Pilar Marrero | Samanta Helou Hernandez for "187"

Pilar Marrero: La Opinión Immigration Journalist at the Forefront of Prop. 187 Spanish-Language Media Coverage

Pilar Marrero: Hey, my name is Pilar Marrero and I'm a journalist. In the early '90s I was working for La Opinión which is the largest Spanish language newspaper in the US and it was at the time, very large newspaper. I was covering the Latino community and in particular I covered immigration and politics. In the early '90s that's what I was doing. Covering the day to day of the Latino community and a lot of the immigration issue because at the time it was one of our main issues for Spanish language media or Spanish language newspaper.

Ethnic media which is the term some experts use has always existed in the United States. It comes with immigrants. With the presence of immigrants from different countries you have the newspapers and eventually radio stations and television that tries to cater to that community. In the case of the Spanish language media La Opinión where I worked had existed, was basically founded after the Mexican revolution and a lot of Mexicans came to the United States. It was born in 1927 I believe but by the late 1980s and early 1990s the United States had seen a very large influx of Latin-American immigrants due to several reasons.

One of the reasons was a new immigration law that started in 1965 which changed the way immigration happened. Another reason was the fact that Latin-America specifically Mexico and central America were having a lot crisis, economic crisis, political crisis, wars and that displaced a lot of people. Spanish language media newspapers like La Opinión at the time there was the beginning of what was later Univision and later on came Telemundo and other networks. Started catering to that immigrant community to the Spanish speaker.

The role that we had was not only to provide the news but be a resource for people to learn how to live in the new country that they were in. In a way was educational role where they could learn how this country worked. How the political system worked, how the educational system work et cetera. That was my sense of what I was doing as a journalist. Me and my colleagues in La Opinión were not just catering to an exile community or an immigrant community but also helping them integrate into this society.

That's how we've felt about the work that we did at the time. Well, there's always been this issue where if you have a media that have a different language people question it somehow. It becomes suspect for some. In terms of La Opinión and other Spanish language media in the early '90s when things started getting a little tense and there were some race issues particularly in L.A. where La Opinión was and it still is. We had riots, we had the Rodney King Incident, the police brutality incident that became a worldwide news and it turned into a trial that then became riots.

Those riots really showed the racial divisions in the city and the economic and social divisions in the city. In the midst of all this the Latino community was growing and had grown all through the '80s and the early '90s you could say that that growth was already calm down. The immigration wasn't as heavy as it was during the '80s but you could see now the change that L.A. and other places was going through in general in California. Southern California in particular but also other parts of the State.

That presence that changed the science in Spanish and the television and the fact that you had newspaper in Spanish, some people were uncomfortable with that. Part of the reason 187 came about was because there was some people in Orange County which was a traditionally conservative wide area of California that started seeing all this Spanish being spoken. There's an anecdote about this woman called Barbara Coe who is one of the founders of a group that ended up creating Proposition 187.

She was just a resident, just a lady from Orange County who as she told the story one day she came in as social service office. I don't which office in particular but she came into one of these offices and she saw a lot of people speaking different languages. She saw a number of people just attending or tending to these people in different languages, in Spanish, and Vietnamese. She didn't see that many Americans been helped. The conclusion she got was that Americans were not getting help because all these immigrants who spoke other languages were being helped.

This is what she would tell when people would ask her why she came together with all the people in Orange County to create this anti-immigrant group. You can imagine how that resonated with other people who were uncomfortable about the demographics change in California. Then when you had the recession hit in the early '90s then for them it was pretty clear that the recession had to do with immigrants. The rest is history, we know that immigration is a political issue, it's a hot potato and it's been used all through the history of the United States, to benefit certain politicians that use it as a tool to get elected.

This is what happened in 1994, a very curious thing about one of the moments when this group came together. This group with this lady Barbara Coe this other man called Bill King who was a former Immigration and Naturalization Service agent. At the time that was the name of what today is known as INS, Immigration and Naturalization Service. There was this man called Harold Ezell who had been regional manager of INS here in Southern California and this other man called Allan Nelson who was the commissioner of the INS also in the '80s and a few other people. There were some political consultants et cetera that later joined the group.

