Joel Ochoa | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"

Joel Ochoa: Pushing Back on the Myth of the ‘Encino Voter’

Joel Ochoa: My name is Joel Ochoa. I am a retired international rep with the Machinists Union. I am a political refugee from Mexico. I came to the United States at the end of 1973 when I was kicked out of the country by then-president Luis Echeverría, who by the way is still alive, and good fortunes, I ended up here in Southern California.

The origins of the working class have a lot to do with migration of people coming to this country even before it was conceived as a country when we had the original 13 colonies, you already had the issue of migration. At the beginning, the three main components of the working class were the free workers which were the ones who in some ways even owned the shops.

You had the workers who were contracted to come to the United States or to the colonies further back then. The moral equivalent to that it was Mexican migrants, it was the Bracero Program. It was the equivalent of the Bracero program if you want that they had and that was the majority of the working class and then of course you had the slaves.

We have 5% to 10% of free workers who were the ones free to create them in their own unions and then you have the contracted workers and then you have the slaves. The majority of the three were the contractor workers about 60%. In a way, those were immigrants. The whole issue of the working class related to the migration of people, it is in certain, the history of the United States from the very beginning.

They were a little different in terms of color, in terms of culture, in terms of language, in terms of religion. That's something else, but the fact remains that the same formula of having people coming from other countries to work in the United States has happened with us and shouldn't be any issues in terms of accepting the fact that if you're working in this country, you are part of the working class. Therefore, you have to be protected by the very same laws that protect the rest of the workers regardless of your legal status.

The Italians, they were blamed for different things. As a matter of fact, some of the allegations made against the Irish were very similar to the allegations made against Latino immigrants: that we have a different religion, that we live in crowded conditions, et cetera. This whole issue of right now, especially right now in this times blaming Latino immigrants but particularly Mexican immigrants about the eels of society is nothing new.

It has happened to us before, it has happened to other immigrants before, and it will happen again. This is not going to stop. It's going to change a little bit in terms of how they're going to blame us. Right now, we're being accused of being rapist, criminals, that we bring drugs into society, and a bunch of other things more. In the future, we might be accused of something else but the fact will remain the same that as immigrants, we are going to be blamed for whatever crisis comes up now or in the future.

CASA was the first organization that took the issue of organizing the undocumented workers to a different level. There was a man by the name of Bert Corona, trade unionists and community activists. He was also the recipient of the experience of other generations, the generation before his generation.

It was with Bert Corona that the whole issue of fighting in defense of the undocumented really took shape. Bert Corona, and other trade unionists like Umberto Camacho founded CASA in 1968. Down the line, CASA became the place where most of the activists gather to learn from the, we used to call him the old man, to learn from the old man and also to participate parts in whatever he was doing.

Let's keep in mind that before 187, there was, I believe it was in 1972, 1971, 1972, something called the Dixon-Arnett state initiative was pretty much the same as 187. The one fighting against the Dixon-Arnett back in the early 1970s, it was Bert Corona. It was Bert Corona organizing immigrant workers to defend themselves. That's the main lesson of Bert and CASA.

That's why we were part of CASA. Some of the political players of today, even today, and I'm not going to name names but I'm going to let them take credit or say it publicly but some of the political leaders of today, they were CASA members. When 187 happened back in 1994, in a way, we were ready because we had already participated in different processes to not just defend but to organize immigrant workers.

Organizing immigrant workers at a different levels of society: at the community level, in unions, and also participate in the political process. The main teachings of Bert Corona, number one, Bert approach in terms of organizing was to empower people. Bert didn't talk to people in the sense that-- he never announced that he was going to resolve their problems.

Bert was of the approach that we're going to work together so you can solve your own problems. In other words, I'm going to give you the tools so you can empower yourself and empower the community. That was his main approach but that was a practical approach if you want. Also, Bert had an ideological approach in the sense that he argue and at the end, he won that argument, that undocumented workers were part of the US working class.

In other words, if you would a worker, and that was one of the sayings of the time, with or without documents, you were a worker, you create the wealth, you have rights. We just have to make sure that we fight to make sure that those rights are protected and are defended. That was his approach. The practical approach of empowering the community to fight for their rights and the ideological approach to make society understand that undocumented workers were part of the overall working class. It was at the beginning of the 187 process that a group of us were called to have a meeting with some of the political consultants. Their whole approach was to keep us and the community for that matter quiet not to alienate the traditional borders. They use the example that we should be careful not to alienate the Encino borders. That became what we used to call the Encino Man approach to defeat 187.

