Kevin de León: The Teacher Who Helped Rally Immigrants to March | KCET
Kevin de León: The Teacher Who Helped Rally Immigrants to March
My name is Kevin de Leon. I'm the president emeritus of the California State Senate. I am currently a professor at UCLA and also a fellow at the University of Southern California. Back in the day during Proposition 187, I was an organizer. I was an organizer as well as a teacher of ESL, English as a Second Language, US History, and Civics. That's where I cut my teeth politically, back in the day during 1994 during proposition 187 as an organizer.
One Stop Immigration & Educational Center that was a nonprofit multifaceted organization headquartered in Boyle Heights on the corner of Esperanza and Whittier Boulevard. At the time, I was teaching ESL English as a Second Language, US History Civics, and I was also a regional director for the organization for all of Central California. That's Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Ventura County. I was the regional director for this large region in California. Back in the day, Fabian Núñez was the regional director for Pomona and the east side of Los Angeles and Juan José Gutiérrez was the executive director.
As a nonprofit organization, we were solely focused on educating immigrants, primarily adult immigrants to become legal permanent residents, and eventually US citizens and eventually registered voters. We would be teaching ESL on a nightly basis. Monday through Thursday I would be in charge of roughly about 1,000 students every single night. I would be in charge of teachers who were teaching them. We wouldn't just teach ESL, US history and civics, but we would organize around issues that were very important to the community. We would come together on weekends, on Saturdays and Sundays as well and provide classes. For me, it was a very powerful experience at that time where I cut my teeth politically.
Well, during 1994, it was a very tense time I remember. There was a lot of tension up and down the state of California. We were enduring a very deep economic recession which was especially acute in Southern California because of the aerospace industry because of the defense industry. At the time also too the end of the cold war was with us. The Soviet Union no longer existed, it had collapsed and as a result of perestroika and glasnost Department of Defense budget in the Pentagon in Washington DC cut drastically the defense budget.
A lot of folks didn't make the correlation that that had a huge impact on a state like California, because part of our economy was dependent on those budget dollars from the Department of Defense, the Pentagon, in the aerospace industry, in the arms industry, especially in Southern California. As a result, unemployment rose. There was a huge number of folks who are now, all of a sudden, underemployed. You had many families who lost their homes, foreclosures. As a result, the social fabric of their close-knit families had disintegrated because there were divorces, people were losing their children through the divorces, people were losing their homes, their inability to take care of their families, and because of that there was so much tension because of this economic recession in Southern California. As a result, you had community activists come together to put forth a measure, in this case, Proposition 187.
There was a huge migration from Central America in particular from the countries of Nicaragua and El Salvador. You had the civil wars that were occurring in those specific countries. Obviously, you had a proxy war happening between then, the United States of America and what was then the Soviet Union and the arms that were being shipped to Central America. As a result, you had so many individuals who were displaced and were forced to migrate north through Mexico into the United States of America and specifically, to California and especially Southern California in parts of the Bay Area such as San Francisco. You had a lot of demographic changes. You had a lot of folks who were fleeing civil war, were fleeing for their life and they were coming for sanctuary. They were coming for a safe refuge because the United States was involved in arming many of the right-wing governments and militias that were massacring tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Central America. You had also, of course, a historic migration patterns from our friends and our neighbors next door to us in Mexico. California was, without a doubt, facing a huge demographic change. We had more people of color, more folks from our western hemisphere to the south of us, Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere coming to the greatest state in the greatest country in the world, the state of California.
I remember teaching class, I was also a teacher that evening and I remember students were talking about what they had heard in the news about a possibility that a ballot was going to be placed before the voters of California, and that these community activists from Orange County specifically, were out there promoting this ballot blaming immigrants for all the socio-economic and political ills that California was facing during that time of 1994 due to the economic recession.
I remember when I first heard it I thought well this is really peculiar that this band of citizens were actually going to try to move forward a referendum on immigrants. When students started speaking about, it I started inquiring a little more about it. I remember speaking with Juan José Gutiérrez, and Fabian Núñez, and other folks to see if they had heard it in Pomona, if they had heard in Boyle Heights, and they said they've been hearing the same rumors circulate too, so we knew something was out there. We knew that people were starting to talk more about immigrants not in a positive way, but in a very negative way. You could feel it was palatable. You could actually feel the tension in the community throughout our great state because, all of a sudden, immigrants were the focus of those individuals who believe that they were the social cause to all the ills. To me at first, I couldn't believe it these people were actually having a discussion about this issue and then secondly, to actually have it confirm that there was a movement and a strong movement, of course, that this actually came to fruition. It was stunning beyond belief for me.
