Fabián Núñez | Samanta Helou Hernandez for "187"

Fabian Núñez: From Youth Organizer to One of California State’s Most Powerful Public Positions

Fabian Núñez: Hi, I'm Fabian Núñez, former speaker of the California State Assembly. I'm currently a partner at Mercury Public Affairs, which is a public strategies firm in the United States and around the globe. In the early ‘90s, I was a community organizer, focusing a lot of my time on organizing the most vulnerable sectors of our community, which at the time were undocumented immigrants who were being taken advantage of and oftentimes by their employers, but social service agencies and other entities as well.

I spent a lot of my time organizing press conferences, organizing events, meetings, rallies of community, people who were being taken advantage of in one way or another. In the late 1980s and early 1900s, we began to see a dramatic shift in terms of the political realities in California. California went from being one of the strongest economies in the country to in the early ‘90s, the state began to feel the impact of an economic recession.

An impact that began very, very slowly, but it was really the demise of a lot of industries that were starting to leave California and many of those were manufacturing industries in particular. So you saw that dramatic shift, but yet at the same time, there was a demand for cheap labor in the state. That was not limited simply to the fields in the Central Valley in California where there was a need for farm workers to work under the hot sun harvesting the crops.

It was also in the major cities, cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, areas like Orange County, San Bernardino and Riverside had a need for low wage workers as well. Whether it was factories in Los Angeles, where it was fancy restaurants in San Francisco, whatever the issue was, was that it was a very difficult economic reality that California started facing such that by the early 1990s, what you began to see is organizations grow, organizations like FAIR and other organizations that looked to control immigrate populations from coming to the United States.

You saw this not only in terms of groups that decided that the problem of the immigration issue wasn't just simply a problem that you contain at the border in terms of how you enforce border policies, but it really bled into everybody's daily life to the point where organizations like FAIR infiltrating groups, like the environmental groups under the population control notion that folks needed to have less babies. Really the motive behind that had less to do with population control and more to do with a hidden agenda that many of these groups had, and really what it was, it was a divisive agenda to try and purify California and much of the country at the same time of non-whites that lived in the state.

That movement really took foot in California and took hold by 1992, and by 1993, we knew it was a real, real problem, because you can tell, you can feel that the tension that was in the air in the state when Latinos and African Americans and Asians and other people of color came into contact with those elements in the community that really promoted the nativist mentality, the mentality that you couldn't have more people who didn't look like America is supposed to look, but that happened in my view in the early 1990s by ’91, ’92. I joined One Stop Immigration in 1990.

I left San Diego, I was at the University of California in San Diego and I got a call from a good friend, [unintelligible 00:04:41], who said, “We're organizing immigrants in Los Angeles, you should join us,” and I did. I went to LA in Boyle Heights to One Stop Immigration, I met Juan José Gutiérrez, and at the time, Ronald Reagan had already passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and there were a number of people, over 3 million immigrants, that were in the pipeline to become legal residents of this country.

One Stop Immigration was working on not only helping legalize these undocumented immigrants, but also helping provide them education so that they can learn how to speak English as a requirement to obtain their legalization status, their legal status in the US. When I came to the organization, I really enjoyed the work.

There was no money to pay us, to say we made very, very little money, maybe minimum wage, but we learned very quickly that there was a demand to organize these workers, whether it was in the factories where they worked, in the restaurants where they worked, or whether it was in their homes and we knew that there were a lot of employers who were actually taking advantage of these workers.

In fact, there were instances where employers, for example, after workers worked for two to three weeks, on payday, right before workers were going to get paid, the employer would call the immigration authorities and then they would come and they would deport all of these undocumented people, send them back to their country of origin. Most of them were from Mexico, and that would get deported. So the laws that applied to IRCA, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, was two different pieces of law, of that law that were important.

One was the sanctions against employers. In other words, it was very clear that if you were an employer, you could not hire undocumented persons. You had to hire legal residents or people who were in the pipeline to become legal residents. What was happening is that the government was enforcing the law as it related to the workers, but they were never enforcing the law as it related to the employers.

The employer sanctions that were in the law, that was a very important aspect of the law, became a chip that employers would use to call immigration, have their workers deported, and then have the workers come back to do the work. We learned that this was happening all over the state. I called my friend, Kevin de León, who was at the University of California in Santa Barbara, and I said, “You got to come to Los Angeles. We’re organizing workers here and I think you would really appreciate the work that we're doing.

