Celia Lacayo | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"

Celia Lacayo: It Was Race Then; It Is Race Now

Celia Lacayo: Hi, my name is Celia Lacayo and I'm a professor at UCLA in the Chicana, Chicano and Central American Studies Department as well as the African-American Studies Department. The '90s can be characterized as anti-immigrant, anti-Latino, and anti-people of color in general. We even see a Democratic president, Bill Clinton pass immigration reform that really hurts Latinos, passed welfare reform that really hurts African-Americans and Latinos. We began again to see this backlash.

Part of the issue there's a big target on Latinos is because Latinos demographics are growing rapidly throughout the country. That's seen as something urgent. You see the advent of Proposition 187 directly responding to that demographic growth in a way where you can see whites are having anxiety and feeling threatened by this group. The reason they're threatened is because they don't see this group as equal.

What we see is that less folks, both elected officials and mainstream is using terms like minorities and African-Americans and Latinos much less. They're using codes or proxies. For example, for Latinos, this idea of constructing illegality and this idea of the "illegal" to really rationalize why these policies are coming in place.

In the '90s, particularly in California, we see many racial propositions. We see Proposition 209 which eliminates affirmative action. We see Proposition 227 which takes away bilingual education. We see a heightening of a lot of policies to further criminalize specifically Latinos and African-Americans. Again, while people are not explicitly using those terms, they're turning more to more codified words or proxies to really pass those propositions. Many of those, in fact, do pass.

One thing that's really important is to again differentiate between immigrants coming from different countries. We now see scholars-- before the question was, "Are you pro or anti-immigrant?" People weren't being asked, "Immigrants from where?" When they finally ask them from different places, the survey showed that people in the United States wanted the least amount of immigration coming from Mexico and Latin America.

That racialization process has been there from the beginning and it has reflected itself at different points in times such as the Zoot Suit Riots, Operation Wetback, the Bracero program. This has been an on-- In that sense, Proposition 187 is not you. It is part of a long legacy of how whites perceive and think about this group. Both academia and the media would characterize the issues within the Latino community as anti and solely anti-immigrant. In that moment, that would mean that all immigrants were treated similarly.

As we begin to see Prop 187, SB 1070, HR 4437 were clear that this immigration is much more targeted towards Latinos. More and more scholars like myself and the media are really picking up that this is anti-Latino and very specific to this idea of the Browning of the United States and that Browning is specific to Brown folk coming from Latin America. The concept of Browning of America is seen as negative and is seen as a problem. You begin to understand why we see more and more policies like Prop 187.

What begins to happen is this paradox that the nation-state has to contend with which is we don't want a lot of people of color, we don't want non-whites but we need cheap labor in order for the economy to thrive. Then Congress has to decide which immigrants are okay and what do they prefer? We have had things like the Chinese Exclusion Act which was explicitly racist to decrease immigration from China.

Really at the turn of the 20th century, we began to see that Congress is looking towards Mexico to really provide cheap labor for them, so much so that if you look at the Congress hearings, you hear Congress people saying things like, Mexicans are amazing at agriculture, they are short, so they're built for this kind of exploitable labor. In that sense, they're using a very biological and Darwinistic ways to really make their point and actually using eugenics to support the rationalization of specifically using Mexicans as cheap labor.

The Mexican problem that really is thought of from the beginning right after the Mexican US war, whites were thinking about how are they able to ascertain both land and political power? In the matter of decades after the US Mexico border, many of this was owned by Mexicans. It quickly turns over to whites oftentimes against the will of Mexicans. At the turn of the 20th century, when we're seeing even more immigration from Mexico, Congress begins to think about different types of programs to actually bring Mexicans here for that labor.

The Mexican problem is one that we can think about of capitalism versus racism. What's going to win out? A lot of Congress folks were like, "We don't want Mexicans here. They don't adhere to our standards but we need the cheap labor." The Mexican problem is this paradox about, "We need them for cheap labor in order for the economy to thrive, but we really don't want them to be full citizens with full rights." What they began to do is just segregate Mexicans as to make sure that they were not able to access rights and resources similar to whites.

There is a very long history in the United States of how Latinos and specifically Mexicans have been scapegoated. Over time, the idea is very locked into this concept of the Mexican problem where the United States needs cheap labor, it's the only way that economically it's going to thrive. Again, back to this idea of whiteness, a lot of white people are not willing to do those types of jobs. There's a real need to have that type of immigration and labor coming in.

For a long time, they were happy with that because they were able to control it. We think about the Bracero program which was highly controlled, in which they would come, do the work, and then head back to Mexico. That's a lot of times what a lot of the big business want is just really want this circulation of cheap labor but head back, do not stay, do not plant roots, do not have children, do not have your children go to school with my children.

