THIS WAS the first clear day after weeks of rain. In East San José the sky rippled overhead, a blue curtain that dropped behind the east foothills.
Blanca Alvarado, the Santa Clara County Supervisor whose district includes this part of town as well as Willow Glen and Downtown areas, will be on the ballot for re-election on March 26.
On this particular day, in mid-campaign, she was clearly tired despite the uplifting skies. It was only the first half of a long day, and she was supposed to be raising money. Her opponent, political novice Scott Mathieson, had gained momentum recently and the election was three weeks away. After 15 years in office, these had-no por primera vez-become trying times.
Her eyes became watery and her voice was small as she began to talk. "I'm getting emotional, because in the last couple of weeks I have been," she paused, containing a slight change in her voice, "I guess, filled with a sense of dread, because I could lose my election."
Alvarado has served 14 years as a San José City Council member representing the mostly Latino East Side. Last year, she was appointed to the County Board of Supervisors, replacing Zoe Lofgren, who left to take a congressional seat.
Blanca Alvarado: But it isn't the loss of the election that stirs up emotion. It just reminds me of the time when my husband, back in the 40s, was probably the pre-eminent political leader of his time in San José. He was a very well-known radio dj. He used the radio program to encourage civic participation, higher education. He talked about the issues that were oppressive to our community.
When he went to the courts for his citizenship, there were a group of people who accused him of being a Communist, and they asked the judge to deny him his citizenship. This same group began to launch a boycott against some of his sponsors. The owner of the radio station was supportive of José. But time came when the sponsors began to feel very threatened by this boycott, so José was pretty much told, "you give up your political activities on the radio, or you're going to have to go." When he chose not to do that, the station owner cancelled his contract.
What was painful was that José really expected his community to come out and support him, because of his years of leadership. And the community did not. Well, he left, not embittered, but very disappointed. Very much broken-hearted.
And so I'm looking at my situation now, and my advocacy on behalf of my community has spanned forty five years. What we have seen from the opposing camp is an effort to define me as too much of an ethnic politician. How that translates in the minds of the voters is something that we can't foresee. So I have been reflecting on what happened to José.
Andar: You were involved in the radio show, too?
BA: Yeah. I had my own program, "Merienda musical." It was wonderful. Just chit-chat. Events of the day. Wonderful music. It was romantic, it was soothing, it was classical in some ways. It was a women's program. While we didn't really spend a lot of time dealing with issues for women per say, most of my followers were women.
Andar: Were you always a public person?
BA: Yeah, I have been, all my life. First of all, I think I was very much influenced by my father and my mother. They were fourth or fifth generation New Mexicans. My dad, who was an orphan at the age of three, was an illiterate man. But he [taught himself] how to read, and he was very active in the politics of our little mining community in Colorado. My father was the treasurer of the local mine workers' union. I remember my father and my mother on election day. Voting was the first thing they did, it was very important.
So there was that formation, that molding, that happened early on. When we moved to California, because the mines closed down, we ended up in the farms here in San José. I was a student in San José High School. We formed a little club, the Club Tapatío. There was a handful of Chicano students at that time-this was 1948, '49- and among other things, it became a social club for us. But we also organized food drives and clothing drives for the poor people.
At the same time, José Alvarado had his radio program. He had a broadcasting studio on San Fernando in downtown. It was kind of like the teenager hangout. He had the jukebox, and the Coke machine, and the checkers, and the ping-pong table, and he had a record shop. So after school, we used to go and hang out over there. That was how I met [José]. Although he was 23 years my senior, I ended up working for him, helping him with the radio program, and eventually marrying him.
Andar: Then you raised five kids
BA: After I married José, we began to have a family, and he experienced this decline because of the loss of his program. We struggled an awful lot. And I will say, to this day, that I do believe that his loss of morale affected our own relationship, to the point where I eventually divorced him in 1968.
After I divorced José, I was a single parent. I had five kids to raise. And I was a welfare recipient. I also worked. I remember, I used to earn $500 a month. It was just pretty dreadful, you know. However-and this is what I will argue about welfare reform- if I hadn't had the childcare support, if I hadn't had the medical benefits, if I hadn't had the food stamp benefits, I would never, never, have been able to accomplish what I did.
Alvarado ended up getting a job with the welfare office. Then, a succession of community organizing positions followed: she was named local president of MAPA, the Mexican American Political Association, picketed Most Holy Trinity Church to force the diocese to hold Mass in Spanish for the first time, and headed the Northern California chapter of the Viva Carter campaign. She was named to San José's Charter Review Committee, which in 1978 recommended that city elections be conducted by district.