This is what we've been talking about our whole lives, helping workers and immigrants have a better life for themselves and fight for their own rights.” Kevin came by to see One Stop, he met with Juan José and myself and some of the other people at the organization, and overnight, he decided to also remain there and to continue the work of organizing undocumented immigrants.

From there, we are really build what we considered to be at the time one of other organizations that were also there to defend the rights of immigrants, but we felt that one of the distinctions that we had at One Stop Immigration was that we wanted to focus on the most vulnerable population. We wanted to organize the people who we knew other people, perhaps weren't already talking to. That was people who may be in the pipeline, may not be in the pipeline to become legal residents ,and we decided that it was important for these workers to know their rights.

We spend a lot of time talking to people about what to do, for example, when the immigration authorities appeared at their home or at the schools as they were dropping off their children in the schools, families who were mixed families where, for example, you had half of the family who was in the pipeline to become legal residents, and the other half wasn't, what to do in those kinds of circumstances.

As well as what their rights are as workers, you know, lunchtime, eight-hour workday, the time and a half that they needed to be paid by their employer if they worked overtime, and all those things that ultimately people really need to know, because whether they were undocumented or not, they had rights under the law, under the constitution and under the laws that govern this state.

When we were at One Stop Immigration, one of the first things that we learned doing the citizenship classes was that a lot of people were fine taking the necessary hours to learn how to speak basic English as a requirement to become legal residents, but many of them didn't want to become citizens, for two reasons, and very simple reasons. One, they didn't feel fully welcome in America, and two, they felt a sense of belonging to their country of origin.

So it took a lot of work to convince them to say that, “You live in the United States now. You’re never going to go back to Mexico, or El Salvador, or Nicaragua or Guatemala. This is your home now. You’re raising your children here. So you need to make this your home.” We went to the extent of even going to the political parties in Mexico as they were coming to the US to campaign for the Federal elections to insist, whenever they spoke to Latinos in the United States, to insist on telling them that they should become citizens of the US.

It was a difficult process, ultimately I think people listened, not because we gave them good advice, but because they saw the writing on the wall. They know that if they didn't stand up to fight for themselves, that ultimately the sacrifices that they were making for their own kids would be in vain because they knew that ultimately the fight of those who wanted to take them on wasn't just to take on the parents, they wanted to take on their kids as well.

I think that that is really ultimately what led a lot of them to decide to become citizens of this country and apply for naturalization. Proposition 187 was an initiative that ultimately would have denied every child, every man, and every woman in the State of California who wasn't a legal resident, the right to exist in the state.

They would be denied medical care, children would be denied access to preventive care, they would be denied the right to attend a public school in the State of California, and they would turn every doctor, nurse, and teacher into an immigration officer, that would require each and every one of them to turn over anyone whom they suspected was undocumented. Essentially the basis of Proposition 187 was to distance the level of humanity of an undocumented person from the rest of the population, to make them less than.

It wasn't enough to call them "Illegal aliens." This was an effort to rid them of their humanity in the state. I heard about 187 first in 1993. A press conference was held with a gentleman by the name of Alan Nelson who was the former regional director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. I remember that announcement being made that they were going to begin to collect signatures to put this initiative very pernicious, mean-spirited initiative on the California ballot.

I remember that I was organizing at the time workers in Pomona, California, and when I learned of it, I couldn't believe it at first, because my initial instinct was, “This can't be true.” I know that governor Pete Wilson and others were trying to convince Congress to pass a law at a Federal level to deny children of undocumented persons, their birth rights under the constitution.

I always thought that there was such a farfetched idea, but never in my wildest imaginations did I think that here in the State of California, in the Golden State, that these individuals would try to pass an initiative, and it came home, that's when it hit home. That's when it was no more a question of, "This is just political rhetoric by some nativist activists who want to get people's attention."

It became an issue of, we're in a real fight and we have to organize, because this is going to be very, very difficult to win over all of the voters of the State of California. We knew they had a long way to go in ‘93 because they still had to collect something around the neighborhood of 385,000 signatures from valid California voters, and we didn't know that they were going to be able to reach that objective, but yet it was the beginning of an effort that ultimately taught us that this was going to be a real fight.

It was no longer going to be a fight that we we’re going to have in a debate. It was now real. It was going to go to the ballot if they collected those signatures that were required of them. In the early '70s, Pete Wilson was elected mayor of San Diego. This is around the time my family had moved back from Tijuana, and I remember Pete Wilson because he came to my school when I was a kid and he talked about the things that kids need to do in order to get good grades and to have a good life.