Political whiteness plays out in many different ways. We have scholars who have talked about the white backlash. In part, we see that in the '90s as we're coming out of the civil rights era where many groups have fought very hard to obtain rights that they should have had from the beginning. We began to see many whites think of these concepts of reverse discrimination, that really things like affirmative action means that unqualified minorities are getting in.

You began to see a lot of white elected officials use the policymaking in ways to reprimand folks of color and, what I talk about in my work, keep them in their place. That's a very specific place which is not equal to whites. We continue to see that with Trump who's made explicit racist comments about Mexicans and Latinos. While many of us live in California and think of ourselves as very progressive, many parts of California and the rest of the nation really agree with thinking about this group as different and problematic.

The way that I came up with the concept of perpetual inferiority really comes from the empirics, the actual data gathered from whites about their attitudes towards Latinos. Again, the major paradigm was that Latinos were just simply seen as immigrants. While they may have a hard time at the beginning, just like all immigrants before them, they would quickly at some point assimilate and move forward and be upwardly mobile.

We don't see that we actually in fact see high amounts of racial disparities between whites and Latinos. I really wanted to ask why is that the case? Why have other immigrants been integrated and equally incorporated and Latinos who have been here, specifically Mexicans who have been here from the beginning, that's not the case?

It was very interesting that how whites thought about it was that Mexican and Latino immigrants unlike other immigrants, were really seen as problematic, as criminals, as culturally deficient. They really were also explicit about not desiring their children to be in the same schools as Latino childrens', because again they perceived them to be inferior. That's when I posited that it's really not about perpetual foreigner. It's really about this perpetual inferiority.

Prop 187 is a clear indicator of a perpetual inferiority. The idea that part of it was population control. How are we going to control not only the number of Latinos in this state or this country but we're also going to regulate what they can and cannot do, what resources they can and cannot have. In that sense again, this was really about white's fear and anxiety about that population growing and "taking up too many resources".

We see that they're actually using their electoral power to really acquire and sustain or maintain their power. We can think about the language with Proposition 187 as a racialized language in the sense that the title was Save Our State. Then the question is save our state from who? Save our state from what? Again, back to this coded language that many conservative and predominantly white voters felt threatened by the increasing number of Latinos in California.

Save our state is very similar to Trump's, make America great again, when the majority of the country was white Anglo-Saxon Protestant and not brown or more Latino. We can see that even though race or explicit racism is not in Proposition 187, people understand what is meant by Save Our State.

Proposition is an excellent example of how Latinos have been and continue to be racialized. In the work that I do, I interview whites to find out their perceptions, feelings about Latinos, and how that affects their political behavior. Many of these folks were very candid to really talk about how even they differentiated between so-called model minority immigrants and Latinos which they perceive to be not model minorities at all.

Part of the racialization which is historical and part of the continuity is this understanding that we begin to know that whites actually think about Latinos much closer to African-Americans than their other immigrant counterparts. One of the things that they tell us is that this narrative of perpetual foreigner is always been with Latinos. What I'm able to get out in this study is that they really think of this group as inferior, and that's a huge difference.

Whites may perceive some immigrants to be different, but equal. For Latinos, they consider them foreign, different, and inferior. That's how you begin to have much more explicit racialized policy that is specifically targeting Latinos. The sleeping giant narrative is one that many people use. I personally don't like that narrative. It's problematic in many ways because it dismisses the reality that Latinos have been organizing and really, really pushing back from the beginning.

This idea that they just woke up isn't really true and it dismisses a lot of agency and really powerful social movements that came before Proposition 187 and also notates this idea of a giant who's thought of to be unintelligent and lazy which is very close to the stereotype of the Mexican, the lazy Mexican.

This is really problematic and I don't think it's good to reinforce those types of stereotypes. I think a better way to characterize it is that this was really a reflection of what whites were willing to do to keep their power, to maintain their resources and that it was an opportunity for Latinos to really see what this country is really about. Not only how unwelcoming that they were going to be with Latinos, but that they were going to use extreme measures to keep them out, to keep them away from resources, to segregate them. As I put it in one of my articles, to keep them in their place.

One of the differences with Prop 187 and the anti-Latino immigration that follows it is the huge spike in Latino population that we see with the 2010 and 2000 census. That really alerts for many white people that in their mind, this group is too big, too fast. That is no longer really being used solely for cheap labor, but that now their children are going to school with their children and this is where they're no longer happy. We began to see ways to regulate that population specifically through detention, deportation and other means to again keep Latinos in their place so to speak.