Proposition 187 was an attempt to blame immigrants for all the economic ills by politicians who didn't have the ability to articulate to the electorate why we were in an economic recession, why you lost your house, why you got a divorce. To me, it's that simple and straightforward. It wasn't about education. It wasn't about the issue of health care. It wasn't an issue about the budget. It was very simple and straightforward, an attempt to blame immigrants to misguide and misdirect the electorate as a whole and say, "You're in a bad situation and it's not getting any better. In fact, it's getting worse. You're in that situation because of Fadiman, who cleans homes in La Jolla California, because of Hesus who is a sous chef in Santa Monica, because of Marcela who may be a nanny in San Francisco. It is because of these individuals, and many of them who look like them, and who talk like them, and act like them, that's because of them you're in the economic situation that you're in today." That was what 187 was about ultimately. Obviously, we can talk ad nauseam with regards to all the different provisions of Proposition 187, but when you get to the heart of 187, it was a bold attempt to blame immigrants and to misdirect the electorate as a whole as to why we were in the economic recession that we were in California at the time.
The Republican political party was clearly fully onboard 100% in promoting this to its maximum value for their electoral purposes. The Democratic Party I found at the time was rather ambivalent and many high-ranking politicians. They were more concerned clearly about the potential disastrous results at the electoral box, more so than the people themselves, the immigrants. I took note of that very clearly.
Clearly, I wasn't involved in democratic politics at the time as a community activist, as an organizer, as a teacher of English as a Second Language, but it was very fascinating to me, that the concern was more so, "Oh, this may have disastrous results for us at the ballot box. We need to figure out and do something." One of the negative consequences of that environments during proposition 187 in 1994 1993 where we can feel the tension is you have actually a Democratic politicians such as Louis Caldera or Louis Caldera, an assemblymember, Senator Alfred Alquist, a Democratic senator, the same senate body that I later became president and leader of, actually co-authored a measure to take away driver's license from immigrants. It was a clumsy attempt by the Democratic political establishment to demonstrate to the electorate as a whole, that, in fact, Democrats can be tough also on immigrants.
Maybe not as tough as 187 and Pete Wilson and, I should say, the Republican political establishment, but they can be just as tough. Again, it was a very clumsy attempt, a very ill-advised attempt to demonstrate to electorate that they can be just as tough. Obviously, the objective was is not to suffer deep losses at the electoral box and which is something that I completely opposed 100% because this was ultimately about the people and who would be most impacted in the state of California.
When I first saw that commercial, that grainy black and white commercial of immigrants running across the border, because I know that border very well, personally, because I've crossed that border millions of times from Tijuana to San Diego where I grew up, that they keep coming political ad was a slap in the face. It was a punch to the gut. It was beyond an insult that this individual would do everything within his power to scapegoat, to demonize, to vilify innocent hardworking men and women who helped build this great state, who have built our economy. That he would go to any lengths to win his reelection by racially stereotyping and again, vilifying, scapegoating innocent men and women who pick the fields in the Central Valley, who clean our homes in La Jolla and other wealthy enclaves throughout the state, who take care of our children, who wash our clothes and our food or, I should say, our dishes, who make and prepare our food. It was beyond a slap in the face. It was the biggest insult imaginable and it was something that was very deeply personal to me because it wasn't just speaking to me and others but to our family members, to my mother, to my [foreign language], to all of my extended family members and many of them, millions like them throughout the state of California.
There was no question. There was a lot of fear, there was a lot of anxiety, there was a lot of nervousness among my own students in the classroom, students that were in my school at One Stop Immigration & Educational Center. Because there was so much fear and anxiety, there was also a political impotence, meaning there was a lot of folks who were great contributors to our economy but couldn't contribute at the ballot box because they're yet registered voters or naturalized US citizens.
The more I spoke to the students every single day, the more I spoke to them about the importance of organizing and coming together, the more I spoke to them about we're all Americans and you will be an American in the near future but we have to come together because this is about our dignity, this is about our own self-respect, this is about being attacked by a group of individuals who are looking to vilify you, to dehumanize you and you have to make a decision. You have to make a decision, either you can roll up into a ball into a fetal position and stay home or we can go out into the streets. We can hold our heads up high with dignity and respect. That's why our march was La Marcha por la Dignidad, the march for our dignity.
I think that their eyes opened up, my students. I think that it really impacted them that we do need to go out and march. We need to have our voices heard because we won't have that opportunity come Election Day to actually deposit our ballot in the ballot box, that we have to march, we have to talk to our family members, to our co-workers, to our residents, to our neighbors, we need to go to church and we need to amplify this message that we're human beings and we deserve dignity and respect.
