Sandra Diaz | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"

Sandra Díaz: The Anti-187 Student Walkouts Were a Moment of Pride

Sandra Díaz: My name is Sandra Díaz, I'm political director and vice-president of SCIUUSWW and I have the honor of being a labor leader and representing janitors for mostly immigrant women, security officers for mostly African-American men and women, and workers at the airport. For me, it's been an honor to be able to grow as a labor leader and be able to fight for workers of color in California. Early 90s, I was growing up in a small city in San Diego named Escondido, and the city was comprised mostly of a white community and an emerging immigrant community, an emerging like Latino, Mexican community. In the 90s, I was in high school and going from junior high to high school and during that time I think I was becoming more increasingly aware of how segregated and polarized this neighborhood was.

I would say that I was coming from a space of an emerging immigrant community where my parents and everyone I knew around me and my family were all immigrants, Mexican immigrants who had cleaned houses, and then had the [foreign language]. Most of the people that I knew in the 80s didn't have documents and so including my parents. I came from realizing really young on that what a difference was when you were a citizen and when you were born here and when you were not. For me, it meant if I was a citizen, I didn't have to worry about the border patrol coming and picking me up and taking me and not being able to come back. I didn't have to worry about going to and from San Diego and Tijuana, but I did have to worry about will my parents be there when I get back home.

There was a sense of always looking where to hide. My sister and I, we would be waiting for the bus. We're going to say, Hey, look for somewhere where we can hide. We would look at the bushes. We would look at a wall and we say, okay, the border patrol comes while we're waiting for the bus with my mom, we're going to hide behind this bush. I was coming from a childhood where there was raids by border patrol around regular. Sometimes our parents were picked up and we have to stay behind.

When I grew up in the 90s, as I was an adolescent, it sink in a lot deeper that we weren't wanted here as a community. Even though it didn't matter if I was a born here or not there was a sentiment that we weren't wanted here and that we weren't welcomed. The racial slurs would happen all the time. I remember when I started going to school, my mom told me she was like [foreign language].

I didn't understand why she was telling me that until later and I think it was junior high and high school year that I began to understand that more. I would say in the 90s I was growing up in Escondido and being part of an immigrant community that was fighting to exist in a space where there was a huge rejection for our role and our makeup in that neighborhood. One of my very first memories I have was my mom was walking with my two sisters, one of them, she was a year old. I was going into four years old and my oldest sister was five and we were walking back from the local supermarket onto the apartments where we lived on. As we were walking, carrying the grocery bags, I remember that this truck pulls up, this vehicle came up, it wasn't a truck but this vehicle came up.

I didn't understand who that was at the time, but I knew that a man came out dressed in green and asked my mom for something she didn't have and grabbed her, and put the handcuffs on her and put her behind on the back of the vehicle. As that was happening, and I remember all the neighbors were coming out and they asked her before she went in the vehicle, do you want to take them with you or do you want to leave them? I remember her saying I need to leave them. We stayed with a neighbor and I saw them take my mom away. That was border patrol. What that did for me it brought up this sense of am I going to see my mom again and I was terrified that I wasn't.

It's one of those moments in my life that I haven't been able-- You don't forget those moments in their formative. They're formative because when I say that my older sister and I learned how to hide, that's what it was. We learned how to find places to hide so that wouldn't happen again. When we had subsequent raids in the movie theaters, subsequent raids at the swap meets, we learned how to run. We learn how to hide, and we learn how to try to be invisible so that my parents wouldn't get picked up. When I think about that I think about what's happening today and what's happening today with kids that are growing up being terrified. Will my parents come back or not? Back then, it was different. My mom eventually came back.

Then they picked her up again and they picked my dad up again and it just became a way like this constant fear as a kid that I had growing up. When I think about junior high and high school, it was largely segregated and so you had the white students on one end and the Latino students on somewhere else. Around the time of Prop 97, I was between eighth and ninth grade. When the campaign started, I would say that how that lived within the space that I was at was you would see, I guess what it's struggling is that it wasn't new. You would see people with Confederate flags driving into school. It's just a Confederate flags got bigger and you would hear racial slurs that I had heard as a kid.