At the beginning it was just this small group and a guy called Ron Prince who had a very interesting story. All of these people had their own story about why they felt immigrants were bad. How they personally felt affected by immigrants. Ron Prince was this guy who was just a business man. I think in Tustin or somewhere in Orange County and he told the story that he had a business with this Canadian "illegal immigrant" who had defrauded him and he would go around saying these illegal immigrants they go around defrauding you.

It turned out the guy was not an illegal immigrant he was a legal immigrant from Canada, he had some business with him and it turned out that they split and they had some issues but the guy took this personal story and turned it into this hate against immigrants. Same with Barbara Coe who visited this social services office and heard all of these languages et cetera and on and on. The other guys the guys that came from the federal government Allan Nelson and Harold Ezell they were tied to an organization called FAIR, which still exists. It's called the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

They proposed very radical anti-immigration ideas and they have been around for several decades. They have been tied to a man called John Tanton who had documented racist ideas about non whites and has been termed by some organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. These guys were also into the mix. There was a mixture of just regular citizens feeling weird about the diversity around them. Some people who came from the outside, who came from this group that had ulterior motives about promoting these ideas so they decided they were going to have an initiative. In California, you can just gather signatures and put a law on the ballot and people will vote for it. This is something that doesn't exist in other states, but in California, it's one of the things that make California interesting.

They started gathering signatures and they weren't very successful, initially. It seemed that they were not going to make it, but at the time, Pete Wilson, who was the governor, he was running for re-election. He was not the most liked guy within the Republican Party because he had raised taxes and he was also pro-choice. He was such a moderate Republican.

I think his approval rating inside the Republican Party, was at some point 15% and his approval rating in general at that time of his campaign for reelection was not very good. He wasn't going to make it.

There was another candidate Democrat, Kathleen Brown, who was ahead. The political consultants were desperate to find something that would help Pete Wilson be reelected. When they caught wind of this initiative that was going around, they decided to pour money and resources into gathering the signatures. Then they were the ones that actually made 187 qualify for the ballot. One of the interesting things about this group that started gathering in Orange County around they're common, I don't know if I should call it, hate, but it's probably what it is, or they felt uncomfortable with the demographic change.

They felt like immigrants were to blame for some things. They gathered and this was documented in the media. I remember doing research at the time and seeing this report and thinking it was very absurd because they gathered at a Mexican restaurant. These guys like Barabara Coe, Ron Prince, Bill King, Allan Nelson, Harold Ezell. The people that produced Proposition 187, the proposition that wanted to take away education, healthcare, and social services and turn every social service person in California into an immigration agent. They gathered at a Mexican restaurant and eating Mexican food, which is I think the most ironic thing.

One of the most ironic things in this story. They ended up forming this group called SOS, Save Our State. SOS, the international symbol, or as the international word for emergency, save us.They actually wrote the proposition and gathered the signatures to put it on the ballot with the help of Pete Wilson and the Republican Party, which later gave them money to supplement what they couldn't do. The irony of this anecdote is that the group of people from Orange County, the activists that came together to write Proposition 187, gathered at a Mexican restaurant, eating Mexican food.

This proposition that would deny education and healthcare and social services to undocumented immigrants in California. This proposition that would turn every person that dealt with social services, every public servant in California, that dealt with social services, even nurses and teachers into immigration agents. These people went to a Mexican restaurant and gathered there to talk about what they were going to do to get rid of these people that were bothering them. These people that they felt uncomfortable around, these languages that bothered their ears and that they didn't want around them in their suburbs and their cities.

That was a very ironic anecdote. That was widely reported at the time. I thought it was pretty interesting. Proposition 187, even though it was pushed by the Republican Party of California and the gubernatorial County or the governor seeking reelection at the time, Pete Wilson, it was not unanimously supported by Republicans. On the one hand, some Republicans in other states like George W. Bush-- George W. Bush was governor of Texas at the time, he opposed it. Jeb Bush in Florida, he opposed it. Two national figures of the Republican Party who had been in the cabinets of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, George Bush's, father came out opposing it.

They said, "First of all, this is not a conservative solution to the issue of immigration, because this would turn public servants into big brother." This is not conservative. Conservatism is supposed to be against the intervention of the government in your life, right, in people's lives, supposed to want to government to be as small as possible and not really have a big role. Well, here were these Republicans in California trying to turn the California public servants into a big brother, essentially. They also said, "This is kind of a march that's going to light, and it's going to eat. It's going to corrode the soul of the party. Everything's going to be about immigration from now on. This is not the solution to the issue."