It's really important to understand that before the march actually happened, we had no social media. We really didn't use e-mail that much. We had no Facebook, we had no Twitter, we had no Instagram. There was no social media platforms that instantaneously you could just spread the news in a split nanosecond. It didn't exist. We had to really do good old fashioned organizing, rolling up our sleeves, going to Maquiladoras, going to Las Fabricas, going to very prestigious luxurious hotels and during the break time, las camareros, the hotel workers would all come together in the lunch break and I would speak to the camareros. We'd go into [foreign language] and go to farmworkers and say, "Hey, we're going to organize this march." We would work with the television networks, Univision, Telemundo. We went and we engaged with radio personalities, very popular ones in Southern California, Los Angeles, in particular, Humberto Luna, El Cucuy, Hernán. They were very, very instrumental in really getting the word out to workers throughout Los Angeles, throughout the Southern California region that were organizing this march.
When workers were driving to work, when workers were on their lunch break, when workers were taking their coffee break, they always had the radio station on and they would hear these messages from these really popular radio personalities spreading the word. This was our network that we used to organize all the tens of thousands of individuals who participated in that really famous historic march.
We were incredibly young, we were incredibly idealistic. I think were incredibly naive, also, too at the same time, but that actually worked in our favor because at the end of the day, we were dreamers, we were doers, and we were disruptors of the establishment authority of the status quo. It was an amazing experience. Although young at the time, I never had organized a march, never done a press conference before, all of a sudden, we were besieged by so many cameras, so many reporters, not just from Los Angeles but from all over the country, from all over the world, from Europe and from Mexico and elsewhere.
It was an incredible experience that we absorbed every moment, every waking moment, and it was powerful. It was something that we just, by second nature intuitively, knew what to do and how to do it. It was the moment, that moment of tension, that moment of anxiety, that moment where the stakes were as high as they can get that luckily, we were able to perform and execute something that we never thought in our wildest dreams.
I think it was because it was from our hearts. It was from who we are as our core values as individuals that we weren't going to take a no for an answer from anybody and that we were going to organize and stand up to do what's right. When you stand up and you do what's right, whatever that cause may be, things are actually much easier than people expect.
No, no political aspirations at all whatsoever. I had never interned or was never a senate fellow, an assembly fellow, never worked for a politician. Never did a summer in Congress as an intern in Washington, DC. No political aspirations at all whatsoever. In fact, my friends and colleagues Juan José Gutiérrez, Fabian Núñez, Gil Cedillo, they had no political aspirations themselves either to aspire to hold a political office in the near future. We weren't cut that way. We were organizing, we were happy, we were sleeping on the floors. We had no money to pay rent, so would sleep in the office, taking cold showers because we didn't have hot water.
It was one of the greatest times of my life, I can say. It was an earth-shattering experience for me. This moment was my political awakening. For many folks, it was the Vietnam War for a baby boomer generation. For other folks, it was Watergate and Nixon and the impeachment process. For folks before the baby boomer generation, it was the civil rights movement or it was World War II. My political awakening was Proposition 187 and that's where my mind expanded.
I saw so many grotesque injustices happening so overtly, so obviously that that's when, for the very first time, I thought, "Well, maybe one of us has run for political office." I wasn't necessarily thinking about myself, but I was thinking well, maybe Fabian Núñez or Juan José Gutiérrez or someone else, whoever they may be, someone has to run for office and hold a position of political power, and use that political capital for the betterment of the human condition, for all individuals, regardless of who you are and regardless of where you come from, regardless of the hue of your skin, regardless of who you love, regardless of which God you pray to, regardless of your legal status. That we're all human beings that deserve dignity and respect. We want to move policies that improve the human condition for all individuals.
That was the first time we started thinking, "Well, someone has to run for office." Before that, before 187, settle, nada, never thought about it at all, period. Let me be clear, before Proposition 187, before the tensions in the community, before the vilification of our immigrant community, I never had one political aspiration to hold any type of political office at the federal state or local level. I wasn't cut that way. It was 187 that just changed everything.
Well, as we were organizing and preparing for the march, it was clear that there was uneasiness with the political establishment. We were invited, we were asked to go to the State Capitol to Sacramento to meet with one of the most powerful individuals in politics at the time, it was the speaker of the assembly, Willie Brown. Then assemblymember Richard Polanco had facilitated this request from the speaker that we'd be summoned, if you will, up to the State Capitol to meet with him. It was clear that the speaker, Willie Brown, and his political operation and some of his political colleagues were not happy with us organizing this march, in fact, told us in no uncertain terms to not move forward with this march because the march could have an impact on the elections, and that we were not to do this march, and so many words.
That had an impact, without a doubt. As the old adage goes, ignorance is bliss. What was amazing about that moment in time is, we're very respectful and listening to the speaker as well as his colleagues. It was clear to us when we left the State Capitol, and we got back on the plane, and flew back home to Southern California, that there was no way in hell, that we were not going to move forward and continue to organize this march.
There were many Democratic politicians who had requested privately that we not move forward with this march. In fact, when you're summoned by, was arguably the most powerful politician in the state at the time, Willie Brown, the Speaker, you do have to take notice. There's no question about it. You do have to listen. Ignorance is bliss, as the old adage goes because we were young, and we were naive, and we were idealistic, and thank God, we were all of that. If we were not, we will probably had walked away from the march.
