Historic Election Night: Why Jose Medina's Win Means So Much

Photo: Douglas McCulloh

At 8:50 pm on Election Night, Jose Medina walked into the banquet room at Zacateca's Restaurant on Riverside's Eastside, to loud cheers and clapping of hundreds of supporters who'd gathered at the place where Riversiders have eaten lunches and dinners and planned weddings and business ideas and maybe proposed to each other. Medina announced that as of that moment, he had 57% of the vote for the seat in Assembly District 61. The Latino Voter Registration Project was there, with Francisco Sola and others who told me, "We've been working on this for ten years." The tables were circled with faces of every color -- Riversiders black and Mexican-American and white and Asian-American, people I know who were born in California in 1912 and people who were born in Mexico City, people who hold political office in Riverside and young students who are just getting started with their lives.

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Inside Zacateca's. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

This was a historic race for so many reasons: Medina was a Democrat running against a Republican from Moreno Valley, Bill Batey, a firefighter of mixed black and Latino heritage; Medina, who proclaimed in front of his supporters that he was the son of a man who immigrated from Panama because education was the most important thing in the world, has been a high school teacher at Riverside Poly, while Rusty Bailey, also a teacher at Poly, was in the lead for the Mayor's race that night, and Mark Takano, Japanese-American, whose mother Nancy was our school secretary at North High, whose campaign sign says "Teacher for Congress," was running for the 41 Congressional District seat. (He is a teacher as well as a trustee for Riverside Community College.)

Jose Medina, victor 41st Assembly District | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

But this was also the night that America was seeing the power of the Latino vote all across the nation, and in state races, and in counties like Riverside. Latino voters turned out in Nevada, Colorado, Florida, and Tennessee, surprising many, but not surprising some of the people at Zacatecas.

Photo: Douglas McCullohBill Medina, who was the best man at Jose Medina's wedding to Linda, is was greeting everyone with a smile. "We're not related, like cousins," Bill Medina said. "But we're extended family." Bill, who now teaches history at RCC, told me, "I was born here, in the kitchen, it feels like. My parents bought the restaurant in 1963, when it was a doughnut shop. Back then, when they started serving Mexican food, the customers were all 'gringos' who used to work at the railroads or downtown, and they came here for lunch." Oscar and Josie Medina made this place an Eastside gathering place very quickly. My father-in-law, General Sims, used to spend hours here working with Oscar, and Bill joked last night, "Remember when his big old truck would get four flat tires and then he'd leave it parked over there in the corner for a month?"

Everyone was eating, drinking, and visiting while Jose Medina shook hundreds of hands. The Mad Marionettes, young musicians paying homage to accordion and violin as well as contemporary music, played. Then longtime Mexican-American activists had glimmers of tears when he began his speech, mentioning his parents, and saying, "I will go to Sacramento to keep education within reach of the middle class -- a community college education, a UC education. For my father, education was the key to success. It still is."

I had arrived two hours before, to a room with only three other women -- Linda Medina among them. I looked at the balloons, the stage, the tables waiting, the television playing election results. Sitting beside me was Rosalee Acevedo, who began our conversation by saying, "My mother would be so proud."

Rosalee Acevedo, daughter of Josie Lozano, at Zacatecas. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Her mother, Josie Lozano, lived right around the corner from here. She was a fierce political activist whose perseverance helped pave this way, and a cousin of the Medina family. Born in Nogales, Arizona, in 1912, Lozano came to Riverside when she was one and grew up on the Eastside. She met her first husband at 17, had four children, and then, during unrest in California, he was rounded up with many other Mexican-born men and deported, though he was married to an American citizen. Josie and the children had to go with him to a border town in Sonora state, where they knew no one. She had never been to Mexico. They were close to starving, according to Rosalee, "Literally living under a tree, she and the kids." Those were Rosalee's elder siblings. Her mother returned to Riverside, knowing she had to made enough money to bring back her children. She went to the WPA office downtown and asked for work, but was turned away. Furious, she returned home, "put on her black dress and heels, because that's what she said you need when you're angry," and went back. "She picked up a rock and said, 'Do you want me to break a window or do you want to give me work?'"

Josie Lozano was assigned as a seamstress at the Community Settlement House, which just celebrated 101 years of helping the city. But life was strictly segregated then, and Lozano fought that, too. Rosalee looked across the table at me -- people were gathering now, waiting for Jose Medina.

"There were signs on the bathrooms -- White and Colored. My mother said, 'I'm going to use the White bathroom,' and they said no. She said, 'There shouldn't be any signs,' and she tore them down. They had a riot on their hands."

Historic photo of John and Josie Lozano

Her mother brought back her kids from Mexico, but her husband wouldn't return. She married John Lozano, who was born in Riverside in 1916. (Lozano's father, born in Guanajuato, put the famous tile on the cupola of Riverside's Mission Inn.) They had three daughters, Lydia, Ana, and Rosalee.

When Rosalee was a student at Central Middle School, which is two blocks from my house, where my own three daughters went, she wrote down her class choices for registration. "I listed algebra, biology, the classes I wanted, and the counselor said I couldn't have them. I said, I need these for college. He laughed and said, Mexicans don't go to college. He tore up the paper and threw it on the floor. I went to a pay phone and called my mother. She came right away, and she told him if she ever heard he said that to any other student, he'd be in trouble."

Josie Lozano didn't mess around. She worked on political campaigns for decades, as a delegate to the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles that nominated John F. Kennedy for President to campaigns for two Governers -- Edmund "Pat" Brown and his son, current Governor Edmund "Jerry" Brown." She received handwritten letters thanking her from three Kennedys.

The Medinas and Lozanos are cousins, and when I watched the throngs of people cheering for Jose Medina, the smell of enchiladas in the air, the faces of people who had been told no over and over again even as they kept entering the classroom, asking for the work, serving the plates of food, and registering people to vote, it was easy to imagine their reflections in the bright eyes of all those watching Medina while he held his wife's hand and said, "I thank you all."

Her new novel "Between Heaven and Here" was published September 12 by McSweeney's Books. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.
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