They warned Pete Wilson and the Republican Party of California from using 187 as the political issue that they, used in the reelection campaign of the governor and they were right. That's exactly what happened. They came out and they were courageous in doing it. They were very criticized, inside others in the party for it. They were protested against. They were called names by some activists in the Republican Party.

The truth is that the Republican Party of California suffered the consequences in the long term because this is the proposition that pushed Latinos, pushed many Latinos to register to vote, pushed many to become naturalized citizens, and that eventually only two years later, they lost the majority of the assembly. The legislature, the assembly is the lower house of the legislature of California. They lost the majority for the last time and they have never regained it. Ever since that happened, the Republican Party has just gone down in California to the point that is a minority, even below what we have here, we have, you can register as a voter, as a declined to the state voter, meaning you don't have a party.

You didn't choose a party. Well, not choosing a party has more voters than the Republican Party's in California. It really hurt themselves. They really hurt themselves with this proposition. In part, this is what Jack Camp and William Bennett wanted to prevent, warned them about this is not going to be good for the country. This is not going to be good for the Republican Party and they were right. To really understand how they show immigration has changed over time and, in particular, how Republican politicians have addressed the issue differently in the past, you have to go into the memory of this debate that happened, and it's on YouTube.

You can look it up. It set a debate in 1980, between-- This was a primary, Republican primary between Ronald Reagan and who was running for the Republican nomination and George H. W. Bush, who was also running and later became his vice president. They had a debate on television, and they were asked about the issue of immigration and allowing services like education for undocumented immigrants because at the time there was a law that was passed in Texas to charge people to send their kids to school if they didn't have papers, which became the big case, ended up going to the Supreme court.

Plyler versus DOE and established the fact that it doesn't matter if you're documented or not, you have a right to public basic education. The reactions and the responses from Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush was very telling because they were both critical of the idea of keeping undocumented immigrants from being educated and also of criminalizing the work of undocumented immigrants. Ronald Reagan was very opposed to the idea that people would live in the shadows and that they could be abused by employers. He also was opposed to the idea that we should close our doors to people who were entrepreneurial or who wanted to come here and work. At the time yes Ronald Regan was a very conservative man and he was pushing all this, he was very concerned about Cuba and communism spreading into Latin-America and he was sending all this money to fight Korea all over into central America.

They were pushing coups in South America and all that happened at the same time Regan was opposed to keeping immigrants from education. Keeping immigrants from being able to work in the United States. He wanted to make these immigrants legal. George H. W. Bush also said during that debate look, these are good people. Some of my family is Mexican as you know his son Jeff is married to a Mexican.

He understood that this was a vilification that were beyond just being undocumented or not and they both came out against this idea which if you move forward to the '90s and even to today is not at all what the Republican Party has turned out to be in the long run. Coverage of this issue in the Spanish language media was very intense. There were at least four or five reporters. La Opinión had 10 reporters at the time which was a lot for us. We had at least five or six of them covering immigration everyday during this period.

There was a lot of discussion about what the consequences would be of denying education, denying healthcare to undocumented immigrants. Many of these families were not just undocumented they were mixed, they were kids who were undocumented, they were kids who were citizens and they were family members who were residents et cetera. This was going to affect not just undocumented immigrants but their family members who were not undocumented. The fear of being separated, the fear of having a nurse or a teacher report you because you appear to be undocumented was widely discussed in Spanish language media everyday. It was a big topic.

At the time English language media and in particular for example the local newspaper, the L.A. Times, they covered the issue but they didn't have that many Latinos in the newsroom. Believe it or not that makes a difference in how you cover an issue. If you don't have the diversity, if you don't have the point of view of someone who lives in that community and who actually can go in to that community and report what's going on there and if you don't have the Spanish speakers that can put their ear to the ground and hear what people are talking about in the market or in the streets or in the pages of La Opinión or in Univision or radio stations at the time, KWKW, one of those.