We were not happy with their whole assessment. We saw it as a quick fix, as a very simplistic approach to a big problem, which was the whole issue of racism with 187. We just walked away and we end up doing our own thing. Encino is one of the suburbs here in Southern California, in the San Fernando Valley where you have some progressive.

If you want borders, who pretty much they thought that they weren't going to oppose 187 if we didn't alienate those borders. That's what we call the Encino Man approach because Encino borders at the time were all over the state of California, not just in the suburbs of Los Angeles, but all over California.

The results at the end showed that the Encino Man was upset not because of what we were going to do, but they were upset about something else; the whole economic conditions that were taking place at the beginning of the 1990s. They were looking for someone to blame and immigrants, in this case, the Mexican immigrants were their target.

We became the perfect enemy if you want. They blamed it on us. They blamed that we were taking away the good jobs, that we were taking away services, schools, hospitals, et cetera. The whole economic crisis of the time was blamed on us. In a very simplistic way, 187 and 187 proponents were taking that approach. The actions that we took after we were told to stay away were pretty much the actions that were in place.

We're talking about a whole generation of activists, a whole generation of community and labor activists that grew up during the difficult times of before the amnesty process of 1987, and all that. There was no way that a group of consultants were going to stop the likes of Maria Elena Durazo, Gilbert Cedillo, and others because there was a whole process that took place before 187.

187 didn't happen in a vacuum. 187 happened when some of these activists that were already on their way to becoming professional lawyers, union leaders, et cetera. They were already established in the community. When 187 hit, some of them and many of us were ready to respond. There was no way that a labor consultant was going to start that process.

The 187 march, it was a point of contention. Not everybody was in agreement to have the march, some people thought they were going to, once again, offend the Encino Man if we were willing to show our faces, especially by the thousands in downtown Los Angeles. It was a very contentious time. People had their opinions. People, based on their opinions, they did what they did.

The whole issue of the march became a way of people expressing themselves. Our headquarters was at the old, Local 660 of SEIU. At the time, Gilbert Cedillo was the director of that local. He pretty much opened the doors for labor and community activists to form something that we called at the time the Los Angeles County Organizing Committee to Defeat 187.

This committee, again, that was formed by junior and community activists, along with all other coalitions, got together and we decided to have a march against 187. At the same time, some of us working with the unions, we were participating in the political process. We were encouraging people to go out and vote against 187.

We were doing the so-called GOTV. It was very intense. We were recruiting people and we were organizing people. We were organizing phone banking in different unions and even some organizations like [unintelligible 00:17:35] and One Stop Immigration. Again, we were encouraging people to participate in the political process, not just to vote, but to participate.

Remember, the essence of democracy is not just to go on election day and vote, the essence of democracy is to participate. If you don't participate, your vote doesn't mean anything because we have elected people in the past that had affected our communities, Democrats, or Republicans because we only go and we vote. We don't stay vigilant, we don't stay active, and, therefore, they can do whatever they want.

We were encouraging political participation to defeat 187, not just on the election date, but beyond election date because we knew that the 187 was going to pass, like right now. It is possible that the President that we have is going to be reelected. We have to get ready in terms of what is going to happen, not necessarily after the election date, because even if he doesn't get re-elected, the policies are going to be in place.

If we don't defeat those policies, then nothing is going to happen. The whole issue of re-election is going to be in place. Going back to 187, that's what we were doing in those in those days. For some of us, Local 660 became our house. That's where we slept, that's where we ate, and that's where we took showers whenever it was possible.

It was not possible to go out and see what was going on. I ventured out of the office 10 days before the march and I asked to be taken over there by the alleys in downtown, Los Angeles. I was surprised by the reaction of the people. People were making their own signs to defeat 187. That's when we realized that the march was going to be big.

That's when we realized that regardless of all the contention, all the bickering that was taking place among some of the activists, that the whole sentiment of defeating 187 was already deep in our communities. We were not afraid. We were ready to participate and make whatever changes needed to nullify 187.

That was the thing with the-- One other anecdote, because I had another regular job, I went one day to my office and I found 60 messages. One of the messages that I found, it was from this guy who was the head of the Charros in Southern California. It was two things. Number one, the phone number with the name, of course, and then the message, how many horses do you want to March?