I still say today, that with the victory 187, that march was the greatest thing in 1994. I remember walking into the State Capitol, and it is a beautiful majestic building. It's awe-inspiring. It is powerful. It is huge. Walking in the halls of political power, at the time, was an awesome experience without question. There was a feeling of anxiety and intimidation, no doubt about it. We were a bunch of ragtag organizers and community activists, showing up in Levi's 501 jeans, black shoes, and white socks. Everyone was dressed very nicely. Obviously, Speaker Willie Brown in his Brioni Italian suits, impeccable and flawless as always. It was intimidating. It was awe-inspiring all at the same time that we are in the halls of political power in the state of California, and we're being summoned, if you will, by some of the most powerful political figures in the state. The message again, was very clear, "Don't move forward with this march, because this march will actually hurt us." It was instructive because it was through the lens of political elections.
When we were organizing a march, for us, it wasn't about political elections, because we always felt instinctively that 187 was going to pass, come hell or high water, it was going to pass. For us, this was starting and igniting a movement that would go beyond Election Day. This would be a movement about organizing. This will be moving about taking the millions of legal permanent residents and converting them into naturalized US citizens, and eventually voters, and eventually high propensity voters.
This was beyond the short-term, immediate effects of an election. This was a movement. I think that's where a lot of the political establishment got confused and quite frankly, got wrong. They were looking for short-term gains. For us, it was about a movement that went beyond the Election Day. It was about our lives. It was about our own dignity. It was about our own self-respect and ultimately, about political power, and who would lead the state of California and move policies that benefit all individuals, not just some individuals.
Well, the march is over and Proposition 187 wins at the ballot box, and it wins overwhelmingly. Obviously, that was a huge blow, even though we knew it was going to pass, still, nonetheless, it was a huge blow. I remember we were falling in the LA Times, the hearings at the federal court, in downtown Los Angeles. This is beyond our scope, at that time, a college dropout, Fabian Núñez also too a college dropout. We had heard that there was going to be a final hearing, there would be a decision by the US federal judge at the US Federal Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. Fabian and I decided to just let's just go show up and see what's going on. Let's be part of the scrum and be part of this, whatever is going to happen.
I remember we had walked into the courthouse, and obviously, we couldn't get inside the courthouse, it was already full, so we just stood around outside the door. It was early evening, it was about five o'clock, and it was already getting dark. I remember that the door opened up ever slightly and someone had come out and said, "The judge has made a decision, and almost every single provision minus one is being ruled unconstitutional, therefore stricken from the laws of the books in California."
With that little information, Fabian and I were overwhelmed with joy and we ran outside quickly to the steps of the courthouse. Outside the steps of the courthouse, there was a number of cameras out there and there was a microphone stand, there were so many microphones there. We couldn't even count them on both hands or using both of our hands, Fabian’s and mine, there were so many microphones.
I remember Fabian saying, "Go up there and tell them what the verdict is." I said, "I don't think these microphones are for us." He said, "No, you go." I said, "No, you go up there." Then we kept cajoling and pushing each other. I don't know how it happened, but he pushed me a little extra hard, if you will, that I stumbled, and I walked right into the microphones. You had all the cameras. Then as soon as I walked up, the cameras lit up. I said, "A verdict has been made by the US federal judge. I'm happy to declare victory that the vast majority of the provisions of Proposition 187 had been ruled unconstitutional in the state of California, therefore, violating federal US laws."
When I'm saying this, I look towards my right and out come the whole cadre of lawyers representing all of us against 187. There was one of our great legal leaders, not just in California, but in the country, Antonio Hernández. Antonio was giving me this look like [foreign language]. All the lawyers with their suits and their briefcases and there was Fabian and I just looking like organizers and activists at the time, and I put my head down and I crawled out slowly and let the professionals take over, the legal professionals. It was the legal world, it was the community organizing world coming together in odd ways, if you will.
October 16th, 1994. I remember waking up in the morning and the sense of uneasiness, the sense of nervousness, the sense of oh my God, what did we just do? We'd been out there publicly organizing, and organizing, and organizing, press conference after press conference, after press conference, going out to community-based organizations, going out to luxurious hotels to speak with the workers during their lunch breaks, just going everywhere. Our faces are all over television. Our quotes are in the newspapers to try to organize a mass of individuals to come to Cinco Puntos, right in Boyle Heights, the meeting place, where we would all gather collectively and start our march.
I remember getting to Cinco Puntos early in the morning and there wasn't a lot of people. There wasn't a lot of people at all. My heart started beating fast because we were making these huge pronouncements of 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 80,000, 90,000. If you were to ask me how we came to that conclusion that we believe that number of individuals would actually appear and march and walk, I'd be lying to you if we had a scientific diagnostic instrument that told us exactly that number. We just pulled it out of a hat. We had no clue at all whatsoever. We were just hoping and praying and crossing our fingers that we would have tens of thousands of people there.
