A sixth-generation Mexican-American, Nativo Virgil Lopez was born in 1951 in Los Angeles and raised in Norwalk, California. In the 1960s Lopez attended Excelsior High School in Norwalk, where he was inspired toward activism by the nationwide anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and the nascent Mexican-American movement in the Southwest. He founded a Mexican-American student organization on the Excelsior campus, and at age 17 he met Humberto Corona, a Communist Party USA organizer who taught Lopez to view America as a nation rife with Anglo-capitalist oppression.
Lopez enrolled at California State University-Dominguez Hills in the late 1960s, and left in 1980 without having obtained a degree. He then worked briefly with the American Friends Service Committee, and in 1982 he founded the Santa Ana, California chapter of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional (HMN), a tax-exempt nonprofit dedicated to “improving the social and political conditions of Mexicans living in the United States.”
When California voters in 1986 overwhelmingly (73%) passed Proposition 63, a ballot initiative making English the state’s official language, Lopez condemned it as an instrument of “Anglo” oppression. Eight years later, he likewise denounced Proposition 187, which barred California’s illegal immigrants from accessing social services.
In 1987 Lopez was a founding board member of SANE/Freeze, an anti-nuclear-weapons organization that later evolved into the Peace Action Network.
In 1996 Lopez and HMN worked on a Latino get-out-the-vote drive that helped Democrat Loretta Sanchez win California’s 46th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, defeating the conservative Republican incumbent, Bob Dornan, by 984 votes. It was later discovered, however, that Lopez and HMN, in the course of their work for Sanchez, had registered 364 ineligible, non-citizen voters. A congressional inquiry subsequently issued subpoenas regarding this transgression, but fraud charges were never filed—in part, because the 364 votes were smaller than the margin of Sanchez’s victory.
In 1997 Lopez was elected as a trustee of the Santa Ana school board. Backed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, he claimed that the practice of posting ballot-box petitions in English-only was a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
After California voters in 1998 passed Proposition 227 — which mandated, in effect, an end to bilingual education in their state — Lopez did everything in his power to undermine it. Asserting that he wanted to make Spanish the primary language of California, he lobbied parents to sign waivers authorizing their children to continue to be taught in Spanish rather than English.
After voters in 1999 passed a $145 million bond issue to build more schools in Santa Ana, Lopez and a fellow Hispanic school-board member insisted on personally managing the proposed construction projects and screening every prospective architectural firm. While they went through this time-consuming process, legal deadlines were missed, costing taxpayers many millions of dollars. Shedding light on the political and financial motives that guided Lopez’s actions, the Orange County Register‘s Steven Greenhut reported that “Lopez was soliciting the architectural firms for campaign contributions at the same time he was hand-picking the contract winners.” In 2002, the Register noted that Lopez’s nonprofit group Citizens In Action (CIA) had collected more than $105,000 in contributions from Del Terra Real Estate Services—prior to that company receiving a no-bid contract to build schools in Santa Ana.
Also in 2002, prosecutors charged that Lopez had unlawfully used education grants to pay the mortgage on his HMN headquarters in Santa Ana; more than $600,000 in HMN funds were either misspent or unaccounted for by that organization. Ultimately, CIA was required to pay a $639,000 fine for hiding HMN assets from the federal government.
In July 2003, Lopez was elected as president of the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA).
Meanwhile, Lopez’s continued refusal to comply with Proposition 227 made him a polarizing figure. In 2003, residents of Orange County voted overwhelmingly to recall him from his school board position. Lopez blamed his troubles on affluent residents who, he said, did not want “brown” children in their neighborhoods.
In 2004 Lopez, a lifelong Democrat, decided that the Democratic Party had become “unresponsive” to the needs of Hispanics and was being “driven by white male millionaires and their political consultants, who only seek to impose their political will on the majorities … and [who] only support those candidates of color who[m] they can control and manipulate for their own economic interest.” Thus Lopez switched his registration to the Green Party, with which he was in “99 percent” agreement politically, and threw his support behind the Ralph Nader-Peter Camejo presidential ticket.
In June 2005, Lopez wrote to California State Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez to express his “formal opposition” to an anti-cockfighting bill that recently had been introduced by State Senator Nell Soto. Lopez characterized the bill’s “author and … sponsor, the Humane Society of the United States,” as being “completely oblivious to the cultural, economic, and social realities of the Mexican-American and Latino communities.”
In the mid-2000s, when the issue of driver’s licenses for illegal aliens was being hotly debated in California, a reporter asked Lopez how he felt about a proposal calling for the inclusion of a special mark on state licenses to distinguish between legal and illegal residents. Lopez replied that the latter “do not want to be the Jews of Nazi Germany in California,” “will not be the new black slaves of the sureños states of the United States in this state,” and “will not be the Palestinians either that in their own earth undergoes an oppression.”
In 2005, Lopez began a public-relations campaign accusing the California-based mortgage company Ameriquest of “target[ing] poor people and minorities to fleece them, under the pretext that they are people with no credit, or poor credit, or bad credit.” “What Lopez didn’t mention,” reported the Weekly Standard, “is that, for the past two years, he and … Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana (HML) [a new, tax-exempt spinoff of HMN] have teamed up with American National Mortgage to offer mortgage services to Hermandad’s pre-citizenship members.”
Also in 2005, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer issued a “Warning of Impending Tax Assessment” to Hermandad for having failed for 12 consecutive years to file its IRS tax forms or pay its state renewal fees.