How can you not call someone [chuckles] with that kind of message? I call the guy and he asked me how many horses do you want?" He says, "How many horses can you take to the parade with the understanding that you cannot take the horses all the way to the back of the march?" He says, "You tell me." I said okay, "How about some 20 horses?" He says, "Is that all?" I said, "Okay, how many?" He says, "About 100." Anyway, on the day of the march, they were 100 Charros with their horses and the whole thing was beautiful.

The purpose of the march was twofold. Number one, to show that we were not afraid, to make that point that at least at that point, we have the political maturity to understand that it was going to take the whole community to participate to defeat 187. That was one thing. The other thing, I remember, the ones doing all of this thing with a bunch of organizers.

The purpose of the march was to see how we're going to recruit volunteers on the day of the march to make them actively participate in defeating 187. On the day of the March, we organized a group of activists to recruit volunteers, and we recruited, I'm not sure if it was 7,000 or 8000 volunteers on that day to defeat 187.

Those were the two main purposes, again, to show that we were not afraid, but also to continue organizing because we knew that the fire was going to go beyond the election date. You can participate. You're not going to be able to vote if you're not a US citizen, but you can participate. You can encourage others to vote. If I'm not a US citizen, if I'm not entitled to vote, nothing can stop me from inviting you, Mr. US citizen to vote and give you my opinion, how you should vote.

That's part of my rights. We were recruiting people to participate regardless of their legal status. That's the whole essence of empowering people. People, number one, came out in force to the march. Number two, they all participated in big numbers with or without documents, they didn't vote. People didn't vote. People who were not allowed to vote didn't vote, but they participated.

That's the same thing it's going on right now. I pretty much miss the march, I didn't march, because I was the in charge of the stage. Right over there, by the old Los Angeles Times, I was there from 4:00 in the morning until about 6:00 PM when everything was done. At one point, I was able to escape and go to Los Cinco Puntos in Los Angeles, which is where the march originated.

Before the march, we agreed that the first contingent in front of the march was going to be that of labor. The labor unions for the first time took the issue of the document publicly. We had about 20,000 union members at the beginning of the march. I have unions with their banners, their slogans, et cetera. That was the beginning of the march. Of course, at the end of march, there were horses and the Charros.

That's the only thing that I was able to see about the march. What I remember though when we were at the stage putting together some system, decorations, et cetera, I remember, first of all, and back then we didn't have cell phones, we had beepers, getting messages on the beepers in terms of how many people were marching. The first report that I got

around 11:00 AM, I believe it was, is that they were 25,000 to 30,000.

Then 15 minutes later, it was changed to about 40,000 and 50,000 and it went on and on and on. By the time the march arrived at the Corner Spring and First, you could see a whole river of people approaching, what it is, Curry Corner City hall and the LA Times. It got so crowded that some people couldn't make it all the way to the end of the march.

I was told that some people make estimates between 70,000 to 100,000, it's hard to know, especially when you don't have the physical capacity to accommodate everyone marching. Something that I will always sustain in my mind is that at the end of the march, there was no incidence of violence, for instance, there was no risk.

At the end of the march, people were cleaning the streets. People were picking up trash and making sure that the streets we're going to be clean. That goes to show you that the thousands of people participated on that day, they were families. They were families or you had again, US citizens, legal residents, undocumented. They were families, entire families.

That's why it was such a big success. Even now people talk about the march. By the way, 25 years later, it's safe to say now that the march was a big success. Even people who were not necessarily in tune with the march back then are saying the same thing. That was at 4:00 AM, I was there with my friend, Rudy Montalvo. We were waiting for the technicians, the ones who were going to set up the stage, the sound system, et cetera.

We had everything in order. We had all the permits, everything clear. As we were closing on our own, we're closing the streets, then at 4:00 in the morning, at least 25 years ago, there was a little traffic in downtown Los Angeles. When we were doing that, the police came by and they wanted to know what we were doing.

We told them, "We have a march today and we're setting up the stage." They didn't like that response, I guess. They grabbed me and they put me inside one of the patrol cars. Good thing is that my good friend, Rudy Montalvo, a member of the United Auto Workers, and he called his friend, then City Councilman Mike Hernandez. Through Mike Hernandez, he talked to the cops on the phone and they let me go.

I almost missed the whole thing. [laughs]. The organizers of the march, we had a steering committee. By then we had decided who the speakers were going to be. In an event like that, the word gets out and people who were skeptical, I guess, at the last minute, they wanted to be there. Therefore, they wanted to speak, so we had to improvise.