That's what I said to my mom. When she sent you out to school when I was going to be in cardigan and kindergarten, she said, Hey, [foreign language] and I was like, I don't understand what that means, but she's like, just you'd be really proud of where you're at. Well, that was something that was ongoing. I think that what happened in the 90s, I wasn't just hearing it around me. I was hearing it on the TV and I was hearing it from many different spaces that I hadn't been before. It validated something that was already taking place. It was like, Oh, okay. I'm hearing it at school. I have been hearing it at school since I was a child, but now I'm also hearing it on TV. I'm hearing it on the news and it's much larger than just this neighborhood where I'm at.

I think that's what shifted in me. I realized that when you're a kid, you're only have a certain exposure. I had exposure on my neighborhood and the limitations that we had as immigrant communities there. I wasn't aware that that was systemic and that it was much larger than just there. I would say that as Latino students we were tract. We weren't particularly seen as you're going to be the ones that are going to go to college. We were not then like, no one was thinking, I'm going to put you in honors classes and AP classes, and you're going to succeed and go to college.

It was quite the opposite. I remember meeting with counselors my freshman year saying, okay, I want to be able to know what I need to do in these next four years to go to college. This is 1994 and she said, Oh, you're not going to go to college. Your family can't afford it, so just take the very basic classes. If you're lucky, you'll go to community college. I can't say that that was just my own experience. I think that's how they perceived us as a community that wasn't deserving or worth investing in going there.

Yes. I remember that I was in high school and we had already began to see, this was already close to the election. We had already begun to see that you had students that were walking out in other cities and you had this ballot measure that in essence, how I understood it at the time was a ballot measure that said, if you were immigrant, if you were Mexican, and if you were in California, you weren't welcome to go to school. You were welcome to go to the doctors and you were just not welcomed here at all.

All of those feelings that I had been holding on growing up and I think there were following up on me. When the walkout started, when we started hearing students are going to walk out, students are going to walk out. I remember my older sister, she was a sophomore, I was a freshman at the time. She was like, “Where are you walking out?”I'm like, “Okay, yes, we're walking out.”I actually remember that very morning, my mom dropped us off at school and all the kids are like “We're doing it today.” I'm like, “Okay, we're walking out today.” I go to the payphone and call my mom. She cleans houses, so I call it, and her boss answers. I say to them, I'm like, “I'm like mommy, [foreign language 00:10:24].” She said, “Okay.”

I'm like, “[foreign language 00:10:31].” She say, “Okay, [foreign language].” I was like, “Okay”. So then I’m like, “ I want to talk to my mom.” He said it was okay. I'm like, “Christ, I was like such a nerd.” I'm like, “Mom said it was okay.” So we joined the March and we all walked out. You just had all these Latino, Mexican kids walking out of high school. I had never experienced anything like that or seen anything like that. Growing up at least directly experiencing right in front of my eyes.

As we walked out, I see a group of hundreds of high school kids walking down the street from a high school that was like down several blocks. They are walking to meet us. Then you see a group of others, our students, junior high students walking out to meet us. Next thing you know, you had the whole street with every high school and every junior high kids coming out in their mostly kids of Mexican parents. I just remember that feeling of being out in the streets and seen a lot of kids like me that were just so proud.

I had always been proud of who I was, but collectively proud and not afraid and not looking for anywhere to hide. It was like, we're out here. We want to be seen. We want you to see this bottleneck fiery that we have inside of us. We also want you to see the dignity that we hold from being the parents of [foreign language], of the women that clean houses. Of being the parents of farmworkers, because that's whom my friends were, them being the kids of farmworkers.

To me, it was this day that I learned what collective action was, but also I realized that we could come together. That we could be very proud of who we were and that we could fight back. I think it was adrenaline and that pride. I've seen all these kids waving Mexican flags. I mean, I would have never imagined it. It put a seed in me of saying, “How do we do more of this?”

For me, it was like, “How do we have more people find the power that they have inside of them?” To me, it was like I was tapping into a power that I had inside of me that I didn't realize I had. We had all these kids walk out and luckily somebody knew where we were going. I certainly didn't know where we were going. I just was really, I was caught in the moment of walking out with so many of my friends and kids that looked like me and being very proud.

Then we ended up walking to City Hall. You had all these kids there and then you had their leaders and a lot of adults that showed up and that we're able to capture not only the sentiments that we were feeling as students but the sentiments that our parents were feeling, the sentiments that our entire community was feeling. We went to City Hall and we were there for the whole afternoon and the evening.

