to a district system they say would better represent most of the city’s population.

Lopez is lining up as one of those potential city council candidates if district representation lands on Anaheim’s ballot in November.

Marisol Ramirez, a 20-year-old supporter of Lopez, is on the board of the nonprofit Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development. She says she’d like some company in civic engagement, even as she realizes that’s not a simple proposition.

“I have a lot of friends that went down different paths because of the lack of resources, because of not knowing that there are things that they can do about their circumstances," says Ramirez. "So yes, I agree that there’s a lot that we need to do for youth."

Ramirez says she often goes door to door and speaks to neighbors, encouraging them to attend protests and city council and planning committee meetings.

It’s taken a lot to persuade more people to get involved in Anaheim — until now. The back-to-back police shootings of Manuel Diaz and Joel Acevedo late last month have sparked outrage, and local leaders hope that won’t fade after the protests subside.

Retiree Theresa Smith lives in a first-floor apartment in a largely black and Latino neighborhood of Anaheim. Three years ago, she got the news no mother wants to hear: police had shot and killed her 35-year-old son, Caesar Cruz.

“I was looking to do something positive, because the grief is horrendous," she recalls. "And I didn’t want to be one of those people who turned to drugs or drinking. So I had to get my act together, and see what I could do.”

Her son died on a Friday; Smith started to protest that Sunday. The more she expressed her concerns and helped others, she says, the easier it became.

Now, Smith is a kind of local sage. She offers advice to families who face the wrong side of the law, or who’ve lost kids to violence. She’s starting a non-profit called the Law Enforcement Accountability Network that’s demanding police accountability and transparency.

Smith also heads the Anaheim Crusaders, a group of grieving mothers — including the mothers of Manuel Diaz and Joel Acevedo.

Theresa Smith says the group has staunchly opposed the property damage and rock-and-bottle throwing that followed the police shootings.

“None of the family members want this either," she says, "and all of us are against it. We’re all against any kind of violence."

Smith first tries to reach those families who are struggling most, inviting them to the Wednesday night grief support groups she hosts in her garage and encouraging them to volunteer their time to other families.

“It’s a big dream that I have," she acknowledges. "But it’s doable.”