I don't remember the original exact number of speakers, but at the end of the day, we almost tripled the number of speakers. It was hard to tell people that they only had 30 seconds to pretty much to say their name and that was it. Regardless of the number of speakers, we made sure that the message was going to be delivered. Number one, that we had an institution like labor, for instance, supporting the undocumented openly.

We not only had messages from the president of the national AFL-CIO but had the director of the AFL-CIO here locally. The same thing with the director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the State County Federation of Labor. The message was well delivered. Of course, we have leaders like Miguel Contreras, like Dolores Huerta, Maria Elena Durazo, Gilbert Cedillo, delivering the message. They were here.

They were here to support you guys because, at that point, labor had already seen that their very own future, their very own survival of labor was there in front of them. It was a question of whether organize immigrant workers and people of color for that matter, or we're going to disappear. That was the message. On the other hand, we had the message of, again, political participation.

That we have to make sure that this thing doesn't happen, and if it happens, they have to be sure that we're going to fight against whatever they're trying to do to our communities. That's the nature of social movements, that you can plan whatever you want but you cannot kill the creativity of the people. That's one of the things that happened because of the movement.

You have Mariachis, you have all kinds of, how should I call it, different expressions, if you want, of saying, "You know what, we're here. This is who we are and we're going to fight." Again, in social movements, you cannot stop people. You cannot tell people, "Hey, stop. You're going to offend the Encino border." You cannot do that.

You just have to open up the channels so they can express all of that beautiful, positive vibes, if you want. That's what happened with the Mariachis and the Aztec dancers and the senoras giving up food, all of those things that require a level of self-organization, self-discipline. That's what happened during the march of 187. It was so big and so spontaneous in a way that after a while, people ended up organizing their own rallies.

People who got stranded over there by Olvera Street, who couldn't make it all the way to City Hall to participate in the rally. Soundsystems came out of nowhere and they organized their own rallies. They had their own speakers, they had their own singers, they had their own music. To my understanding, they were two or three different improvised stages in different parts. The only one that I'm aware of because I saw pictures of it, it was one over there by Olvera Street.

Proposition 187 was not about people waving flags. Proposition 187 was about hate. It was a frontal attack. 187 was a frontal attack against our community. It was a frontal attack against our children, the very essence of our future. It was not about Mexican flags or Guatemalan or Salvadorian flags.

No, no, no, it was about hate. People bought into it. We don't have to apologize for that. I don't have to apologize for being Mexican. I don't have to apologize because back in 1994 more than 60% of voters in California voted for Proposition 187. I don't have to apologize for that. 187, it was an appeal to those people to embrace hate and they did.

The fact of the matter and move 25 years later, are we waving the Mexican flag now? We're not waving the Mexican flag. We are waving the American flag now. We're being called what? Criminals, rapists, traffickers, and what have you. No, no, no the whole issue of the flags is just a distraction. Again, I feel sorry for people embracing that argument, because it's a poor one.

I call the legalization that took place because of the amnesty, something like the Big Bang of that time. What happened after the legalization or during the process of legalization on labor, we had three very important organizing campaigns. At the end of the 1980s, beginning of the 1990s, it was the Justice for Janitors campaign. Then in 1990, it was the American Racing Equipment campaign.

In 1992, it was the Drywallers campaign. Three different industries, services with the justice for janitors, manufacturing with American Racing, and construction with the drywallers, three different industries, thousands of workers. The common denominator among those three campaigns was that it was immigrant workers.

Except for the Justice for Janitors that it was a different approach, with the other two campaigns, it was a case of self-organized workers. In other words, after the amnesty process, they felt empowered to fight for unionization. That happened in that process before 1994. Most of the community-based organizations were actively participating in helping people

to legalize their status.

They were organizing. In our case, we had like 90 different sites all over the city and the county where we were teaching the civics which was part of the requirements for the legalization process. I used to go to all of these classes. I was not talking about George Washington or anything like that. I was talking about organizing. I was talking about empowering through collective bargaining.

I got hundreds of organizing leads, people who were ready to organize. That's part of the process, and that's how we got to 187. In other words, there was something already in place. What happened after the march? After the march, we went all out to try to mobilize our people. After the vote, we went all out to make sure that our people were going to become US citizens.

