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Pilar Marrero: La Opinión Immigration Journalist at the Forefront of Prop. 187 Spanish-Language Media Coverage

- Written by: Melissa Hidalgo, Portrait by: Samanta Helou Hernandez

Pilar Marrero was four years into her distinguished career at the top Spanish language newspaper in Los Angeles, La Opinión, when Proposition 187 landed on the California ballot in 1994.

At the time, Marrero was one of five to six reporters at La Opinión covering immigration and the impact of Proposition 187, the voter-passed “Save Our State” initiative that sought to ban undocumented immigrants from accessing state services, from public education to drivers licenses. In addition, Proposition 187 would require teachers and other state workers to report “suspected” undocumented immigrants to the INS, which effectively legalized racial profiling of Mexican and other Spanish-speaking immigrants in California.

Marrero understood then the unique role she played as a Spanish language journalist in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s covering immigration issues. “The Spanish language media were often the only ones who would show up to [Prop. 187] press conferences,” notes Marrero. She added that with mainstream media absent, by default, outlets like La Opinión were designated to tell the immigrant side of the story related to this nativist initiative.

The rise of Proposition 187, Pete Wilson’s campaign for California governor, and his Republican-backed victory that hinged on his embrace of the “wedge issue” of “illegal immigration” catalyzed La Opinión and other Spanish-language media to serve as a critical voice for news and information serving immigrant communities from Mexican and Latin America.

For Marrero, her job was to amplify immigrant stories and voices.

"The role that we had [in Spanish language media] was not only to provide the news but to be a resource for people to learn how to live in the new country that they were in,” Marrero says.    

“Readers learned about how the political system worked, how the educational system worked, so as to help them integrate into the social system of the new country they’re in.”

The educational role of La Opinión distinguished it at the time from other Spanish language media sources in the U.S. that tended to focus more on entertainment and celebrity gossip.

Marrero’s career at La Opinión spanned for nearly thirty years. Marrero ended up covering immigration “by default,” as she puts it. Marrero arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1980s as a young journalism graduate from Venezuela. “I didn’t know there were so many Latin Americans in L.A.,” said Marrero. “It’s such a Latino city.”

Proposition 187 galvanized the state’s Latino and Latina politicians, labor unions, students, immigrants and scores of organizations whose aim was to get Latina/o, Asian American, African American, and other voters to the polls and defeat the racist initiative. Marrero was there to cover it all.

Marrero says her need to tell the immigrant story comes from her own family’s history. Her parents immigrated to Venezuela from Spain, refugees of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime. Marrero then immigrated to the United States. The immigrant story is hers.

Marrero admits that her experience as an immigrant in L.A. “was always a little weird.” She explains, “There are mostly Mexicans here, and I was a strange Latina because I was not from Mexico or Central America, and I was whitish and blondish. I landed here with a student visa that a former fiancé sponsored; I was not fleeing from war or a refugee. It's almost like I didn’t qualify.”

Still, as an immigrant from Venezuela, the journalist describes a deep “kinship” she feels with other immigrants in L.A., and particularly those from Latin America that ballot measures like Prop. 187 and later, Proposition 209, seemed design to target.

“I didn’t know I was Latina until I got here.”

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