I can tell you this, early in the morning, there was maybe 500 people there. Then about maybe 1,000, there may be a couple thousand, but a couple of thousand is a long way from 100,000. We needed about maybe 90,000 more people to show up. Even though it was starting to grow little by little, it still wasn't clearly there. We had to make a decision. Do we move forward with the march, in a sense, do we start marching forward together in unison, or do we wait and wait and wait, and if we wait more, will they actually show up?
There was a critical mass and it was so difficult to gauge and get an idea of how many folks were present in that perimeter of Cinco Puntos right in the heart of Boyle Heights bordering with East LA. We made that decision, it's time to march, it's time to move forward. We started on what was then Brooklyn Avenue, what is today Cesar Chavez Avenue. As we marched down Brooklyn Avenue adjacent to Evergreen Cemetery, to the left of us as we're marching to the West on Cesar Chavez Boulevard, Brooklyn Avenue, at the time, you could see little by little the masses of people just stretching out, stretching out, stretching out.
As we got to a mid-point on Cesar Chavez, I remember turning around. When I turned around, there was an incline. As I turned around, my eyes just widened and my jaw just dropped. I saw what was maybe 60,000, 70,000, 80,000 people. It was stunning. It was awe-inspiring. It was shocking. The people responded. The people came. For all the politicians who were against 187 but who cautioned us not to move forward with this march, this was validation that we did the right thing, that the people who felt politically impotent, who felt that they didn't have a voice at the ballot box, and who felt that their politicians were not representing them either, they themselves were out there marching with their children, with their children's children, with their brothers and sisters, with their family members, with the members of their own congregation, with their coworkers.
It gave them a sense of dignity. It uplifted their spirits that we have a voice, that we demand dignity and respect, that we're human beings, that we're contributors to the economy, the biggest economy in the United States of America, that we deserve to be treated as human beings. To me, it just all came in a crescendo. It all came together. It validated in every fiber in my body that yes, we did the right thing and we continued to march.
I remember when I was marching, we had Juan José Gutiérrez, the executive director of One Stop Immigration, Fabian Núñez, the father from the Catholic church, Pedro [unintelligible 00:35:06] who's from Spain originally, who was in all of our meetings to help organize this march. He was there somebody. Assemblymember Richard Polanco, he was one of the very few democratically elected politicians who had the courage to actually be out there publicly during the course of this march. He was there. Our former assemblymember, councilmember at the time, Richard Alatorre. Richard was so instrumental because he got all the permits from the LAPD, and the Fire Department, and all the city permits that were required to shut down all those streets. If it wasn't for Richard Alatorre we would never have been able to organize this march. He was a council member at the time. You had so many other community organizations and participants. You had Marilena Durazzo representing Labor, and Christina Vasquez who represented the garment workers, to all the women who work in those sweatshops making clothes every single day. You had rabbis and pastors all coming together. It was an incredible, powerful site.
Well, we finally culminated the march going down Cesar Chavez, down to Placita Olvera and we made a left turn. When we made that left turn, we arrived to Spring Street and we were right between what was the former Los Angeles Times building, where the stage was set up right in front and City Hall. When we got on the stage, it was a sight I had never seen before. It's a site that I've seen on television, and in other documentaries and in movements, in Washington DC, in these mass marches, but to participate, to help lead and organize what was the largest march in the history of California at the time, and to see this mass, the sea of people was a stunning, stunning visual.
When we were on stage, we were on cloud nine. The very fact that it was so surreal, that we were participating in such a historic, momentous occasion during a very difficult, painful, a period in our state's history, in our country's history, and to actually be one of the participants was very surreal, to say the least. I remember we had a group of mariachis on the stage. What was so powerful is that, symbolically, you had the mariachis, [unintelligible 00:38:05] mariachi and they did the National Anthem.
That was very powerful to give respect to the country that we were in, the country that we were a part of, our country, the United States of America, and to have a group of mariachis on that stage playing their instruments and playing the National Anthem, that was an amazing sight to see and to hear them. We all stood there and it was incredible. A little chaotic on the stage, to say the least, no doubt about it, but we weren't professional march organizers. We weren't skilled at huge productions, concert productions, and huge rallies in Washington, DC or elsewhere. This was just us.
It was amazing to be on that stage, to see the sea of people. On the left corner, you could see all of the LAPD in riot gear, just right around the corner, with their helmets, with their batons, ready to go in a moment's notice. The fact that there was some chaotic disruptive moments, but interestingly, they were hidden around the corner and they never actually caused any problems at all whatsoever. In fact, I have to give them a lot of credit. They were very professional and there was no scene at all whatsoever, but to see the mass of people, the sea of people, mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, members of our labor unions, community-based organizations, Korean-American organizations, Chinese-American organizations, African-American organizations, rabbis and congregants from synagogues, just to see all of this. Of course, the majority, other folks were hard-working men and women, Latino immigrants who used this march as a vehicle to allow themselves to [foreign language], to express themselves to say, "I'm a human being and I deserve dignity." It was very powerful."
