Saturday, November 2, 2019

Proposition 187's Twenty Fifth Anniversary

(Image Los Angeles Times)Two years into my career as an educator at Cypress College in Orange County, California, Proposition 187 hit the political scene in 1994. Designed to discourage, if not chase out undocumented migrants from the American countries of Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras (but mostly people from Mexico as they were, and continue to be, the largest number in this band), the ballot initiative sought to deny them public services. Fueled by fear, fury, and a general status anxiety, the state’s electorate overwhelmingly voted for the measure.

At this time Cypress College students of El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (aka MEChA), organized to have the PUENTE transfer program implemented on their campus. So they, with community supporters, attended the board meetings of the North Orange County Community College District to petition its institution. It was at one of these events that I witnessed Save Our State spokesperson Barbara Coe and Art Jaques—who called himself Joe American—demand that the trustees deny an education to illegal immigrants. Frightened by the same demographic shift, racists around this time leafleted Cypress College’s library bookshelves with Ku Klux Klan/Nazi propaganda.

From this experience, I observed contradictions. Brown people with a long history in the former Mexican territories of Arizona (definitely not an Anglo cognomen), Califas (the Golden State), Colorado (Red), Nevada (Snowcapped), Nuevo Mexico (well you know), and Tejas (ditto)—all stolen by way of the United States’ war against Mexico in 1846)—were now considered outsiders, if not illegal. In addition to the names of the eventual states themselves, appellations that dotted California’s landscape such as SANTA BARBARA, SAN FRANCISCO, and its own capital SACRAMENTO highlighted the perfidy behind this nativist movement spearheaded by former SAN DIEGO mayor, Governor Pete Wilson.

Another incongruity was, and still is, family and friends of ethnic heritage distancing themselves from their expatriate roots, even when they themselves were Mexican nationals. In one case, a relative adopted the language of xenophobes to stigmatize “illegals” while married to a once undocumented migrant. Go figure. Then there were growers who employed a largely undocumented workforce to cultivate avocados, citrus, strawberries, and other crops while they donated a portion of their handsome profits made off the backs of immigrant labor to the election campaigns of red-meat anti-Mexican demagogues of the likes of not only Governor Wilson but also former Congressperson Elton Gallegly in Ventura County. But this makes perfect sense as businesses can more easily exploit with low wages and no benefits undocumented people than those with the legal protections of residency or citizenship.

Then there was the absurdity discovered by crackerjack journalist Gustavo Arellano at the Los Angeles Times that Proposition 187 was imagined by Orange County Republican campaign strategists at, of all places, a Mexican restaurant while getting plastered on margaritas.

No matter the hypocrisy, from the movements behind Proposition 187 I learned not to assume who your allies and adversaries could be. As I watched then and recently, in the case of Simi Valley residents backing and vilifying Councilperson Ruth Luevanos for her posting know your rights information for migrants on her webpage, a diversity of people can be for and against the presence of the new huddled masses on our land, as well as their advocates.

The trust embedded within the memory of Proposition 187 is that a wave of purple states will ultimately elect officials who do not politically scapegoat the most vulnerable. This was the paradox in California during the 1990s as immigrants and their sons and daughters were politically energized. So as Latino members of the California legislature recently declared on the 25th anniversary of this nefarious proposition, "Thank you, Governor Pete Wilson!"

Perhaps sooner, rather than later, a similar coven of U.S. senators and representatives throughout the nation will say, "Thank you, President Donald J. Trump!"

(Image Gustavo Arellano)
In closing, in light of the 25 years since Proposition 187 divided our state, I encourage you to learn the dubious, yet paradoxically optimistic, history of this xenophobic initiative by reading and listening to the brilliant op-ed, timeline, and podcast of Chicano avenger-journalist, and my amigo, Gustavo, at the Los Angeles Times. In addition to being an audacious columnist, he's the author of ¡Ask A Mexican!, Orange County: A Personal History, and Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Here are links to these installments:
Prop. 187 forced a generation to . . .
Prop. 187 timeline