People are quite astounded to hear those numbers both as a statistical number and a whole number. At this point in time, there's this question about, we're in dire need of that cheap labor, but we're beginning to see what is happening when we see more Latinos. For whites, that was really the first time that they really felt they couldn't control this population, they couldn't regulate it.

As much as they needed cheap labor, they needed to figure out ways to control it. One of those ways was to racialize this undocumented folk and "use this illegal narrative to deport them, detain them". Again, that the cheap labor would be there, but that it would not mean that this country would move to more of less whites in this country.

Pete Wilson's ad, I regularly show in my class as many of the students are born after that happens and to really remind them of what this looked like and how it came about. Again, thinking about codes and proxy. In the ad, he never says, "Latinos." He never says, "Mexicans," but the visuals and the imagery is so powerful. The use of words such as, "They keep coming," really goes to white's fear about this group. He really taps into this idea of threat, invasion, and criminality. Again, drawing from this "illegals" this is simply a matter of law and order securing our borders.

We see from that grainy video that really he is targeting Mexicans. That becomes a very racialized visual that whites see one way and Latinos understand that they're being targeted. Again, they keep coming, really goes back to this fear of invasion, that this group is going to take over and that is not what we want.

I think Proposition 187 did in fact allow for other groups such as African-Americans and Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants to really think about what it means for other groups to be targeted and what their take is going to be. We actually see a lot of people from both the Asian-American community along with the African-American community actually provide solidarity. Of course, this is not everybody, but this understanding that anti-immigrant and the racialization process has been a part of the Asian-American history as well as the African-American history.

One really critical note as it pertains specifically to African-Americans is that we do have data that African-Americans in many cases do have anti-immigrant or perhaps anti-Latino sentiment. When they're asked around voting or political behavior, unlike whites, African-Americans really believe in equal rights and don't vote for the anti-Latino legislature because of policies, because they really understand that from their personal history, they want to make sure that other groups, particularly Latinos also experience equality.

Many academics are using this concept called demographobia, which I think really captures what's happening, which is in the last 20, 30 years, the Latino population has in fact grown quickly. It's important to notate that a lot of this population growth was not because of immigration. It's simply of Latinos living here having second, third-generation children. To think about those demographics are really, really pushing the anti-Latino policies.

The other thing that happens is that Latinos are now in the South and the Northeast, they're basically migrating to all parts of the nation. They're coming. Whites are now coming more into contact with Latinos. That wasn't the case before. They're really feeling from their perspective this "invasion". Back to this phobia of this rising fast-growing group that again, they perceive is only good for cheap labor but not good enough to offer full citizenship.

For me, one of the legacies of Prop 187 is that it really explicitly for many people understood that this was not anti-immigrant that this was anti-Latino. We can see with the images of Pete Wilson in the ad that it is referring specifically to the US Mexico border and very much demonizing this group in horrible ways. The legacy is also about thinking how much Latinos changed in that time to really understand that they were the clear target and so understanding that there's a lot of political organizing that happens after that.

Now there is a lot of political organizing happening before Proposition 187. I really don't like this analogy with the sleeping giant. The sleeping giant makes us think that this population is dumb and it's sleeping and it's lazy, and that wasn't the case. Prop 187 really made it explicit that many whites just didn't want large amounts of Mexicans and Latinos in California and in the US.

The mobilization that happens with Latinos, and we can see now with elected officials and all kinds of really important policies, that is also really important because we're seeing that the numbers are actually leading to more power. We have clearly a very long way to go, but Latinos in California are really setting the bar and the standard for equal rights for all groups in the US.

I think a lot has changed in California after Prop 187. We see some of the most progressive policies coming out of California specific to the rights of undocumented immigrants. We see a lot of narratives being challenged by many people in California. We also do continue to see some of that racism before. As much as California has changed, there are many people that continue to have negative perceptions about Latinos. If another Proposition 187 was on the ballot, I would imagine that even in California, many people would vote for it.

In terms of the national landscape, unfortunately, Prop 187 became the blueprint for really horrendous anti-Latino policy. As we see with SB 1070 in Arizona and HR 4437 at the national level. We have to really think about that that also lends itself to a lot of problematics. Then we can see now with the culmination of President Trump who's very explicit about calling Mexicans rapists and thinking about the people that voted for him,

most likely also think that. Clearly, we also have a long way to go.

I can definitely see many connections with Prop 187 and what is happening today in our country. One way to think about it is that this demographics and the changing really spurred more and more whites to be really fearful as Latinos and vote that fear. In part, that's how we get Trump, because he was able to tap into that fear. Again, thinking about we often live in a bubble in California and are hoping that our progressive ways will come through in other States. We've actually seen quite the opposite.