I thought Pete Wilson to be a nice fellow. I thought that this is a mayor who cares about everyone. Then eventually he ran for US Senate. Pete Wilson was not someone that people thought had a diabolic agenda to get rid of all the immigrants. We just thought that he was a decent person who really wanted the best for California and we never thought that we would be on the other end of his attacks.

First you have to remember that the year before Pete Wilson's re-election in the fall of 1993, the polling showed that Pete Wilson was running behind the Democratic nominee for governor at the time, and Kathleen Brown, who was the Democratic nominee, had Pete Wilson by 5 to 10 points, if I recall correctly, in the polls. Why? Because by ’93, the economic collapse of California's tax system was really fragile at the time, and it was clear that the only way Pete Wilson was going to be able to be re-elected governor of the state was if he was able to figure out how to fortify the California economy.

In other words, how do you strengthen the economy so that you can get re-elected? Because people will judge you on the basis of how well the economy is. What is the jobless rate? Are we strengthening the middle class? What are the economic opportunities in the Golden State for people? All of these things were working against governor Pete Wilson at the time. What happened by the following year, early 1994, Pete Wilson decided that the only way he would get re-elected as governor was not by improving or fixing California's economic woes, because that would be too difficult for him to do, it was to find an easy way out, and his easy way out was to find a scapegoat.

His first scapegoat was the undocumented immigrants. So that, if you see, for example, at the beginning of May of 1994, Pete Wilson ran his first political commercials to test whether or not it would simply be good enough for him to blame the undocumented immigrants for economic woes, and it worked. He put commercials on television, talking about how immigrants keep coming.

It was entitled, “They keep coming.” It showed floods of people crossing the border, something that really wasn't happening at the time, but he made it seem as if though the reason why we had a high unemployment rate, the reason why we had a shrinking middle class in California, was because immigrants were taking other people's jobs, and it simply was not true. What it did for him, is it helped embolden his campaign, and you saw the numbers move very quickly to his support.

It wasn't just Republicans, incidentally, that moved to support Pete Wilson for re-election, it was moderate Democrats, it was Liberal Democrats that lived along the coast, it was young people, it was old people. It was people that were middle-aged. It was around the entire gamut. Eventually what they did is, this campaign, to re-elect Pete Wilson, really was not a campaign about re-electing Pete Wilson. It was a campaign about dehumanizing undocumented immigrants and blaming them for the ills of the state of California, and it worked.

The mainstream political establishment felt that this was a way of California was moving in a direction of. That in other words immigrants were going to be blamed, that we needed to tighten the screws on immigration reform, that we needed to figure out ways to appease those who had the most reactionary rhetoric against immigrants, because if we didn't do that, we would never win a political election in California.

For example, at the end of 1993, you had a Latino that was a state legislator, by the name of Louis Caldera, introduce legislation to deny undocumented immigrants the right to drive a car. That to me really was an inflection point for California, because what it said to many of us who were activists in the community, it said the Democratic political establishment is not there to help us.

In other words, we're not just working against Pete Wilson and his cronies, the Alan Nelsons and the Harold Ezells of the world. That our fight was with the entire political establishment, but it wasn't everybody in the political establishment. There were people-- we mentioned-- people like Richard Polanco, for example, people like Richard Alatorre who was on the city council in Los Angeles, and many others, who came to support the work that we were doing, but even they were concerned about losing the majority in the state legislature.

The fact that Democrats could be outnumbered in the polls by Republicans on election day and that we could lose not just Prop 187, that we could lose everything down the ticket, from the governor's race, down to the state legislature, to the State Assembly. What was at stake for them was merely a political situation. What was that stake to us was very different than that because what we were facing was the defense of human beings who were being wrongfully blamed for something they did not do.

In fact, we were looking at studies that were conducted by the Urban Institute that demonstrated at the time that undocumented immigrants were contributing more than $28 billion a year to the economy in the US than the money that they were receiving in services. If you talked to ordinary people, they didn't know this. They just assumed, “We have a bad economy, let's blame the undocumented immigrants.”

Once Prop 187 was approved on the ballot, we knew-- I think it was by July of 1994, we were summoned, myself, Juan José Gutiérrez, Kevin de León, were summoned to Sacramento by then Speaker Willie Brown to talk about the issues around the initiative with 187. We went to Sacramento and had this meeting with Willie Brown where he sat us down, and in the most eloquent and articulate fashion, explain to us what was at stake in that 1994 general election for California.