You would not know what was going on. I had the feeling that the courage in the mainstream media was a lot about us versus them.Immigration was covered from the outside and I remember, I don't know if it was in this time or maybe a little bit later when there were some other anti-immigrant laws being passed in congress that time magazine had a big front page article about "illegal immigration". They had the image of some immigrant worker and then they had a centerpiece story about the issue of illegal immigration as they call it.

I read through the story, it was probably 2,000 words or more 3,000 words. I didn't see any undocumented immigrant being interviewed, not one. I remember writing a column about it and saying, "Okay if you're going to write about this community and you're going to have all these outsiders and all these experts and all these politicians talking but you're not going to go into the community and talk to them, how is this representative piece of journalism?" This was happening in the main stream media a lot at the time and this is why I think many times when you had people react and you had people march out, the walkouts and schools and high schools.

The big marches that happened later even in the mid 2000s. We had the big marches, the big march against 187 and then you had other big marches, bigger marches in the 2005, 2006 period. People in the main stream were surprised when this happened because the main stream media did not have their ear to the ground and they were not understanding how these issues were affecting the community. Only two years after the passage of Proposition 187 there was a very bad election for Republicans in California. It was in 1996 November. In '94 they had won big.

They had won the governor's race and they had won the congress with [unintelligible 00:26:06]. This was during the first Clinton administration. In '96 a lot of new voters came out and many more Latinos voted in that election. The republicans lost the majority of the state assembly and it was pretty clear that this new voter was very much taking a stance against what had happened two years before. Political scientists were talking about it, people were talking about in the hall ways of the party and all of this. Pete Wilson started getting criticized by people saying, "Hey maybe this was not such a good idea, maybe this will be bad for the Republican Party. Maybe this loss that we have in '96 had to do with the fact that two years ago you did this."

There was a press conference on the day after the election and I showed up to cover the press conference by La Opinión et cetera. He started talking about what happened and so I raised my hand and I said governor don't you think that the fact that you pushed this initiative two years ago and this anti-immigration initiative has anything to do with the fact that now you've lost all these sits in the legislature and that the republican party got hit hard by the voters in the election yesterday.

He got really upset. He started pointing and saying the reason people think I'm an anti-immigrant is because they have been deceived by the media especially certain media that I am anti-immigrant. I'm not anti-immigrant, I'm anti-illegal immigration. I'm not against legal immigration and on and on. He was convinced that Latino voters were deceived by the media into thinking that he was anti-immigrant. It wasn't his proposition, it wasn't his they keep coming at it was the media.

The Latino media, and the Spanish language media in particular that was to blame. I actually came out of that press conference very happy. I was like, "Okay, maybe we did our job." We told our community about what this initiative is about. It's not about fixing a problem, it's about scapegoating a community. One of the problems that people who wanted to sign up immigrants particularly Mexican immigrants which were the majority of Latinos to naturalize was that people weren't very excited about naturalization in part because people thought they were going to return to Mexico eventually and they were also not able to keep both citizenships.

They could not keep Mexican citizenship, they would lose it if they became a citizen of the United States. There was an effort made to bring this message to the people, to the government in Mexico and to the candidates from Mexico who were actually crossing the border and coming North. There was no way to vote from overseas but these immigrants had a lot of influence in their families in Mexico because they would send a lot of money and they would be tied to their families. They could influence their vote in Mexico. These candidates started to cross the border and come here to [unintelligible 00:29:57] and to campaign and activists from here started approaching these candidates and say, look, if you really want Mexicans to have more of a voice, a political voice in the United States, you need to have doubles, you need to pass a law to have double citizenship. Then came also a fight to have people vote. You could vote from overseas. It was a long fight as well. This was one of the things that made more people eventually decide to naturalize because before they felt they were going to lose, not just their future in their country, but their ability to just go back to their country, to own property.

At the time you couldn't own property if you were a foreigner in Mexico. There were all these complications and just people, even if they lived here for 20 years, they wouldn't naturalize, they would be Mexican. I met people that naturalized after 30, 40 years of living here. They had these old Green Cards that-- At the time you didn't have to renew them every 10 years. You got a green card and until it disappeared, until it fell apart and you could keep your Green Card. They were very old Green Cards.

