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In From Out There 

How Pete Wilson inadvertently politicized a generation of young Mexican immigrants

Thursday, Dec 11 2003
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Photo by Gregory Bojorquez

In 1994, I was still a young lad, a student at Cal State L.A., and most of my politics revolved around going to as many Rage Against the Machine concerts as possible, absorbing lead singer Zacarias de la Rocha’s fiery words. That quickly changed when I enrolled in an English literature course with a professor named Buddy Roberts.

Buddy was unlike other professors. He was young and cool, one of us. He carried a backpack and would come into class late. He played the bass in a punk band and introduced me to bands like Hüsker Dü. His classes often met down the street at Garfono’s, the local pizza/drinking spot. Buddy didn’t really have a curriculum; he would just bring in copies of the L.A. Weekly and books for us to read. That’s how I discovered Walden andCivil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau. I was really taken aback by this Abraham Lincoln–looking dude, who was thrown in jail for refusing to pay his taxes in protest against a government that supported slavery and the ongoing Mexican-American War.

I never forgot the words that Thoreau told Ralph Waldo Emerson, when the poet came to visit Thoreau in his cell and asked, “What are you doing in there?” Thoreau turned to his friend and replied, “What are you doing out there?” That was it. I no longer wanted to be “out there.” I knew then that I had to do my part in another protest going on in the streets of Los Angeles: the anti–Pete Wilson, anti–Proposition 187 movement.

Prop. 187 would have denied public benefits — public education, public health care and other social services — to “illegal aliens,” code for Mexicans. Then-Governor Wilson, the ex–San Diego mayor with presidential ambitions, aired TV ads with grainy black-and-white images of Mexicans crossing the border to put fear into the citizens and gave speeches that fueled anti-Mexican, anti-Latino, anti-immigrant sentiments.

I felt Prop. 187 was a direct attack on my family and on me. Although we were raised in Boyle Heights, every member of the Quiñones clan — except for my youngest brother, who was born at County-USC Medical Center — was born in San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, Mexico. Our family went through the 1986 Amnesty Act that allowed me to become a permanent resident and later a U.S. citizen, but I felt that the doors would be closed to those behind me. So I joined the cause and became a foot soldier in the protests, demonstrations and marches — and, yes, some civil disobedience.

Two fellow comrades were my friends Henry (“Hank”) and Rafael (“Rafa”). Hank was a Chicano born and raised in Los Angeles; Rafa was from Colonia Pancho Villa, Tijuana, and had no papers. He was a “909,” a reference to the beginning ID numbers given to “undocumented” students at Cal State L.A. So there we were: Hank, a U.S. citizen; me, a permanent resident; and Rafa still struggling for papers. Three very different characters ready to march.

Not since the Chicano Moratorium along Whittier Boulevard in 1970 had there been a march of brown-skinned Angelenos like the one against Prop. 187. I remember the sea of brown as I looked down from the Fourth Street bridge at Lorena as the march began near El Mercadito in Boyle Heights and extended to downtown’s Olvera Street. We were more than 20,000 strong. Chicanos and Mexicans; veteranos and young ones. Rows and rows of immigrant organizations. Mexican flags waving side by side with American ones.

Wilson, of course, was loathed by many in the community, so a lot of anger was directed toward him — there were puppets mocking him, as well as placards and signs. We marched holding a big banner that Rafa had made the night before. It ended up on top of the 101 freeway when we hopped onto a sign, high above the speeding cars, marking the Alameda Street offramp, and covered it with our banner. No longer was there an exit sign, just the message: “No on 187, Fuck Pete Wilson!” Passing cars honked, and people cheered us on with shouts of “Viva Mexico!” and “Raza Sí! Pete Wilson No!”

When we got to the Cesar Chavez–Sunset tunnel near Union Station, homeboys from the comedy troupe Culture Clash unfurled a huge banner with the United Farm Workers’ eagle emblem, and the marchers went crazy. It reminded me of Cesar Chavez and all he had done for the struggle. It gave me a great sense of pride.

Finally, we made it to Olvera Street. Olvera Street marked the end of the march, but it’s aIways been the beginning. Before it became a tacky tourist attraction, Mexican peasants from Sonora settled there and established what we now know as Los Angeles. Before Mexicans were pushed east of the L.A. River, the first Mexican barrio, Sonora Town, was located in the area that included Olvera Street. Mexicans have always been made to feel like foreigners, labeled “illegal aliens” and “illegal immigrants,” when in truth Mexicans — Sonorans — have always been part of Los Angeles.

Cal State Northridge professor Rudy Acuña, in his book Anything But Mexican, writes, “Los Angeles has little sense of the past or of place. A partial explanation for this is that Euroamericans have devoted little time or energy to learning the history of the region . . . Without a sense of community, and a sense of their history as a community, people become vulnerable to the plans and whims of the dominant groups, which can not only displace them but control them in other ways as well.”

After 9/11, the border/immigration situation has gotten worse. Even citizens are getting rounded up and imprisoned. Rafa, who is now a civil engineer inspecting bridges and surveying highways, was unable to see his father during the last years of his life as he battled cancer in Mexico, and couldn’t attend his father’s funeral in Tijuana this past February because of his ongoing legal status and our present-day xenophobia.

Nearly 10 years after the fight to stop Wilson, the new governor is Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man who voted for Proposition 187 and whose campaign chairman was Wilson himself. One of the first things Schwarzenegger planned to do in office was repeal SB 60 — the new law that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. The legislature, intimidated by The Terminator’s threats, overturned the law themselves. To me, all this signals a new era of racial divisiveness in California is right around the corner. My political life began back in 1994; now I hope other young Mexican lads will step up and come in from “out there.”

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