Essentially what he said to us was this, was that if Prop 187 passed and if the anti-immigrant voters made their way to the polls in large numbers, not only with 187 pass, but that we would lose control of the State Senate and the State Assembly. He feared that organizing a march would help contribute to galvanizing the voters who were anti-immigrant. In other words if all of these Latinos were marching down the street, which he supported, and made very clear he would support, but felt that if we follow through with that march, that ultimately we could be working against ourselves.

In other words, we could be shooting ourselves in the foot in a significant way and in the process we could be hurting the efforts of Democrats across the State of California to continue to do the good work around housing reform, around education reform and the various things that Democrats would do if they were the ones in power. It was a very, very interesting meeting because we never thought that we would be sitting there talking to one of the most powerful people, one of the most powerful Democrats in the country sitting us down and walking us through what was going to happen if we actually follow through with this march.

So we're sort of kicking each other under the table hoping that we would all stay on the same page, but it was very clear to us that we needed to do this march. There was nothing that anybody was going to say to us that was going to convince us to cancel it and to not allow the immigrants themselves to express their own humanity so that people can see that they're human beings, and that as human beings, they have dignity and that they have a place in this state and they contribute to this state.

We felt that if we didn't follow through with the march, we would be betraying the same values that brought us to put these kinds of activities together in the first place. We sat there and looked at one another. Yes, we were impressed that then speaker Willie Brown was giving us the face time that he was giving us, but at the same time, we knew that what was at stake for us wasn't an election in November of 1994, what was at stake for us was really about the future of the immigrant community in general.

It wasn't just about undocumented people. It was about making sure that Latinos were treated with the dignity that they deserve, but also that Latinos were part of California, that we couldn't be excluded, not from one election, but not from the future of the planning of the state. That it wasn't enough for us to simply do what's politically expedient in order to avoid a loss in one election so that we can continue in the same path depending on people we don't know to design the future and make decisions for the future of this community.

We thought that it was time for immigrants to take matters into their own hands and continue forward with the march, so we did. If you go back to the people who were the biggest promoters of Prop 187, people like Ron Prince, Alan Nelson, Congressman Rohrabacher and others, these people had no money. They had no resources. They were people who were out there self-promoting themselves to advance a negative agenda. It wasn't just an anti-immigrant agenda. It was an agenda to promote hatred and division in our country. That was fair. That's what fair was all about really. It was about dividing the country.

It was about creating us versus them mentalities. Obviously that took shape in California, but these individuals weren't the principal [unintelligible 00:26:43] behind the passage of Prop 187, that was Pete Wilson. Pete Wilson had the resources. In fact, it was in Pete Wilson's re-election funds that that famous television commercial about people crossing the border, They Keep Coming, that ultimately put the Prop 187 initiative on the map. That's really where the money came from. It was Pete Wilson's re-election into office that re-elected Pete Wilson and passed Proposition 187.

These folks will go around, even to this day, pat themselves on the back, “Look at all the great work that we did to pass 187.” Yes, they had multiple press conferences and a lot of meetings and did a lot of different things to promote it in the free press, in the earned media cycle, but it was really Pete Wilson. It was Pete Wilson's money that we can all thank for the passage of 187, that made it happen. I think if it wouldn't have been for the labor movements involvement, and in particular, Gilbert Cedillo who was the head of the Service Employees International Union Local 660 in Los Angeles, the big march that we had on October 16th wouldn't have happened.

In fact, I think that the entire labor movement from Jack Henning who at the time was the head of the California Labor Federation to Maria Elena Durazo, who was a great leader, and one of the only women, woman, I should say, to lead a Local union and that was the Hotel Restaurant Workers Local 11, that you would not have had the level of support that the immigrant community really needed, because those of us that were organizing this march, we didn't have the money and the resources to make this happen, but the unions did.

The reason why the unions came forward is because they saw in the messaging of the actual campaign against Prop 187, the messaging was so brutal against the immigrants, and I think that they felt that we needed to defend the immigrants because many of them were also workers that the unions represented. Some of them part of the Labors Union.

Some were hotel restaurant workers, others were janitors who were part of the Janitors movement, was also part of SEIU. The unions came together because they saw that the community and the immigrants was the future of California, but they also saw that it was wrong the way they were being treated. The messaging around this campaign was horrible. Literally the messaging was, Latinos need to stay away from saying to people that they should vote no against Proposition 187.

