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Oral Histories: Civil Rights Leaders and Students Lay It On the Line

Rally against Prop 187 with American and Mexican flags waving | Still from "187"
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As part of "187:The Rise of the Latino Vote," we're publishing the oral histories of some of the movement's pivotal players and the people whose lives it affected. Every week, new interviews will be added, adding to this rich archive.

The campaign against Proposition 187 was a call to action for many people from all walks of life. For those with years of legal training, it was clear signal to use their training to support the immigrant community. For those still in classrooms, it was an awakening to the harsh realities of racial relations in the United States and a mandate to become more involved and active. Hear the stories of these civil rights leaders and students who were shaped by the campaign against Proposition 187. 

Learn more about this landmark moment in California history on "187: The Rise of the Latino Vote." Watch now.

Antonia Hernández

Antonia Hernández | Samanta Helou Hernandez for "187"
Antonia Hernández | Samanta Helou Hernandez for "187"

Antonia Hernández was the President and General Counsel at Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund when Proposition 187 came about in 1994. It was a small organization at the time, with a national budget of 7 million dollars. The organization also did not take government funds. She could not pay her staff attorneys much, and what she most admires to this day is the sacrifice and dedication of many of the best legal minds, mostly Latino but not all, who had worked in the MALDEF staff through the years. 

To litigate the issue, the MALDEF partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union ACLU and with a private law firm. But the pressure was always on Hernández's organization, as the representative of the Latino community, the one group that was especially targeted by the initiative. Listen to her full interview.

Thomas A. Saenz

Thomas A. Saenz | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"
Thomas A. Saenz | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"

In 1993, Antonia Hernández, who was then the President and General Counsel of MALDEF, knew that Saenz could take any high-powered job he wanted in the legal profession, but she decided to offer him a job anyway. “He is one of the most brilliant lawyers I have ever met, and he could have taken any job. At that time, all I could offer him was 30,000 dollars,” Antonia Hernández remembers today. “He said yes, and that was the beginning of the legal legend of Tom Saenz.” Listen to Saenz's story and see how his career was irrevocably shaped by Proposition 187.

Stewart Kwoh

Stewart Kwoh | Samanta Helou Hernandez for "187"
Stewart Kwoh | Samanta Helou Hernandez for "187"

Stewart Kwoh founded Asian Americans Advancing Justice in 1983 (formerly known as the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California), now the largest legal aid and civil rights organization serving the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in the United States. 

In 1994, when Proposition 187 came about, the organization teamed up and joined the lawsuit against the initiative, with their own set of attorneys working on the case. 

“We were very concerned about the scapegoating and the level of animosity towards immigrants that it came with it,” Kwoh says. “And we were forced to spring into action. And of course, we allied with the Latino community. But some were also concerned about the Asian community being fooled by some of the rhetoric.” Listen to his full interview.

Jorge Nicolás Leal

Jorge Nicolás Leal | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"
Jorge Nicolás Leal | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"

Jorge Leal was 17 years old and an immigrant from Mexico living in California when in the spring of 1994 he first heard of Proposition 187. 

“The person who talked about it was a white teacher who taught English at the high school. She was a fervent proponent of the proposition, and that caught many of us by surprise,” says Leal. “To myself and my group of peers who were all recent immigrants to L.A., we thought she should be siding with us because we were good students, at least we tried to.” Learn how young students experienced Proposition 187 and hear how music helped inspire him to take action.

Sandra Díaz

Sandra Diaz | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"
Sandra Diaz | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"

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

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

Top Image: Rally against Prop 187 with American and Mexican flags waving | Still from "187"

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