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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Latino-majority San Antonio, new faces at the head of the table


Mayor Ron Nirenberg, wearing a blue jacket, and Peter Sakai, the Bexar County judge, make up an unlikely leadership team for an area that had never previously elected a person of Asian descent to either position.

By Edgar Sandoval


Peter Sakai, a second-generation Japanese American, was serving as a family court judge in San Antonio, which is largely Hispanic, when he was reminded of how much he stood out.


Sakai had just made a ruling that did not favor a mother appearing in his court, he recalled, when the woman reacted by blurting out an expletive in Spanish and then “Chino,” which translates as “Chinese” but is often used as a derogatory catchall term, aiming to lump all Asian nationalities as one.


“No hable así en esta corte,” he recalled responding. “Yo quiero respeto. Y también no soy Chino. Soy Japonés.” — “Don’t talk like this in this court. I want respect. And also, I’m not Chinese. I’m Japanese.”


Sakai, 68, whose father had been confined in one of the World War II-era Japanese American internment camps, feels he has earned that respect. Sakai, who grew up in South Texas, was sworn in last month as the county judge for Bexar County, a metropolitan area of about 2 million people that includes San Antonio, the nation’s seventh-largest city. He is the first Asian American to hold that title, the top position in the county government.


As it happens, the person holding the other top position in San Antonio, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, 45, is also part Asian. One parent’s background includes Filipino, Malaysian and Indian ancestry and the other has roots in European Jewry. The two men make up an unlikely leadership team for an area that had never before elected a person of Asian descent to either position and where Asian Americans make up about 3% of the population.


But many see less a sign of Asian American political success and influence and more an indication that voters may be less wedded to candidates’ ethnic identity as a way to make political decisions than in the past.


The San Antonio region, long known as one of the leading centers of Mexican American culture in the United States, has historically elected white men like Nelson Wolff, who was county judge for two decades, and Latino leaders, many of whom went on to gain national attention, including the twin brothers Joaquin and Julián Castro, and Henry Cisneros, a former mayor of San Antonio.


Asian American politicians have risen to power in communities with large Asian American populations, like San Francisco. But their presence in Texas politics has been less visible. Hispanic residents make up the largest ethnic group in Bexar County, at 60%, followed by white people, at nearly 27%.


Both Sakai and Nirenberg won voters over with agendas that appealed to a large Democratic Latino base, like promising to lift people out of poverty and keep families together in a culture where it is not unusual for several generations to live under the same roof or close by. Sakai, who spent nearly three decades as a civil court judge, has made family and children’s issues a hallmark of his political career.


Joe Gonzales, the district attorney and the highest-ranking Latino in Bexar County government, said Sakai’s victory was a result of many years of shaking hands with the area’s movers and shakers, and of making himself familiar to the Latino majority. “He’s a well-known figure in this county,” Gonzales said.


When it came time to cast her vote for county judge, Elsie Cuellar, 53, a retired banker, said the ethnicity of the candidates was not a concern. Cuellar said she was familiar with Sakai’s long tenure as a family judge. “For me it didn’t matter if the candidates were Mexican American or not,” she said. “It depended on what they were going to do.”


Sakai presided over his first county commission meeting on Jan. 10. After it adjourned, he walked the halls of the county offices in downtown San Antonio. Cynthia Guerrero, 50, who works in the building shining shoes, waved to him.


“Y como está su comadre?” — “How’s your child’s godmother?” he asked her.


“Good, at church,” she replied in Spanish.


Guerrero said she voted for Sakai over Latino candidates for the office because she liked what he said about family values as well as his plans to create social programs intended to lift people out of poverty. Nearly 18% of the region’s population lives in poverty.


“His last name stood out, because there aren’t any other Sakais here,” Guerrero said. “I don’t care about race. He’s the best man for the job.”


Sakai’s ancestral journey began in Japan, where his maternal grandparents left for America in the 1920s and found their way to the Rio Grande Valley. Sometime later, his paternal grandparents left Japan for the Imperial Valley in Southern California.


The Sakais, he learned, were sent to internment camps that were created during World War II and served as detainment locations for people of Japanese ancestry in the West, even those born in the United States.


When Sakai was growing up, he recalled, his father told him that he enlisted in the U.S. Army once he turned 18 in order to leave the camps behind. “It helped me understand how precious our constitutional rights are, and how we can be influenced by obviously mass hysteria and racist hatred,” Sakai said.


After the war, his father, Pete Yutaka Sakai, relocated to the Rio Grande Valley, where he met his mother, Rose Marie Kawahata. Peter Sakai grew up in the mostly Mexican American community of the valley.


“I got into a few fights when I was in high school,” he recalled. “It was tough being a minority among minorities.”


Sakai left the border region to obtain a law degree from the University of Texas School of Law in 1979 and later settled in San Antonio, where he worked as an assistant district attorney and in private practice. He was named a family court judge in the mid-1990s and served as a judge in various courts for nearly 30 years.


Like Sakai, Nirenberg and his wife, Erika Prosper, who is Mexican American, moved to San Antonio to start a new life. He ran first for a City Council seat, and went on to win three consecutive mayoral races. “We are raising a Latino son,” he said, adding that San Antonio’s Hispanic culture has “always been a strong component of how I govern.”


During the primary contest, Sakai garnered 41% of the vote, more than any of his three Latino opponents but not enough to win the Democratic nomination outright. In a runoff, he handily defeated Ina Minjarez, then a state representative, with nearly 60% of the vote.


His race became a focal point of the campaign during the general election campaign, when his Republican opponent, Trish DeBerry, began referring to him as Dr. No, the name of the title villain in a 1960s James Bond movie, a stereotypically sinister character who was half Chinese and half German.


During a candidates’ debate in the fall hosted by the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, DeBerry portrayed Sakai as a candidate who was opposed to finding a new place for the county jail and to building a baseball stadium downtown. “My opponent, Dr. No — he said nothing about these issues,” she said to audible gasps from the audience.


In response to a request for comment, DeBerry said to refer to statements she made at the time. Last year, she refused to apologize after the Asian American Alliance of San Antonio, the Sakai campaign and others condemned her remarks. During a contentious debate aired on Texas Public Radio before the election, she insisted that she was not aware of the name’s racist history. That term, she said, is “used to describe someone who says no to everything.”


Sakai, who won with 57% of the vote in the general election, today describes the episode as “disappointing.”


Sakai said he had learned to embrace the way he is described by many Latinos in his district. Adding the suffix “-ito” to the word Chino, as in Chinito, can give it a more affectionate quality, depending on how it is used, he has discovered.


In fact, as the campaign wound down, there was one phrase his pollsters repeatedly heard: “Yo voto por el Chinito.”


During his swearing-in ceremony, he incorporated a Chinese lion dance into the event. It was his way of sending a nod to his Asian voters, he said.


“I personally think it was the hit of the show,” he said.


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