Why? Because non-Latinos don't want to see Latinos talk to them, that we need to hide under a rock. The messaging in the polling showed incidentally that the best way to get non-Latinos and white voters in particular, to vote no on Proposition 187, was to spread the fee year that if you wouldn't immunize and provide healthcare to the undocumented population, then that we would have the spread of disease California.

That was the number one talking point to get people to vote against Proposition 187. I think the unions listened to this messaging. I think they paid attention. They put their ear to the ground and they decided that it was it was important for them to join this movement and to say no, and to say enough is enough, we need to stand with the undocumented workers, and the eventually that's what they did. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the unions, to Gil Cedillo and to many others who came forward to help provide the resources so that we could organize this march.

The support that we received from all of the Spanish language media outlets, not the least of which was La Opinión, who was incredibly helpful, Univision, and Telemundo , Channel 22, many others who came here forward, a lot of radio stations came forward and said, “We want to be part of this effort. We want to help you.” When they saw that we were organizing, we would have press conferences. Many times the only people covering the press conferences was the Spanish media.

We learned that the only way to show people that they should come out to defend the rights in this struggle for their own dignity was that they themselves had to take this fight to the streets. They couldn't rely on other people to do this for them. I think ultimately it was easier to convince people because we did a couple of trial runs before we did the big march on October 16th. We did a march, for example, in January of 1994 and there were no immigration rates during that march.

I think that's the thing people fear the most. We did another march in May and that march where we mobilized over 10,000 people from Cinco Puntos, Boyle Heights, to City Hall. Then we did the big march, obviously in October, the one that mobilized over 100,000 people. I think that the real turning point for a lot of these immigrants was that they saw it as important that they needed-- the fight for their kids wasn't just a sacrifice they made to leave everything behind to come to the US and to sacrifice themselves, but that once they were here, they needed to continue to struggle.

I think that was very telling for them to know that in order for their kids to have a better life, they needed to do more, they needed to fight for themselves and they did. I think they did it with a lot of dignity and people recognized that these workers meant something that their lives were important. That the way they were being depicted in the English media as being people who were just coming to this country to abuse the country, to take the services, was not who they were.

They were contributors to the economy that worked hard and that there were leaving real legacies behind for their kids to follow that this notion that hard work is something to be proud of, whether you're a gardener or a maid or whether you work in a kitchen, that it didn't matter, that what mattered the most was that you worked hard and that you sacrifice yourself to give your kids the life you never had.

I was living in Pomona, at the time. Pomona is maybe by car 35, 40 minutes away from Boyle Heights and Gil Cedillo had a range for something like 45 buses to pick up some of the people that we were organizing in the Inland Empire. I remember us saying to people, “Let's meet at six in the morning. The buses are going to show up at 5:00 AM, but at six in the morning, let's congregate ourselves.” We gave them a specific location and I showed up around 6:15, and I saw people lined up around the entire block waiting to get on these buses.

That said to me, “Wow, this is pretty serious. We are going to have a lot of people at this march.” I went down to the march when we got to the location that the march started, which is a place called Cinco Puntos, very famous street corner in Boyle Heights, there were a number of people there already. Thousands of people. It was hard to even get in. I could just feel the pulse of the humanity of people that were there. It wasn't just the workers, incidentally. It was the immigrants, it was their kids. In some cases, it was three generations of people that were there.

I remember telling Juan José, “Wow, this is going to be a big march,” and Juan José saying, “Yes.” He was still concerned about whether or not the Border Patrol would come and what is the equivalent of ICE now at the time was the Border Patrol, that they would come and deport people or try to make arrest. We knew that the police wasn't going to be making arrest because we had all the permits with the city. We were a bit nervous, but that nervousness was overtaken by this great feeling of relief belief that, okay, people did come, people are showing up.

When we began that march, I noticed that as we were marching down the street, there were people coming out of their homes who were not planning on being part of the march who decided to join the march. This happened throughout the entire route of the march. We would have people walk out of their homes and look at what we were doing, then they would go in and they would get ready and they would come back and join the march as the procession continued on to City Hall and to the LA Times building, which is where we had the main stage.

When we were going through the downtown area, right when we hit the downtown area, I remember in a lot of the factories that were still there, in the upper floors, people waving at us. People clapping as we were walking by and then they were themselves, and you would see them again and then you would see them join the march. As the march commenced and as it proceeded, more and more people began to join. It was folks from all walks of life. It wasn't just Latino immigrants. It was all the folks that sympathized with this movement.