Well, we were showered with a barrage of criticism. The amazing thing about it is it just bounced off us. I know, it bounced off me, because this was powerful. This was a movement. To organize 150,000 people who participated in this historic momentous occasion was beyond powerful. When we were hit with a barrage of criticisms that we should never have done it, we were like, "[foreign language]? What's wrong with you?" This is the largest march in the history of California. This is a march for dignity. During a very difficult time in our state's history, we did absolutely the right thing. When the criticism, again, rained on us, it bounced off us. We were just like, "Whatever." This was beyond the immediate expediency of an election. This was about dignity. This was a movement.
Well, we did anticipate so many Mexican flags at all whatsoever. Had we know that so many flags were going to show up and perhaps that would have been symbolically the wrong message to send out, maybe we could have been better organized. There's no question about that. We'll accept that criticism constructively, but we were young, we were idealistic, we were naive, and we were full of promise, and we were excited, and this was a surreal moment.
I say this to the critics, the presence of those flags didn't help Prop 187 pass. Prop 187 was going to pass with or without those flags. Prop 187 was going to pass if every individual who marched had a US flag. The criticisms would have been showered on us with or without a march, period. There was a lot of people angry, there's no question about it, but they were angry because they were angry about how could we have the nerve to organize ourselves and our community, "Who do you think you are? Know your place." That's what people were angry about because with or without a march, the criticism would have been showered on us anyways. With US flags, we would have been criticized. This measure was going to pass, period.
A lot of the critics who were against 187, what they failed to realize and see that this had to go beyond Election Day. This was about organizing a community for political strength, for the future. For those who were pro 187 advocates, obviously, 187 passed because they preyed on the fears of so many voters and they misguided them with a rhetoric that was deeply racial and deeply visceral because many of them were, themselves, victims of this economic recession. To those who were strong proponents of 187, well, obviously, they want to do everything within their power to make sure that these individuals would never have any power at all whatsoever.
We're not talking about power, for power's sake, or power to dominate one group over another, we're talking about power to have a voice that says, "I want health care." That says, "I want more funding for education." That says, "I want more parks and open space." That says, "I want to be able to breathe clean air into my lungs every single day." The power to improve the quality of your life. That's simple, not that complex. The power to improve the quality of the lives of your own children and give them every opportunity to succeed. My children don't have to be a housekeeper or my children don't have to be a gardener. There's nothing wrong with those jobs. In those jobs, there's dignity because it's hard work, but I know that those individuals who work their fingers to the bone don't want their children to do the same work. They want their children to go on to the University of California, a Cal State University School, a community college, a Stanford, a USC, a Caltech, a UCLA, that's what they want for their children.
That's what it was about, the power to have that opportunity to choose for yourself the life that you want to live. I think that's what they got wrong completely because they racialized through the prism of, "We're going to lose power if they gain power." You don't take power from someone and use it against them. You want to gain power to improve the quality of lives of all individuals, again, regardless of who you are. For those who are anti 187 who are critics of the march, and there were a lot of them, a lot of local politicians, county board supervisors, and elsewhere. What they didn't get is they didn't understand the essence and the soul, [foreign language] of the people who were marching and they needed this march, this vehicle to be able to vent out to be able to say, again, "[foreign language]." That's what they missed.
Oh, no, there's no doubt about it. I think it was really important that we coalesce with all individuals, with all communities, whether you're Korean American, whether you're Bangladeshi, whether you're a Sikh, whether you're a Hindu or a Chinese-American, African-American, it was important that we all coalesce together, Jewish-Americans come together as one because I've always believed if a group were ever attacked, if Irish-Americans were ever attacked, if you had a name like Seamus, O'Shaughnessy, or Murphy, and you are attacked, or Connell, I could not say to myself, "Well, they're Irish or they're Irish-Americans, they're not attacking me. Therefore, that's not my beef, I'm not going to get involved. That's their problem." That would be morally cowardly on my part.
If I believe in human dignity for all individuals, then I have to stand up and say, "I'm going to stand up and walk with them in solidarity and be with them." That's why with 187 even though it felt like the majority of those who were being attacked, there was a proxy metaphorical war, if you will, against people of color, specifically, Latinos and I know they try to bifurcate, if you will, not the legal Latinos, but the "illegal Latinos".