In January 2006, when Costa Mesa, California law-enforcement officials asked local Latino leaders to support an impending effort to enforce immigration statutes more strictly, Lopez said he would protest such a measure by: (a) urging Latinos to refuse to cooperate with police; (b) launching a boycott of businesses within the city; and (c) holding a mass protest rally on President’s Day weekend. “The fallacy of these arguments about crime and security [concerns] is that they have been tried before, but previously the anti-immigrant crowd did not have the Twin Towers as their big fig leaf,” Lopez said.
In April 2006 Lopez denounced the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005—a bill sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner—which sought to crack down more forcefully on immigration-law violators. In a television interview with Lou Dobbs, Lopez portrayed the Sensenbrenner bill as “a racist legislation [that] criminalize the people, and employers, workers, pastors of churches, the most, nastiness, racist legislation ever to see Congress and the history of our country.” When Dobbs asked Lopez if he would “accept anything less than amnesty” as a measure of reform to the existing immigration system, Lopez replied: “Absolutely not. We’re looking for full immediate, unconditional legalization for all persons currently in the United States. They’ve already paid their way, Dobbs. They paid their way more than enough, than anybody can expect of them, we don’t need earned legalization, we need legalization right now of all our folks here.” When Dobbs subsequently made reference to “illegal aliens in this country,” Lopez responded angrily: “Well first off, I refute your terminology. You don’t say kike, patty, WOP, okay, you don’t say nigger. You’re using language that’s offensive to me and offensive to my people … and don’t use that terminology to me again, referring to my people.”
In a June 2006 interview with Democracy Now!‘s Amy Goodman, Lopez stated that the Sensenbrenner bill was “not much different … from the 1851 Fugitive Slave Act in the United States that made it a felony offense against anyone that aided or abetted a fugitive slave.” When Goodman asked Lopez if he supported amnesty, he replied: “Well, we don’t call it amnesty. We call it essentially a fair trade, legalization for those individuals that are willing to create wealth, value for the United States. They should be accorded legal status and their families, as well.” Lopez also stated that he was “absolutely opposed to guest worker programs” because “they seek to perpetuate a servitude.” “There’s no reason in the world why a person should be a contract laborer in the United States,” he said.
In June 2006, Lopez attended a four-day “Socialism 2006” conference at Columbia University in New York. Among the others in attendance were the radical attorney Lynne Stewart, Charles Jenks of the Traprock Peace Center, and International Socialist Review editors Ahmed Shawki and Sherry Wolf.
During a 2009 lecture which he delivered at Princeton University, Lopez argued that illegal immigrants should not make their presence known to authorities in the upcoming U.S. census of 2010, on grounds that the government treated them with insufficient respect. “Refusing to cooperate with the U.S. census count is a political act of noncooperation and noncompliance in the best of Gandhian tradition conducted for the purpose of pressuring the political regime that pursues the persecution of immigrants on a daily basis at all nexus of social connection,” said Lopez. “This action seeks to dissociate ourselves from this repugnant and immoral policy, which strikes at the heart of the immigrant family.”
Also in 2009, Lopez helped organize a protest against the Southern California-based frozen-food company Overhill Farms, Inc., which had recently fired almost 300 warehouse workers who had provided fake Social Security numbers in order to get their jobs. Because of the mass firings, Lopez depicted Overhill Farms as “an abusive and racist employer” that “discriminates against Latinos” in a manner akin to “modern slavery.”
On June 25, 2009, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office charged Lopez with four felonies: fraudulent voter registration, fraudulent document filing, perjury, and fraudulent voting. These charges stemmed from allegations that Lopez had leased office space in Boyle Heights (Los Angeles) and had registered to vote using that address, while actually residing in Orange County. It was further alleged that Lopez had cast an illegal ballot in Los Angeles in the 2008 presidential primary.
In June 2010, Lopez characterized the presence of Border Patrol agents and National Guardsmen along the U.S.-Mexican border as “an act of war” that “the people of Mexico will not put up with.”
In 2010 as well, Lopez made several appearances in Los Angeles Superior Court to address the voter-fraud charges, but in each instance he behaved and spoke in a strange, nonsensical manner. Typical was the following exchange on September 20, 2010, when he told the court: “I’m present today as an agent for the secure party creditor special appearance for defendant Nativo Lopez herein after known as the defendant merely for the purpose of assisting the Court and the party to close this matter on the private side.” Judge Patricia Schnegg replied, “I don’t really understand anything that you say, but I respect your desire to say it.”
Due to Lopez’s erratic behavior, the court assigned him for a mental-competency evaluation by a psychiatrist before continuing with the criminal proceedings. But the case was further delayed when Lopez became uncooperative with the psychiatrist and thus had to be assigned to someone else. Eventually Lopez was found competent to stand trial, and in June 2011 he pleaded guilty to a felony count of voter-registration fraud, for which he was sentenced to probation and community service.
In May 2012, Lopez announced that after 44 years of activism, he was stepping down from his leadership posts with HML and the MAPA. In a parting statement, he denounced capitalism as a system with a great capacity to “beguile, co-opt, and corrupt its opponents and the general citizenry.” Capitalism, he added, “utilizes its political parties (of differing persuasions), private foundations, tax code, public institutions, corporations of all categories, churches – traditional, new age, and evangelical, – its monopolized media, public and private education, its regulatory agencies, statutes and codes, lawyers, judges, and courts, and the public administrative bureaucracy, etc. to induce consent of the citizenry.”
Because of Lopez’s propensity to depict his political and ideological adversaries as “racists,” the Wall Street Journal once described him as “the Al Sharpton of Southern California for his ethnic demagogy.” Lopez did not at all object to the comparison. “Sharpton has done what he does, advocating for the people,” said Lopez.
Lopez died of cancer on May 19, 2019.