1994 state initiative targeting undocumented immigrants sparked a generation of young Latino leaders
By: Abelardo de la Peña, Jr.
“They keep coming: Two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won’t stop them at the border, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them.”
Then-UCLA senior Noel Tapia vividly remembers the words and grainy images of people running across the Mexican border into the U.S. in a commercial airing repeatedly on TV during Spring 1994. The series of ads served a dual purpose — the re-election of California governor Pete Wilson and the campaign for Proposition 187, the ballot initiative aiming to deny undocumented immigrants and their children public services.
And it angered him.
“The ads were designed to alarm. It was not a fair portrayal of the community I knew, nor family members and friends who were undocumented,” says Tapia.
University of California, Riverside student V. Manuel “Manny” Pérez also felt a strong gut reaction. “Growing up in the barrios of Coachella, seeing the challenges and injustice, and then going to UCR, allowed me to understand that this was very racist initiative against the Latino community. We organized, marched, and occupied the UCR administrative building … we just wanted to shout out, to let people know this is unacceptable.”
That same Spring, Luis Ayala was in his second year at Santa Clara University, already active in MEChA and the Multicultural Center. To him, Proposition 187 was the political manifestation of what he was learning in class: The pervasive discrimination of people of Mexican descent in the Southwest.
“Many students, including myself, knew Proposition 187 was unacceptable,” says Ayala. “We marched on campus, had informational hearings, bussed to join students at different colleges. We focused on protesting, but also helping people to register to vote.”
Maria Guadalupe Machuca, a junior at Coachella Valley High School in 1994, was a MEChA leader and daughter of a United Farm Worker. Although she grew up accompanying her father to meetings, marches and picket lines, when a group of students walked out of school to protest the proposition, she had reservations. What held her back was the potential disapproval of her dad, who valued education above all.
“It was a struggle, but as I saw others go, I decided to join them to make the long walk to Indio High School. That’s how strong I felt about [Proposition 187]. And then we walked out a second day.”
Despite the passionate actions of young people like Tapia, Perez, Ayala and Machuca — becoming politically aware and involved, organizing, and actively voicing their opposition to the governor and the initiative — Wilson won with 55% of the vote, with Proposition 187 passing with nearly 60%.
Shortly after, two subsequent statewide initiatives aimed at Latinos and other minorities also passed: Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action programs, and Proposition 227, limiting bilingual education in state schools.
Yet, the stage was set for something most likely unforeseen by the initiative’s supporters: The political awakening of an educated, diverse and motivated group of young Latinos.
“The fight against Proposition 187 woke up a lot of young kids. It gave us a voice and a mission and set the tone for a direction that we wanted to take. That’s why a lot of us wanted to go to college, come back, make a difference. It put us on that path.” – Maria Machuca
For many, that path led to politics
Pérez was on that path early on: “I knew I was going to get into la politica because of what I saw in the barrios of Coachella, realizing that the social economic political systems at the time did not include folks like me. That’s why I began to engage.” He first became a schoolteacher, than ran for the school board. In 2008, he was elected as Assemblymember for the 56th District, where he served for six years before being termed out. He now sits on the Coachella city council.
Ayala came to that crossroads at Harvard, while pursuing his Masters: “Was I going to get a doctorate degree and do research and write papers, or do something that would have an immediate impact on the community?” With all that went on with 187, Ayala decided to join the decision makers, first as a staff member for office holders like U.S Congressman Xavier Becerra to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, eventually running for Alhambra’s city council, where he currently sits. Ayala is also Board President of the SoCa Latino Policy Center.
Machuca took her time to enter the fray. Although fiercely loyal to her community, when first approached to run for the Coachella Valley Unified School District board of trustees, she declined. “I only had my BA. I felt I needed to bring something more to the table, so I got my Masters.” She is currently finishing her second term as Board President.
Although Tapia did not enter the political arena, his practice includes municipal law, government relations, legislative advocacy and election law as a partner at Alvarez-Glassman & Coleman. “I work with younger attorneys guiding them to combat pitfalls and improve their skill set so that race will can never be an issue that will legitimately chip away at their credibility,” says Tapia. “My platform is to combat that negative policy-driven roadblocks place for people of color and other marginalized groups.”
And what of Proposition 187?
The initiative was quickly challenged, with most provisions found unconstitutional and never taking effect. In 2014 Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 396, repealing its unenforceable provisions.
The irony: The author, endorsers and supporters of the law that shoveled the last dirt on the grave of Proposition 187 were primarily Latino legislators, the same men and women who marched, organized, outreached and learned from their battle against Prop 187 in 1994. The bill’s author: Sen. Kevin de León, got his start organizing against Proposition 187. He is now the first Latino to serve as the President Pro Tem of the California Senate since Reginaldo Francisco del Valle served in 1882.
The rapid increase in the Latino participation in California political participation due to the Republican Party’s embrace of Proposition 187 is seen as a principal cause of the subsequent failure of the party to win statewide elections, turning the state into a bright blue.
For instance, in 1994, although Latinos represented 26% of the state population, only 13.75% of the Assembly and 7.5% of State Senators were Latino. But by 2015, Latinos have grown to make up 39% of the state’s population. In the Legislature, 23.8% of the Assembly and 12.5% of the state Senate are Latino.
“I feel Proposition 187 backfired. It hurt the Republican party. I don’t think they foresaw all that. Back in the day, they talked about the sleeping brown giant awakening some day. Well, it definitely woke up.” — V. Manuel “Manny” Perez
Cut to present day: Signs, banners and flags are once again flying, young people shouting and chanting under the hot sun, this time decrying a U.S. presidential contender who is directing his and his supporters ire toward immigrants.
Ayala sees the present activism of youth as an evolution of the struggle against efforts like Proposition 187. “It’s an awakening in a political sense, but not just to make sure Donald Trump doesn’t get elected. It’s also creating an incentive for more political activism in the Latino community, using social media tools that are internet-based,” he says.
“And maybe, on some high school or college campus, it’s already sparked the birth of yet another generation of activists, young people who will one day be the leaders and policymakers who will follow in our footsteps.”