Well, if you're coming from a family that has undocumented immigrants and there's legal permanent residents and some US citizens, you're also mixed together so it impacts us all as a family as a community. Our community is diverse. It's a rich mosaic. It's a beautiful tapestry of so many different ethnicities. Los Angeles is the most diverse city, not in the United States of America, but on planet Earth. That's why it was absolutely critical that we coalesced with the rich history of African-Americans and with the Chinese-Americans and with Korean-Americans, and all the other ethnicities that we have.
The district that I represented, for example, in the State Senate, Thai Town, Korea Town, Little Armenia, Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Little Bangladeshi, the largest population of Mexicans outside of the Republic of Mexico, Boyle Heights, and Easter Lane, the largest number of Central Americans El Salvador Guatemala, MacArthur Park, Pico-Union area, and also the largest number of hipsters in the United States or perhaps outside of Brooklyn, in Echo Park, but the point is, is that we can't do it alone. We have to march arm and arm together, be in solidarity with each other. That's why it was absolutely critical that during Proposition 187, that we also engage other communities because we need to come together and we did come together.
I had the honor of working with incredible leaders, such as Stewart Kwoh who represents the Asia Pacific Islander Coalition, and working with him was incredible because 187 would have impacted also too not just Latinos, let's be very clear about this, but 187 would have also had a huge impact on undocumented Chinese-Americans, undocumented Korean-Americans, and working with Stewart was incredible.
You had very young activists out there like Anita Wells, a young, dynamic, powerful African-American woman who today is an incredible leader, a union leader. At the time, you had this 19-year-old African-American woman who was out there front and center, out there advocating and voicing because she knows that African-Americans have felt the sharp tip of that spear, the brunt of the injustices in this country. She wanted to be out there in solidarity. Plus we had so many of our own brothers and sisters from Haiti, from the Dominican Republic, and from other Caribbean nations who would have been impacted by this as well.
As well as if you're from Kenya, if you're from Ethiopia, if you're from Nigeria, if you're from Ghana, Sierra Leone, all African nations, if you were undocumented or if you came to this country to a port of entry, LAX or John Kennedy Airport or elsewhere, and you overstayed that student visa or you overstayed that tourist visa, guess what, you're undocumented, and you are impacted by 187 if you live in California. That's why it was really important that we all come together because it had an impact, not just on Latinos, it had an impact on everybody.
If Proposition 187 was not ruled unconstitutional by federal judge, I can say, clearly, without any equivocation, there would be bedlam, on the streets in California. That you would have so many prolonged protests and demonstrations. That you would have chaos in our streets because of this one initiative that vilified immigrants. You would have confusion, you would have anxiety, you would have panic, you have bedlam, you would have chaos, you would have anger, you would have disgust. It would be beyond a chaotic scene which would be not good, clearly, not just for our state, but for our country, the United States of America. All because a small group of individuals, headed up by then the governor of California, wanted to make sure that they won his re-election to be governor. That would be the end result, had 187 never been ruled unconstitutional.
Prior to the Proposition 187, I had never fathomed the thought that I'd ever become a politician, elected official. I eventually did run for office back in 2006. I ran for the California State Assembly and eventually became a state senator. I was elected to be the first leader, the first president of color, a Latino in more than 133 years to be the actual leader of the California State Senate. How ironic that Willie Brown was the speaker of the assembly and I became the president of the California State Senate.
One of my first acts as President of the California State Senate was to remove all the records of Proposition 187 that were still on our state books, they were still codified. That came to surprise and to shock, even though the vast majority provisions were ruled unconstitutional. I moved the measure, a Senate bill, to actually strikeout every mention of Proposition 187 from our state codes. It was an incredible moment that being an activist, organizing with my colleagues, my friends, one of the largest marches at that time, the largest march, it's been surpassed in terms of the numbers of participants of other marches, but to be in the State Capitol, and this time, be the leader, the President of the California State Senate, and to actually move a bill that would strike out all the provisions of 187, I came full circle. It was a very powerful moment because even though those wordings didn't have any legal teeth behind it, they will still symbolically part of our state codes. That's why it was so important that we strike it. It was a surreal yet a very powerful moment for me. It was something that was very deeply personal. It was clearly one of the first acts that I needed to do to exercise the political capital that I had to do what we believe is right for California.
California is the greatest state in the greatest nation in the world. There's no question about it. We've gone through our trials and tribulations. This is a state that we value inclusivity and we value diversity. This is a state that we value who you are and where you come from. As long as you come home to California and you work hard and you want to be a Californian, that's who we want. We want you. We want you to prosper. We want you to grow and participate and be a full participating citizen of this great state, of this great nation. We have come a long way in California. We still have a way to go. There's no question about it, but we have come a long way because we have changed the political face of the state of California, [foreign language].