Andar: And so you ran for City Council?
BA: Oh, I was not planning on it! My former husband died in 1979. Suddenly, I had the responsibility of taking over his tax business and raising the kids. One day, I was in my office when this young, attractive man comes in. He had moved into the area a year earlier and he was thinking of running for the City Council. I thought, "Well, I'll be damned! Why are we going to allow a carpetbagger to move into this district?" We struggled so many years for representation. It just seemed to make sense that I should do it.
Andar: How did you feel about suddenly being accountable to an entire district?
BA: Oh, I didn't know what I was getting into. But there was no other way. We couldn't sit back and let someone else represent us. And it was one of the most wonderful years of my life. We had hundreds of volunteers. There was an excitement about this race that I don't think will ever be replicated. From every corner of the district, people came out. Nothing was going to deter us-there was creativity, the juices were flowing, people even did marathons. I mean, the volunteers were a thing to behold. It was clear to me that this election was mine to win.
Andar: You've had a lot of criticism in your lifetime, some of it cruel and nasty. The fights in San José during the last couple of years over the downtown Quetzalcoatl statue in particular escalated into a kind of surreal war on your character. How do you deal with it?
BA: You cry. Within yourself. You experience tremendous hurt feelings, because that's what it is.
Andar: Does it get easier over the years?
BA: I don't think you ever get used to it. If they focus on issues, that's one thing, that's legitimate. But when you get into personalizing- oh, like in 1988 when Nancy Ianni was running for City Council. Her husband had died, and she had major surgery, and the opposition accused her of not taking care of business. I mean, it's hurtful, hurtful, to be painted that way!
Andar: Do you think you've been misunderstood?
BA: A lot of times, people don't understand who I'm representing. When I was on the City Council, I was representing an impoverished community, not Willow Glen. That community was affected by very poor land use decisions of the previous decade.
Andar: What were those decisions?
BA: Anything the land developers wanted, they got. They put all the low income housing out here, without a thought as to how much it's cost in terms of human misery, people's lives.
Andar: Since you've been on the City Council, the East Side now has a number of strong neighborhood organizations, and you're well-known for backing the cleanup of Poco Way [apartment complex]. Are the neighborhood organizations the essential ingredient, in your mind, to solving a community's problems?
BA: Absolutely. Poco Way was the worst slum in San José. I went there and said, "This is not acceptable." Leaky roofs, faulty plumbing, garbage all over the place.
But it was like putting city resources into a rathole. You couldn't deal with the band-aid approach, which was one thing at a time. Sure, you could have the police there to deal with the drug sales, but we couldn't do it piecemeal, we needed a comprehensive plan. That meant the city acquired the housing units, and we set up the Neighborhood Service Center there, so that residents could access city services. We had community policing through Project Crackdown, so that from having the highest crime rate in the city, it's now like the 200th.
Andar: How long did that transformation take?
BA: Three years. It should be a model for communities around the country.
Clarity of purpose is rare in our era. It is unusual to find someone who clearly
knows what they need to do, whose vigor is not dulled by the complexity of problems.
At some point during this interview, Blanca Alvarado began to brighten. She sat tall, as if a load had been lifted from her psyche, and grew excited about the issues she was working on and the projects she believes in. One of those is the Mexican Heritage Gardens, a multi-million dollar cultural, housing and neighborhood activities complex scheduled to be built in the East Side in late '96 or '97. The expansion of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, with an innovative money-making plan that will fund services for the poor, is another. Blanca was energetic. Perhaps by retelling her past, it became clear once again what she was doing all this for.
Andar: Are there some other things you'd like to accomplish that you haven't done yet?
BA: Well, I'd like to see Mexican Heritage [Gardens] completed. I'm not going to be satisfied until that project is literally in the ground and we've got activities going on there.
I'm a person of great faith, I think, a person of high optimism. But what concerns me is that if I lose this election, it will be a barrier to the kinds of work we've been able to do. If I lose this seat, it'll be another ten years before we're able to recapture it. I just feel that my voice will be a voice that is lost.
I really want to make a difference on the Board [of Supervisors] level. I want to stay there at least one more term, because the county is facing major changes. And they're uncertain changes. We don't know what the Federal Government is going to do with welfare reform, or Medicare and Medicaid. I want to be in a place where I can make a difference.
And as soon as this election's over, I'm going to Santa Cruz to relax. I really, really need that, just to renew myself and reflect a little. That would be wonderful.