GILROY MADE HISTORY last month when voters elected the city’s first Mexican-American mayor, Roland Velasco. Sworn in Dec. 21, Velasco becomes the 34th person to hold the office since the city incorporated in 1870, and the first whose family hails from south of the Rio Grande.
Sixty percent of Gilroy, and more than 80 percent of its school students, are Latino, which one might suspect would prompt some celebration, such as when Cruz Bustamante brought the band Los Lobos and comedian Paul Rodriguez to Sacramento for a party to commemorate his inauguration of the state’s first Latino lieutenant governor. Instead, the ascension of a Mexican-American to Gilroy’s highest political office seems to gone almost unnoticed.
“That is interesting,” Velasco says, when asked about his unique place in city history.
“If it’s true, I am proud of that, but the reality is that Gilroy has challenges and voters elected a person, regardless of race, to make the best decisions they can.”
Voting returns show the one-time Cold War Army intelligence analyst didn’t win just among Latinos in a city where non-Hispanic Caucasians make up about 30 percent of residents.
“I won every precinct except of Eagle Ridge (where) I came to within 9 or 10 votes,” says Velasco, referring to opponent Perry Woodward’s gated, golf course neighborhood.
Woodward, an attorney and former councilman, was appointed at the end of 2015 to complete the term of Mayor Don Gage, the former Santa Clara County supervisor who abruptly resigned from his mayoral post after decades in city and county office. Despite the dearth of Latino representation in the mayor’s post, ethnic identity doesn’t seem to have been a factor in Velasco’s campaign strategy.
“We never talked about that, didn’t even think about it,” says Eleanor Villarreal, a leader in Democratic circles whose blessing has for years been sought by office seekers.
Race relations in Gilroy—where Cesar Chavez once overnighted in a “safe house”—have improved since 1980, when the United Farm Workers picketed the Gilroy Garlic Festival.
Today’s voters are focused on quality-of-life issues such as sidewalks, traffic jams and growth.
But the South County electorate has a decidedly conservative streak, and Velasco isn’t the typical Mexican-American politician. In an ethnic community that historically has allied itself with the Democrats, Velasco is an enthusiastic, unapologetic Republican. He won’t say for whom he cast his vote in November’s presidential election. “I did not vote for Clinton, and I did not vote for Trump,” he says, and leaves it at that.
From an English-speaking family that’s been in California at least two generations, Velasco says he doesn’t speaks Spanish “very well.” He learned the ropes from his early mentor, Gage, the city’s most savvy politician in recent years, and Sig Sanchez, a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Spain and for whom a stretch of U.S. 101 is named. Now in his 90s, Sanchez is the only other Hispanic-surnamed Gilroy mayor in the last 146 years. Both were city councilmen and mayors before being elected to multiple terms as county supervisors and water district directors.
At the age of 50, Velasco has now made it to the second rung of that climb.
And while city elections are nonpartisan, a council veteran says Republicans have forever had a solid grip on the mayor’s seat, and she wondered aloud how many Democrats have held the position.
“I think it’s zero,” says Lupe Arellano, who served on the council with Velasco in the late 1990s and lost a mayoral bid after declining to change her Democrat party affiliation.
While she hadn’t thought about Velasco being the first Mexican-American mayor, she called it “another breakthrough (for Latinos), and that is always wonderful.
“I want to say it’s about time,” she adds, “especially since the majority of residents is Latino, but I think our community has gotten to the point where, and I say this with pride, we are looking at issues and what is best for the community and it won’t make a difference what color or race or religion (a person is), it’s how are you going to benefit the whole community?”
Arellano and others seemed to suggest that Velasco’s victory might have deeper significance among Latinos if he were perceived more as a traditional activist of the Democratic Party mold instead of being seen by many as a cog in the Republican political machine.
For Arellano, the more important milestones have been made by Latinos elected to the council a decade or two ago, herself, her brother, Dr. Peter Arellano, Pete Valdez and Charlie Morales, among others.
Today, more than half of Gilroy’s seven-member council, including the mayor, is at least part-Latino.
“It has been a long time coming,” says Velasco’s great-aunt, Irma Batrez, who came from Texas at age 2 with eight siblings in 1948, so the family could be close to its men stationed at Fort Ord.
She recalls how her older brother would be stopped in town by authorities “rounding up young Mexican men to deport,” and how he’d ask, “What do I have to do, carry my discharge papers with me?” before they let him go on his way.
“That was one of the things people had to put up with,” she says. “When I went to school at St. Mary’s, I was the only Hispanic in my class; I stood out like a sore thumb with all the Irish and Italian kids.”
Times have certainly changed, and it’s not clear how federal policy under a President Donald Trump will affect areas with large Latino communities like Gilroy. Last week, the council for neighboring Morgan Hill came out with a strongly worded statement vowing not to work with federal immigration enforcement. Velasco, for his part, seems less willing to strike a defiant tone against Trump and his proposed deportation forces.
“We need to know who’s here,” Velasco says. “We need to protect the sovereignty of our nation. There needs to be a legal process for people to come into the country and work.”
Still, Batrez sees Velasco’s election as part of a “transition,” from the days when Latinos were a small part of the population of migrant farmworkers to a majority with political might. The overwhelming passage of the growth-controlling Measure H on Nov. 8 could be seen as a similar indicator of voter mood. In fact, the 66.55 percent of voters that elected Velasco almost mirrors the number that voted for H, 66.31 percent.
While neither mayoral candidate endorsed H, observers say Velasco was much less identified than Woodward with the kind of rapid residential growth that prompted Arellano, former Councilwoman Connie Rogers and others to launch the ballot measure.
Velasco, who serves as an aide to Santa Clara County District 1 Supervisor Mike Wasserman, seems intent on moving beyond the designation as Gilroy’s first Mexican-American mayor, as he enlists a little help from Bob Dylan and Martin Luther King Jr., in framing the historic election outcome.
“The times they are a-changing,” Velasco says. “People are seeing past skin color and are looking at the content of a person’s character.”