One of the big lessons clearly is that this was the beginning of the end of the Republican party in California. What I would say to Republicans at a national level, let's take a huge lesson from California. You may control all the political levers at the federal level, but in the long run, it becomes a hollow victory because you may be undoing your own political life if you continue with the anti-immigrant rhetoric, the anti-immigrant executive orders, the anti-immigrant legislation at a national level, also at a subnational level with the various states throughout the country. You may achieve a short term, Pyrrhic victory, but it's going to come at a huge cost, ultimately. Take a lesson from California because California is America before America is itself. When you value diversity and you value the essence of human beings, we as a nation, grow together.
It doesn't make a difference if you're Irish-American, Scottish-American, if you're German-American, Canadian-American, if you're Mexican-American, Chinese-American, we're all Americans. We're all human beings that deserve dignity and respect. Take that lesson from Proposition 187 and take that lesson from California because it is poetic justice that when you had three individuals who never thought about running for political office in their lives, never fathomed that thought.
Gil Cedillo, who became assemblymember, a state senator, and now a city councilmember of Los Angeles. Fabian Núñez, who became the Latino, Willie Brown, if you will, the Speaker of the California State Assembly, [unintelligible 00:57:21] yours truly, Kevin de Leon, who became the president and leader of the California State Senate, it was because of Proposition 27. It was because of Pete Wilson. For that, we thank him because without him, we would never have ascended to the political positions that we occupied and the policies that we moved forward to breathe clean air for health care for undocumented children to remove the vestiges of 187 from our books. It was because of 187, it was because of Pete Wilson. That's a huge lesson for America.
- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino
Find more firsthand accounts of the Prop 187 campaign here.
In late 2014, Kevin de León was California Senate Pro tempore elect when his bill SB 396 was enacted, removing all unconstitutional provisions of 1994's Proposition 187 from state laws.
It was almost 20 years to the date that the voter initiative had been passed by voters. De León, then an organizer and a teacher of English as a Second Language, U.S. History and Civics, had helped put together the resistance against it and a march that would become a watershed moment in Los Angeles and California history.
At that time, he was a college dropout from the University of California in Santa Barbara. Years later, in 2003, he graduated with honors at Pitzer College. Today, he is a lecturer at the UCLA Luskin Public Affairs and a Distinguished Fellow for Climate, Environmental Justice and Health, with the USC Schwarzenegger Institute.
Born in Los Angeles in 1966, de León is the son of a single, Guatemalan-born immigrant mother, Carmen Osorio, who supported the family working as a housekeeper, among other jobs. His father Andrés León, also from Guatemala, was largely absent from his life.
De León was raised in the Logan Heights neighborhood of San Diego and spent part of his youth in Tijuana, Baja California, where his stepfather's family lived.
He moved to Santa Barbara to attend college, but dropped out and stayed in that city, where he took a job with One Stop Immigration, a nonprofit organization where recent immigrants took classes to prepare for their citizenship exams.
This is where de León first heard about a voter initiative that targeted immigrants, which would later be called Prop 187. The anti-immigrant movement brought fear to the community, but those targeted could not vote, he remembers.
That's when he and other colleagues at the nonprofit (Fabián Núñez and Juan José Gutiérrez) started organizing a way to give those immigrants a public voice on the issue. "We had to march, talk to our family members, our co-workers and neighbors. We had to come together because this was about our dignity and self-respect.”
The march was held on October 17, 1994, and it was a success in bringing immigrants and their supporters to the streets. It was then the largest march ever to be held in Los Angeles but criticized by many, even inside the Democratic party, where it was believed to have helped pushed some to vote for the Proposition as many marchers were carrying Mexican flags.
But for de León and other organizers, the march was a success. He would go on to become a labor organizer for the California Teachers Association and to be the campaign manager for Fabian Núñez's campaign for California State Assembly in 2002.
In 2006, de León ran for assembly, defeating Christine Chavez, the granddaughter of labor leader Cesar E. Chavez. In 2010, he was elected to the California State Senate and became State Senate President pro-Tempore in 2014.
During his time in the California legislature, he pushed a progressive agenda and investments in infrastructure (parks and housing). In the Senate, he emphasized an environmental and pro-immigrant agenda.
For example, SB 350, signed into law in 2015, mandates that utilities in California purchase 33% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and 50% from renewable sources by 2030. He also pushed a quarter of the revenue in cap-and-trade to low-income communities and created a rebate initiative to make electric cars more accessible to working families.
When Donald Trump won in 2016, de León pressed for state money to provide legal assistance to immigrants facing deportation. In 2017, he sponsored SB54, the California Values Act, which prohibits state and local law enforcement agencies from using local resources to perform the federal government's job.
In 2018, de León ran for the U.S. Senate to unseat long-term Senator Dianne Feinstein. Although he was able to get a spot in a run-off, he did not win.
In March of 2020, de León was elected councilman of the Los Angeles 14th Council District but is expected to take the position in mid-October after the previous councilman José Huizar was arrested in a federal corruption case.
De León has one daughter, Lluvia Carrasco.
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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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