When we got to City Hall and we got on the stage and I looked out and you could see a sea of people, blocks and blocks down from the stage. We had folks who were actually counting the number of people that we had. By our own estimation, it was clearly over 75,000 people. By the time the speeches started from the stage, there were over 100,000 people in downtown Los Angeles. Is that never before in the history of Los Angeles, had there been a march that had mobilized that many people in downtown LA, or anywhere in the city of Los Angeles.

It was very impressive, not so much because people gave great speeches. We didn't have a Dr. King like the Civil Rights Movement had, that from the mall of the Lincoln Memorial gave an historic speech that ultimately really was the turning point of the Civil Rights Movement. This was very different. There were a lot of speeches, but people said different things and some were very powerful, but the most powerful thing wasn't the speeches.

I remember looking around and seeing how people behave themselves. It was the behavior of the collection of people that were there, that were a mass there around the LA Times building and the blocks there, City Hall, that really to me was the message. It was the faces of all of these people, the dignity with which they carry themselves.

Some people were white, some people, yes, had Mexican flags, other people had American flags, but really the flag that was there was the flag of the people that represented really the lives of dreams and aspirations of hundreds of thousands and millions of families of people who made their way to the United States for the very same reason that the Pilgrims came to the United States. To make a better life for themselves, to try and reach that dream, that hope for opportunity for a better life for them and themselves. That really to me, that's really what that march was about.

It was about those people, and it was about their right to be, it was about them saying, “Look, we're not less than human, we are human and we want to be here because we care about this country,” and they demonstrated their caring so much that if you looked around, there was no trash, anywhere. Folks picked up the trash, would put it into the trash bins and they left everything spotless and clean.

I think as a demonstration of who they were and what they represented to say that, “We want to be welcome in this country. We want to be welcome in this state.” The bigoted and racist, xenophobic campaign against them wasn't right. Whether the polls showed that Prop 187 was going to pass or not, these people were there to say, “Look, we don't have a vote, but we have our dignity. We have ourselves and we're here to tell you that we're not a danger to you. We want to be part of this America. We want to be part of this quilt of diversity of this country that has made this country so great.”

Though Prop 187 did pass, and many people blamed us and blame the march for the passage of this mean-spirited and pernicious initiative, at the end of the day, it changed everything because a lot of people saw in these immigrants what they wanted people to see, which is that these are hardworking people, that they're here to contribute, not to take. I think that that has changed California in many, many ways. I think the criticism of the march, for all of the Mexican flags is valid criticism. When you have 100,000 people, you can't control what people are going to do.

We initially thought that we would have 30, 40, 50,000 people, so we brought 10,000 flags. We have boxes of flags at the beginning of the march so people can march with these American flags, and they were there, but people brought their own flags. I think it was for them a way of saying, “Look, I may be Mexican and I'm proud of being Mexican, but I want you to look at me and treat me with respect.” I think ultimately it could have backfired to some degree, but I think in the end people had the right to express what they wanted to express.

Prop 187 after its passage and the reaction to it, the large number, hundreds of thousands of Latino immigrants that became US citizens and began to exercise their right to vote, changed the entire political scenario, such that a lot of Latinos started getting elected into office. In ’94, you have people like Antonio Villaraigosa, Alex Padilla, who's now Secretary of State, Kevin de León, who obviously went to the State Assembly and then went to become president of the State Senate.

Gil Cedillo was one of the very first who got elected right after 187, Tony Cárdenas in Congress, Hilda Solis that ultimately became a member of Congress, many, many other Latinos, as a consequence of this effort, ultimately got elected into important positions of power. People on the City Council in Los Angeles, to state governments. You see it today where Latino representation on boards and commissions is much more diverse than it has ever been because prior to 1994, that wasn't the case.

You could count the number of Latinos elected to an office in California, basically with one hand. Now you have a multitude of them that have different ideologies, not everybody's going to think alike, but for the most part, I think that it has helped not only bring about diversity, but it has also helped re-establish California for what it is today, which is the most progressive state in the country.

Richard Polanco was a real pioneer in reshaping the California electoral system, by finding and identifying strong candidates, Latino candidates throughout the state, that could represent multiple communities and that were electable, and Richard identified any number of people up and down the state of California and ran them for office against other Democrats who were non-Latinos.

They eventually won those primary elections and then ran in November under the general election, and thus they put together a collection of people in the California legislature that made up a California Latino Legislative Caucus that exists to this day. I think Richard Polanco deserves a lot of credit for the immense work that he did and identifying these candidates and identifying political consultants to run those campaign, and in showing people, in a very, very divisive environment, that it was okay to elect this or that Latino person to represent them in Sacramento, whether they were in Latino districts or not.