The ones who had the basic requirements already fulfilled to be a US citizen, to make sure they were going to become US citizens and to vote. Those were the steps. Again, we should see it from the passage of IRCA in 1987 to 187 in 1994, and what happened in between and then what happened after.

Here we are, 25 years later, talking about how Antonio Villaraigosa became the mayor of Los Angeles, how Fabian Nunez and Kevin de Leon became state leaders, and so on. Again, here we are still talking about that process, and I guess we're going to continue talking about that for time to come.

Complex problems deserve complex solutions. When you have someone coming out of nowhere oversimplifying and giving people easy solutions, then we should be careful with that. We have seen that happen in other countries, people blindly buying into that, and the results have been horrendous.

That was the case during World War II. You had clowns talking about easy solutions to very difficult problems. So be careful with that. That's what I would tell the American people in general. In terms of my community, in terms of the Mexican-American community, the Latino community, we should never, never stop being vigilant. We have to be vigilant.

We have to participate. We have faced these kinds of things before. In the 1930s, we were deported in mass. In the 1950s, the same thing happened. In more recent history, we can talk about horrible experiences, 187 was one of them. What we're going through right now where we have kids being separated from their parents at the border, when our people are being hunted in their communities, we have to be careful and make sure that we don't stop.

We have to participate. If we can become US citizens, become US citizens. If you can register to vote, register to vote. If you can join a union, join a union. If you can join a community-based organization, do it. You have to participate. You have to participate, especially young people. We have to participate and stay vigilant.

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

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

Joel Ochoa is a political refugee from Mexico who arrived in the United States at the end of 1973. By the time Proposition 187 came around, he was a seasoned union organizer. 

That's probably why he didn't buy the argument some democratic politicians and consultants made to him and others, that to fight the anti-immigrant initiative, immigrants had to keep a low profile, not participate in big marches and not anger the so-called “Encino Voter."

“It was at the beginning of all the 187 process that a group of us were called to have a meeting, and their whole approach was to keep us kind of quiet, not to alienate traditional voters. The Encino man approach to defeating 187,” says Ochoa, now a retired union leader.

"Our response — I don't think I can say it on camera — but we were not happy with that assessment, it was a very simplistic approach to a big problem, which was the whole issue of racism with 187. So, we just walked away and ended up doing our own thing,” said Ochoa.

Ochoa understood 187 in the same historical context that other anti-immigrant policies had at different moments of the United States. 

“The voters were upset about economic conditions at the time, and were looking for someone to blame, and in this case, Mexican immigrants were the target, the perfect enemy.” It was not the first occasion that Ochoa came across this scapegoating philosophy —it wasn't even the first in his lifetime, he says.

However, there were earlier leaders who thought that immigrants, even those undocumented, had a right to be organized and be treated with dignity. The founder of an organization called CASA (F. 1968), the legendary activist Bert Corona, was one.  Ochoa and others of his generation took to heart Corona’s example and the work he did to educate the country that immigrant workers were not a “temporary phenomenon” but a significant segment of the U.S. labor force.

“It was Bert Corona who organized immigrant workers to defend themselves, some of the political players of the 90s, even today, came out of that and were CASA members,” he says. “So, by the time 187 came around, many of us were ready.”

Ochoa had a significant role in the organizing and the logistics of the October 16, 1994 anti-187 march.  During the time, the organizing for that took place, he and others "lived" at the old local 660 of SEIU, which then-President of the local Gil Cedillo had opened up for them.

"For some of us, local 660 became our house, that's where we slept, that is where we ate and took showers when possible. Ten days before the march, I ventured out to downtown, and I saw people making their own signs, that's when I knew the march was going to be bigger than we thought,” he recalls.

One anecdote he remembers from that time is getting a message —among more than 60 — of the head of the Charros (Mexican cowboys) in Southern California offering horses.

“How many horses do you want?” he said. “I said, ‘How many can you take to a parade?’ and I told him they needed to be at the end of the march, so I asked for 20. He said, ‘That's it?’ We ended up having like 100 charros with their horses; it was beautiful.”

The fact that many labor unions took the issue of undocumented workers’ rights publicly at the time was personally important to Ochoa, who would have many years as a union organizer and lead many campaigns to organize immigrant and Latino workers. 

“Labor had already started to see that the future, the survival of labor was right there in front of them,” Ochoa says. "Politicians also learned that in social movements, you cannot stop people; you cannot say ‘Stop, you will offend the Encino voter.’ Cannot do that.”


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