Thinking about new ways to organize and strategize, to get other folks to understand how holding immigrants and cages and splitting up families and continuously deporting specifically Latinos is truly against all the values in the US. We began to see that this is really an ongoing racialized project so much so that many people were extraordinarily surprised that Trump would even be a candidate let alone actually win the election.

I think one difference between the Pete Wilson era and the era of today is that Pete Wilson was trying to hold back the tide, so to speak. He was trying to regulate populations solely on numbers. Trump, who now 2019, we know the numbers and the Latino numbers are very, very large. He has to figure out a way to oppress the group while it's already here and make sure to maintain to keep the power away from Latinos. He's using other very severe tactics and methods to do so. That's truly scary.

I think one of the really important lessons that we need to learn from Prop 187 is to really stop thinking about this country as democratic and about equality, freedom. That really this indicated that that's not what the dominant group wanted and that they would go to great measures to keep it that way.

We began to think about the United States as the strongest democracy, but we began to also see in Proposition 187, that one of the reasons Prop 187 passed was because the dominant group knew that many Latinos were not able to vote, eligible to vote, or come out to vote. They really preyed on this vulnerability particularly in the Latino community, which really reflects that is not truly a desire for this country to want equality. I think that's an important place to really start and that if we were about equality, then we would have offered services and extended equal rights to undocumented immigrants.

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino

Find more firsthand accounts of the campaign against Prop 187 here.

UCLA Adjunct Professor Celia Lacayo shows the pro-187 “they keep coming” ad in her university class to illustrate how it all came about in California in 1994. The students learning of this today were not even born then, and she points to the "codes" used in that ad which, she believes persist to this day.

“I can definitely see many connections with Proposition 187 and what is happening today in our country,” she points out. "One way to think about it is that demographic change really spurred more and more whites to be fearful of Latinos and to vote on that fear. That's how we get Trump; he tapped into that fear.”

In 1994, Californians were reeling from an economic recession and had seen increased immigration of people from Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s. Today, Latino populations are growing all over the United States, more by birth than by immigration. The 2000 and 2010 Census pointed to tremendous growth.

All of this change underlies Lacayo's theory that Latinos are seen as “less-than” immigrants.

Among her research papers on race, one of the most awarded and talked about was the one she entitled: "Perpetual Inferiority: White's racial Ideology toward Latinos.”

“The way that I came up with the concept of perpetual inferiority really comes from the empirics, the actual data gathered about from whites about their attitudes towards Latinos,” she adds.

In her theory, much of the United States' mainstream white population sees Latinos (or Mexicans, the main and historically present group), not as they see other groups of immigrants, but closer to how many see African Americans.

“In the work I do, I interview whites to find out their perceptions, and how that affects their political behavior,” Lacayo explains. “Many of these folks were very candid to really talk about how they differentiated between so-called minority immigrants and Latinos, which they perceived to be not model minorities at all.”

This thinking of Latinos as inferior is a common thread to many policies of the last century, she adds.

Going back to the “They keep coming ad,” the 1994 Pete Wilson campaign and the push for Proposition 187, the governor always insisted that it was not about race or ethnicity, but about resources and the rule of law. Lacayo challenges that idea.

“The ad never says Mexicans, but the visuals are powerful. He taps into this idea of threat, invasion and criminality and that this is simply an issue of law and order, but the campaign and the ad is a very racialized visual: Latinos understood they were being targeted.”

She also compares the name given by its proponents to the campaign for Proposition 187 (“Save our State”) with the Trump slogan: “Make America Great Again.”

“Race or explicit racism is not in the phrase, but people understand what is meant.”

Something good came out of the Proposition 187 campaign, Lacayo says. It allowed for a show of solidarity between minority groups in the state, and it helped spur political mobilization. But she is also opposed to the metaphor of the Latino vote as the “sleeping giant.”

"It's problematic. On the one hand, it isn't really true; Latinos have been organizing before 187. It really ignores really powerful social movements that came before that but also, the idea of a giant who is unintelligent and lazy is very close to the stereotype of the lazy Mexican,” Lacayo points out.

However, some awakening did happen, changing the politics of the state in significant ways.

“Latinos in California are really setting the bar and the standard for equal rights for all groups in the U.S.”

Lacayo was born in El Salvador and came to the U.S. when she was three years old, growing up in the Bay Area. She received her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies from the University of California Berkeley. Her research interests include Race & Ethnicity, Immigration, political behavior and Media. She finished a postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA with the Institute of American Cultures in the Sociology Department and is now Associate Director of Community Engagement for the College of Letters and Science.

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