Richard Polanco was really a pioneer who paved that path for others of us who came after, that ultimately we're all so elected to office, to show and demonstrate that there was an opportunity for people to look at the political system in California and see that it was possible to elect Latinos to the state legislature in this state in California. In 1994, there were a few allies, but we knew that we were right. Something told us that the political establishment had its role, but we had our role as well.

We always believe that the only way to bring about change for immigrants was to transform the entire political landscape. The electoral politics in one election cycle wasn't going to do that for us. That we needed to do is to create a social movement that ultimately over time, gradually these immigrants themselves were going to become citizens, they were going to start voting, and that was going to change the entire political landscape. For us, it wasn't just a question of being idealistic because obviously we were in our 20s and we were young and we still felt that we could change the world.

It was more than that. It was pragmatic. It was being practical. It was understanding that the political environment was such that it was going to be repressive towards immigrants until and unless they too became citizens and began to exercise their right to vote. As a consequence of all of the work that was done by us and many other people as well, over five million people between 1994 and the year 2000 have become citizens in the United States, immigrants themselves.

That changed the political landscape for California, so that when candidates for office campaign, they campaign in immigrant communities now. Some of them even attempt to speak Spanish, those that don't know and those that do will speak Spanish. It wasn't so much about saying, “Hey, we're Latinos.” It wasn't about identifying ourselves as Latinos. It was really about identifying ourselves as human beings to say, “Listen, just because we're Latinos, don't treat us any different,” because we want the same things that any other California family wants.

The right to living the California dream, the dream of hope and opportunity. Latinos want the same thing everybody else wants. They want a good education for their kids, a better life for their kids. They want affordable housing. They want good paying jobs. They want a strong economy. They want to move into the middle class and have a strong middle class in this state. I think it took people a little bit to understand that the hopes and aspirations of these Latino immigrants are no different than the hopes of aspirations of any other ordinary, American or Californian.

Over time, I think that that has changed in this state to where, if you look at what happened in the last election, California passed the first sanctuary state law of any other state in the country. You would think, why did that happen? How did that happen? How is it that in California, you cannot get elected to statewide office today if you're a Republican, why is that? Why is California the most progressive state in the union today? It didn't happen overnight. It didn't happen because it's always been this way.

This was a Jim Crow state in the early ‘90s. California was one of the most conservative states in the country for many, many years, but that has changed, and it's changed for the better. Even though we still have a lot of work to do, to address the issue of homelessness, the economic inequities between the haves and the have nots, building the type of environment that affords people the right to be able to put a roof over their head and have affordable housing, and have a strong job market.

We still have a lot of work to do, but if you look at the area of the environment, for example, if you look at the area of civil rights, California is far ahead of many, many other states and we think that a lot of those things happen due to the work that happened before 1994, but the movement in 1994 against Pete Wilson and against Proposition 187, I believe, really was the turning point and the catalyst to move California from where it was, which was a very conservative state, to where it is today, which is the most progressive state in the country.

People like myself, who came from a very humble family, my father came to this country as a farm worker, my mother was a maid, eventually, my father settled in, in San Diego, and he was a gardener, my mom was a maid and that's who I am and I'm very proud of what my parents have done and how hard they have worked.

To think that I became the Speaker of the California State Assembly, and served in that capacity for four and a half years, was something I would never thought would have happened. One of the things I did that I'm most proud of, besides raising the minimum wage by $1.25, is passing the most progressive environmental law in the world today, which is AB 32, which is the only law in the books that has a massive reduction of CO2 emissions by mandate.

Many countries hit goals of emissions reductions, the law that I passed under my leadership when I was speaker, AB 32, is a mandate to reduce carbon emissions in the most significant way that anybody has ever done, and the law is in effect today, and it's working very, very well, but yet, I came out of an experience of immigrants, and helping immigrants, but it speaks to the point that, yes, we're Latinos, and yes, we want to help Latinos, but we don't just want to help Latinos, we want to help all people who have been marginalized and set aside and impoverished, and that we are not here just to help ourselves.

More important than being Latinos, we're human beings, and we're here to help everyone. I think that the lessons for us out of 187 were that we can't just think about ourselves, that we have to join with everyone else, to fight for what's right for everybody, because once you start singling yourself out, ultimately, you can marginalize yourself, which is something that happened with us during the 1994 fight. We were marginalized, but it wasn't out of desire, or necessity, it was because other people marginalized us. They didn't want us in the mainstream of American society. We had to force our way there.

