Fernando Guerra | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"

Fernando Guerra: California Was a Red State. After 187, It Became Blue.

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

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

As a political scientist, Fernando Guerra has a simple explanation for what happened in California with Proposition 187.

“Before ‘94, California is a red state. After ‘94, California becomes a blue state. It's just that simple,” he says.

Proposition 187 is a political earthquake in California that is still creating aftershocks. Twenty-six years later, the Trump era is creating an even more democratic state, where voter registration is lopsidedly democratic and “decline to state” registrants outnumber Republicans.

An initiative that allowed Republican governor Pete Wilson to successfully survive a difficult campaign during a recession and get reelected in 1994 effectively helped undermine his political party for a generation, possibly more, he says.

“California had always been a Republican state. Today, we talk about red and blue states. California up until the ‘90s was a reliably red state,” Guerra explains. “But the Wilson reelection campaign was in trouble, which created some nervousness among his campaign.”

Then, Guerra ads, Wilson decides to do what other politicians had done as well: support or sponsor an initiative and tie their platform to it. Wilson did this with Proposition 187.

Latinos and other allies reacted, marched, proselytized and campaigned against the proposition, which they saw as an attack against minorities, not just immigrants. But even though the proposition — and Wilson — prevailed in the election, the 1994 statewide election had another effect.

“This really prepares the groundwork for the creation of activists and a whole generation that then continues to communicate and talk about this,” Guerra recounts. “And it absolutely happened that these young people who marched became the agents of change and have changed the face of California politically, economically and socially.”

Proposition 187 had a tremendous impact on Latino consciousness and political mobilization, says Guerra, but it also impacted other communities. It had an even more significant effect on the politics of the Asian community in California.

“Asians actually moved more politically than even Latinos,” he says. "All things being equal, before 187, about 60% of Latinos would vote for the Democrat and 40% for the Republican. Now it's more like 70-30.”

Among Asians, however, the change has been more radical. "They used to be 50-50, but now it's more like 75 to 25.”

But in California, it seems that almost every voter has moved to the left. Today, it's hard to find the same type of anti-immigrant rhetoric that came with 187, possibly because Latinos became an essential part of the "progressive democratic regime" that governs California nowadays.

What happened after 187 was more and more organization by unions and other democratic groups to naturalize immigrants and register voters, resulting in 1 million new voters over the next election cycle.

This led to the rapid increase in Latino representation from only three Latinos in the state assembly in 1990 to four in 1992, to seven in 1994, to nine in 1995 and 11 in 1998.

"There's over 30 Latinos in the state legislature, and several of the legislative leaders or speakers of the assembly have been Latino,” says Guerra. “This is an amazing transition that has happened.”

Guerra founded Loyola Marymount University's Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles in 1996 in reaction to the city's 1992 race riots. His approach to the classroom is "research that leads to action that leads to justice.” He is a native of Los Angeles and has been a professor at LMU for 35 years. "I've only had one job in my life", he says. He has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Michigan. 

 

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