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Sandra Díaz: The Anti-187 Student Walkouts Were a Moment of Pride

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

The day she walked out of school for the first time and found herself in the company of many Mexican and immigrant students like her, from junior high and high school in Escondido, California, marching proudly on the streets and protesting against Proposition 187, is the day Sandra Díaz learned what collective action was.

“It was like, we are out here. We want to be seen; we want you to see this bottleneck fury that we have inside of us,” she recalls. “It put a seed in me, of saying, how do we do more of this? How do we have more people find the power they have inside? I was tapping into a power inside of me that I didn't realize that I had.”

She had seen the images on TV, the ads about this ballot measure proposed by then-Governor Pete Wilson.

"I understood that if you were immigrant, if you were Mexican and in California, you weren't welcome to go to school or go to the doctors, and you were not just welcomed here at all,” Diaz remembers.

Something clicked by then in her, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, living in a white city but surrounded by Mexican immigrants who cleaned houses, were gardeners — many of whom were not documented.

She was a citizen, but her parents were not, and she remembers once seeing her mom being taken away by Border Patrol, the sheer terror of it all, but then coming back, not knowing when one of these encounters was going to happen again.

Diaz grew up worrying whether her parents would be home when she got there or that at any moment, the authorities would stop them on the street, as was common in the area then. She and her siblings learned to run and identify places they could hide if these men showed up so they could protect their parents.

"It didn't matter whether we were born here or not, the racial slurs were something that our parents warned us about even before we could understand them,” she recalls. “She would say, mija, si alguien viene y te dice cosas malas o te dicen “beaner” o “wetback” tu no les hagas caso.”

But when Prop 187 happened, and she was an adolescent, Diaz understood that this sentiment of not being accepted or wanted in their city and state happened beyond the confines of the neighborhood: it was a larger problem.

When she was in 8th and 9th grade, the 187 campaign was on. More and more, and bigger, confederate flags started showing up at school, and the walkouts started happening. She and others participated organically in them, but she realized there were some organizers that “knew exactly what they were doing.”

“They were preparing the next generation of warriors to take on these fights.”

Her parents, and the parents of other kids, also showed up after they left work. 

These are moments that she still remembers vividly. “It was quite beautiful,” she recalls, “You had students junior high and high school students accompanied by their parents who were and still are the folks that cleaned the houses of these wealthy communities, who tend their lawns and who take care of their kids. But they were there. And I think that for us, it was a moment of pride.”

She eventually became one of those warriors, getting into the union movement, representing immigrant workers.

Today, Diaz is political director and Vice President of SEIU United Service Workers West.  Her union represents janitors who are mostly immigrant women and security officers who are mostly African American men and women and security workers at the airport.

“For me, it's been an honor to be able to grow as a Labor leader and be able to fight for workers of color in California.”

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