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Oral Histories: Educators and Journalists That Helped Make Sense of Prop 187 and Its Aftermath

Pages of La Opinion newspaper | 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.

Proposition 187 and its aftermath was a dizzying series of events that involved people from all sectors of society. We speak with educators and journalists who have studied the people and events involved. Through their lens, this pivotal time in California is understood more deeply. Here are the experts who helped us make sense of all. 

Learn more about this pivotal proposition "187: The Rise of the Latino Vote." Watch now.

Manuel Pastor

Manuel Pastor | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"
Manuel Pastor | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"

Dr. Manuel Pastor is Turpanjian Chair in Civil Society & Social Change, Distinguished Professor of Sociology (formerly in Geography) and American Studies and Ethnicity, Director, Program for Environmental and Regional Equity and Director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. He sees the nineties in California and the political tensions that showed up in several racially charged ballot initiatives as a reaction to rapid demographic change.

“It is no mistake that by 1999, the state had become majority people of color. And that was in transit through the 1990s. And it was that deep concern about a state changing demographically that really drove the underlying politics of that era,” says Pastor.

Moving forward in time to today, Pastor clearly says a similar dynamic at play in the larger United States.

“The United States seems to be passing through its own Prop 187 moment that is a sort of widespread attack on immigrants, but one that's actually deeply informed by fear of the demographic change that's occurring in the United States as a whole,” he explains. Listen to his full interview.

Fernando Guerra

Fernando Guerra | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"
Fernando Guerra | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"

Fernando 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.”

As a political scientist, 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. Listen to his full interview.

Pilar Marrero

Pilar Marrero | Samanta Helou Hernandez for "187"
Pilar Marrero | Samanta Helou Hernandez for "187"

Pilar Marrero was four years into her distinguished career at the top Spanish language newspaper in Los Angeles, La Opinión, when Proposition 187 landed on the California ballot in 1994.

At the time, Marrero was one of five to six reporters at La Opinión covering immigration and the impact of Proposition 187, the voter-passed “Save Our State” initiative that sought to ban undocumented immigrants from accessing state services, from public education to drivers licenses. In addition, Proposition 187 would require teachers and other state workers to report “suspected” undocumented immigrants to the INS, which effectively legalized racial profiling of Mexican and other Spanish-speaking immigrants in California.

Marrero understood then the unique role she played as a Spanish language journalist in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s covering immigration issues. “The Spanish language media were often the only ones who would show up to [Prop. 187] press conferences,” notes Marrero. She added that with mainstream media absent, by default, outlets like La Opinión were designated to tell the immigrant side of the story related to this nativist initiative.

The rise of Proposition 187, Pete Wilson’s campaign for California governor, and his Republican-backed victory that hinged on his embrace of the “wedge issue” of “illegal immigration” catalyzed La Opinión and other Spanish-language media to serve as a critical voice for news and information serving immigrant communities from Mexican and Latin America.

For Marrero, her job was to amplify immigrant stories and voices. Listen to her full interview.

Raphe Sonenshein

Raphael J. Sonenshein | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"
Raphael J. Sonenshein | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"

Raphe Sonenshein , who today is the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, explains the trajectory of California, its political parties and communities through one of their most turbulent times. He also explores what all of that means today. 

Sonenshein grew up in the Cold War era, where many people were afraid "that the Russians were coming” for the U.S. and its way of life and that they would unleash nuclear war.  But in 1994, California politicians turned that fear — right after the Cold War ended — and gave it a local flavor, he says.  A similar type of rhetoric showed up in the campaign for Proposition 187, especially a very famous ad by Gov. Pete Wilson, which showed people running across the border from Mexico and a voice saying “they keep coming.” Listen to his full interview.

Celia Lacayo

Celia Lacayo | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"
Celia Lacayo | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"

Celia Lacayo was born in El Salvador and came to the U.S. when she was three years old, growing up in the Bay Area. She received her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies from the University of California Berkeley. Her research interests include Race & Ethnicity, Immigration, political behavior and Media. She finished a postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA with the Institute of American Cultures in the Sociology Department and is now Associate Director of Community Engagement for the College of Letters and Science.

Lacayo, an adjunct professor at UCLA, shows the pro-187 “they keep coming” ad in her university class to illustrate how it all came about in California in 1994. The students learning of this today were not even born then, and she points to the "codes" used in that ad which, she believes persist to this day.

“I can definitely see many connections with Proposition 187 and what is happening today in our country,” she points out. "One way to think about it is that demographic change really spurred more and more whites to be fearful of Latinos and to vote on that fear. That's how we get Trump; he tapped into that fear.” Listen to her full interview.

Top Image: Pages of La Opinion newspaper | Still from "187"

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