We still have a lot of work to do, there's no question about it. We can't rest on our laurels, but 1994 was a pivotal year and I would say for me, if it had not been for my involvement at One Stop for my work, organizing immigrants, defending undocumented immigrants in particular, and being one of the primary organizers of that march against 187, I don't think I would be where I am today. I think that all those things that I have always believed in and continue to this day to believe in, were really shaped by all of those efforts around Proposition 187.

In some ways, we have Pete Wilson to thank for a lot of this, because if you look at the initiative Prop 187, Ron Unz didn't have any money, Congressman Rohrabacher who was one of the principal promoters of Proposition 187, he didn't raise very much money for the initiative, none of these people did. Alan Nelson, they were out there to promote themselves and their ideology, promote the hatred and the division that people like President Donald Trump promotes today.

These individuals didn't have any resources. The money came from the re-election funds for governor Pete Wilson. It was governor Pete Wilson, with his commercials on TV, with his anti-immigrant rhetoric that was divisive that brought this state together. So we're thankful to Pete Wilson, Governor Wilson because, for all the wrong reasons, we ended up in the right place.

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Samanta Helou Hernandez

Find more firsthand accounts of the Prop 187 campaign here.

At the time of Proposition 187, Fabian Núñez was a 27-year-old organizer making little money at a nonprofit called One Stop Immigration in the eastside of Los Angeles. 

Fast forward 25 years, Núñez has held one of the most powerful public positions in the State of California (Assembly Speaker) and left a mark in state policy.

Like others of his generation who faced Proposition 187, he went from a young organizer to politics or another career involving public policy.

As California Assembly Speaker, a position he held between 2004 and 2008, he led the passage of the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. This landmark climate change legislation became a standard for other states and the U.S. Congress in addressing environmental challenges.  He considers this one of his major accomplishments.  

In total, he was in the California Assembly from 2002 to 2010.

However, it was the fight against 187 and Núñez's involvement with a small group of activists in putting together an unprecedented march by immigrants and their supporters in October of 1994 that would steer the young organizer into politics. 

“The year 1994 was a pivotal year and for me, if it had not been for my involvement at One Stop, my work organizing immigrants, defending undocumented immigrants in particular and being one of the primary organizers of the march, I don't think I would be where I am today.”

Núñez left electoral politics some years ago and is now a partner at a public strategy firm, but his current life is far from the streets of Tijuana, México and San Diego's Logan Heights, where he grew up as one of 12 children of working-class parents. 

His dad had been a bracero (contract farmworker) in the fields of California for years before Núñez was born in 1966.  By that time, the family was living in San Diego, his dad working as a gardener and his mom as a maid.

But the family returned to Tijuana, where Núñez spent the first few years of his life, before returning to San Diego again, to the working-class area of Logan Heights, a tough neighborhood east of downtown San Diego.

When Núñez was going to school in San Diego, a Republican politician called Pete Wilson had been elected mayor of the city. One time, Wilson went to his school “to talk about the things kids need to do to get good grades and have a good life.”

Núñez made good grades and briefly attended UC San Diego, and eventually, Pitzer College in Claremont, where he graduated in political science and education.  He married his college sweetheart Maria Robles and started a family. They have three children together.

In 1990, he joined One Stop Immigration in Los Angeles, after getting a call from a friend about “organizing immigrants” in the city. It was only a few years after the 1986 Immigration Control and Reform Act (IRCA) had legalized 3 million undocumented immigrants.

When Proposition 187 went on the ballot in 1994, he helped organize the immigrant community to participate in a march that would allow “the immigrants themselves to express their own humanity.” It was held October 16,1994 and was attended by 100,000 immigrants and their supporters.

Over the next ten years, Núñez would become political director of the powerful L.A. county Federation of Labor, and then a lobbyist for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

In 2001, then-Assemblyman Gil Cedillo declared he was running for a state senate seat, and Núñez ran for the assembly seat. He represented District 46 of the California Assembly between 2002 and 2010.

Núñez is married to Michelle M. Núñez and is a partner at Mercury Public Affairs.


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187: The Rise of the Latino Vote

Proposition 187 was a California ballot measure passed in 1994 that sought to deny public services to undocumented immigrants.  While the initiative was meant to keep the “immigrant threat” at bay, it mobilized non-immigrants and immigrants in Latino communities as well as their allies across the state.

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