Families gathered in December in Costa Mesa's Shalimar neighborhood for a posada, a traditional Latino Christmas celebration that recreates Mary and Joseph's journey to find lodging in Bethlehem. Shalimar is located in one of the most dominantly Latino parts of Costa Mesa. (Don Leach, Daily Pilot / February 28, 2014)

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The way Juana Trejo remembers it, the heavy double doors of Costa Mesa's City Council chambers hit her on the way in.

She stood in the doorway. A sea of unfamiliar faces turned to look at her. Some were laughing.

It was her first time at City Hall, some seven or eight years ago, she recalled in Spanish on a recent Friday night, and she did not feel welcome.

"They said, 'What are you doing here? What do you want?'" she said, describing the response she got from the dais. Community organizer Andrew Hausermann translated for this interview.

What she wanted, Trejo said, was a neighborhood cleanup.

"Because we're tired of our neighborhood being dirty," she remembered telling the council. "We're tired of having our walls covered in graffiti. We want a more healthy and safe place for our families."

Things, she said, have improved.

The neighborhoods she has called home for 21 years, Shalimar and Mission Mendoza, are indeed cleaner, thanks to the assistance that eventually came. Gang-intervention programs have seen success.

But as Costa Mesa's Latino population has grown, Hispanic residents say that feeling of detachment from city government hasn't gone away. In this city of almost 112,000 — where about 36% of the population is Latino but no City Council member has ever identified as such — what some residents say is an imbalance in representation is facing increasing scrutiny.

Costa Mesa is one of dozens of cities statewide facing mounting pressure to switch from at-large elections — meaning officials are elected from the whole city — to districted voting systems, where council members are elected to represent a certain region of the city. Such systems, many say, better foster minority representation.

If state leaders are successful, that pressure could lead to sweeping changes in the way Costa Mesa residents elect their leaders.

"We're here, we want to be seen," said 22-year-old Oswaldo Farias, who has lived in Costa Mesa for most of his life, "but it hasn't really been reflected in local policymakers."

Local officials say that the current system is working fine and that separating the city into districts would prove divisive.

A 13-member charter committee has been tasked with drafting a document that, if approved by voters, could enshrine an election system that some say has effectively shut out a significant segment of the community — one that watched in fear as the city took some of the state's most stringent and controversial measures against illegal immigration several years ago.

Though the idea of building council districts into the charter was dismissed by members of the committee, experts say the issue is not likely to go away.

"This is coming," said Chapman University political science associate professor Fred Smoller, who closely follows local government. "It's a big deal, and it's really going to change politics in Orange County."

*

A demographic shift from old Goat Hill

Since Costa Mesa was incorporated six decades ago, homes, hotels and labyrinthine shopping centers have filled in areas that were rolling farmland once known as Goat Hill.

The city's population has multiplied many times over, from a 15,000-person "village serving farmers in the hinterlands," as longtime resident Hank Panian put it, to an "economically complex," mid-sized city wedged between the relative ethnic and socioeconomic homogeneity of Newport Beach — which is about 87% white — and the bustling county seat, Santa Ana, which is about 78% Latino.