They were a resident for 30, 40 years without even thinking about becoming a citizen of the United States. But many of us who saw the anti-immigrant laws and things they were doing in the mid-90s felt and I personally was one of them, I was a legal resident in '94. I wasn't a citizen yet. I felt like I had to become a citizen as soon as I could.

Not just because I wanted to participate in the political system, but also because I felt it was a threat to be just a simple resident. You could be deported for committing not too bad a crime. You could, for example, get a DUI or something like that and get deported because that was the 1996 law.

I became a citizen in the year, 2000, feeling that not only I should participate and vote, but also I should protect myself and beware of not having enough legal protections, because things were changing fast in the law. I didn't want to be caught up in that. I know a lot of people who became a citizen for that reason. I would start by saying that 187 was the first stone, you cast the first stone. Yes, it went down to defeat in the courts in California, but it became an issue like Jack Camp and William Bennett, the Republicans that warned their own party about corroding the soul of the party and generating copycats all through the country.

That's what happened. After 187 passed and then was turned down and rejected by the courts. You had a effort to pass a federal law in 1996, two federal laws actually.

One was welfare reform, and the other was an immigration reform law. The welfare reform included language that differentiated between legal residents and citizens and restricted what kinds of services, public services essentially, legal residents could get as opposed to citizens. This was the first time this difference was made. Here we have the beginnings of the criminalization of the legal resident.

Not yet, we're not even talking about the undocumented. Then we had the other local IRA, which changed immigration law, radically and restricted, made it very complicated to legalize yourself and restricted the avenues that you had to do it. Over the years, the implementation of this 1996 law that was signed by Bill Clinton has been one of the reasons why it's become so draconian, a task to legalize yourself in this country. In a way, it has kept this undocumented population trapped without being able to like previous generations of immigrants, being able to legalize and regularize their status and become citizens and integrate fully into the society, et cetera.

These spread like wildfire, and over the years, you had all their copycats, you had a number of state laws that happened. You had a number of local ordinances that happened in cities and counties. These went on all through the new century, the beginning, the 2000s. It became even more difficult after 9-11, because then there was a focus on immigration as immigrants as a threat, even though the people that committed the terrorist acts were not undocumented immigrants, they were people who had visas and came to this country from Saudi Arabia and had nothing to do with the Mexican population that crossed the border or the Central Americans.

Those issues also came into the mix. Essentially for the last 25 years, we've been living in anti-immigrant era in the United States. The crown achievement of this anti-immigrant era is the presidency of Donald J. Trump.

- Written by: Melissa Hidalgo, Portrait by: Samanta Helou Hernandez

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

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.

"The role that we had [in Spanish language media] was not only to provide the news but to be a resource for people to learn how to live in the new country that they were in,” Marrero says.    

“Readers learned about how the political system worked, how the educational system worked, so as to help them integrate into the social system of the new country they’re in.”

The educational role of La Opinión distinguished it at the time from other Spanish language media sources in the U.S. that tended to focus more on entertainment and celebrity gossip.

Marrero’s career at La Opinión spanned for nearly thirty years. Marrero ended up covering immigration “by default,” as she puts it. Marrero arrived in Los Angeles in the late 1980s as a young journalism graduate from Venezuela. “I didn’t know there were so many Latin Americans in L.A.,” said Marrero. “It’s such a Latino city.”

Proposition 187 galvanized the state’s Latino and Latina politicians, labor unions, students, immigrants and scores of organizations whose aim was to get Latina/o, Asian American, African American, and other voters to the polls and defeat the racist initiative. Marrero was there to cover it all.

Marrero says her need to tell the immigrant story comes from her own family’s history. Her parents immigrated to Venezuela from Spain, refugees of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime. Marrero then immigrated to the United States. The immigrant story is hers.

Marrero admits that her experience as an immigrant in L.A. “was always a little weird.” She explains, “There are mostly Mexicans here, and I was a strange Latina because I was not from Mexico or Central America, and I was whitish and blondish. I landed here with a student visa that a former fiancé sponsored; I was not fleeing from war or a refugee. It's almost like I didn’t qualify.”

Still, as an immigrant from Venezuela, the journalist describes a deep “kinship” she feels with other immigrants in L.A., and particularly those from Latin America that ballot measures like Prop. 187 and later, Proposition 209, seemed design to target.

“I didn’t know I was Latina until I got here.”

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