I think that for me, it was understanding also that it was new for me, but one, I'm happy that some folks, some of the youth organizers knew exactly what they were doing. Some of the organizers that they were working with also knew exactly where they were doing. They're preparing our next generation of warriors to take on these fights. That's what I take away from that. That's something that my parents joined in. They got out of work, my parents, and a lot of parents joined in.

My parents came and the parents and my friends also showed up in many ways, not just to pick us up, but to be part of the experience and to be part of the rally. In the middle of the day, you had a lot of students and shortly thereafter, you had a lot of the parents join in. By the early afternoon, you had a large congregation, it was quite beautiful. You had students junior high and high school students accompanied by their parents who were and still are the folks that clean the houses of these wealthy communities.

Who tend their lawns and who take care of their kids, but they were there. I think that for us, it was a moment of pride, but for them, it was also a moment of being seen. Just how I felt, I want to be seen. I can only imagine what that was for my mom that started cleaning houses at 14, and for my dad who started being a [unintelligible 00:15:10] at age 13 and having to be invisible for so long.

What that was for him taking collective action to saying, “I'm here and I'm going to be seen, and I'm going to fight.” No in school it was as if nothing was happening. There was a complete absence of dialogue by the teachers in terms of what was happening. It's like you had half of the school walkout and you'd come back the next day we were all suspended, got detention.

But there was no mention of the fact that you had had such a large portion of the school walkout. There was no mention of naming and recognizing that students were looking to being validated and heard. There was no space for that dialogue. It was just like nothing happened. For us, it had been transformative.

My cousins who live with me that I knew that [foreign language] because my parents cleaned houses and we're [unintelligible 00:22:53] we never went to the doctor. The big one for us was school. We never went to the doctor, we didn't have health insurance and we learned how to take care of ourselves by like [foreign language] and all this alternate form of medicine, because we didn't do that. There was also this sense of like, well, we didn't do that because we couldn't afford it. Then there's a difference when you can't do that because your community's not welcomed in those spaces. After Prop 97 passed, what changed immediately within my family was my mom decided to become a citizen. My mom and a couple of my aunts decided to become citizens.

For me, I've always seen the women in my family take that leadership. I think that my moms saw that responsibility if I could do something. One, I could become a citizen to make an impact, but I could also become a citizen because our future here is so uncertain. On the other side, that's like my family that didn't have [foreign language]. Some of them went back to Mexico. Some of them stayed and for the ones that stayed it was harder for them. It's like they became more marginalized and I could see the reality of both worlds. On one end, you have my mom that says I can become a citizen and I have responsibility to do so and our future so uncertain.

I wouldn't do that to secure us being here. On the other end, you had family members that to this day, don't [foreign language] and that have lived under the shadows for a long time now. For them immediately, I think what it was cementing. There was a lot of fear and I say that because when I talk to them now, the fear is even greater. I would say that when I look at who I am, the experience that I had with my mom when she got picked up by border patrol, and the rage that sparked for me to say, I want to change this reality. What really cemented it for me though was Prop 97, actually believing that I could.

I say that because it was a first time that I experienced what collective action was. It was a first time that I saw our community tap into power and tap into the power that we have inside of us and be able to come out and be proud collectively of who we were. When I think about who I am now and working in the labor movement and fighting for janitors and fighting for security officers and airport workers, I see that there was like this seed that was planted there. That was like, how do we have our communities tap into the power that we have inside of us to fight back? That's what I think that era did for me. Not only that commitment, but something inside of me made me realize that I have power.

I would say in California you could see the change in terms of having more people in elected office, having more folks in leadership. I think that the work that happened in the 90s, both Prop 97 and the organizing of janitors, the organizing of hotel workers, and this focus on Latino empowerment is why I'm able to be a labor leader today. I think that paved the way for younger generations. I also think that when I look at communities and how we measure out advancement, it's so, so hard to say that we've done huge strides and that we're anywhere from being close to being fully accepted as communities. When I look at more of us are going to college, but is it enough of us. In California I think we have a long way on having our youth and our Latino community have a real leaps on access to education, graduating from higher education.

I think we have a lot of work to do in the sense of our ability to impact long-term systemic change. I think that we opened the door, but now what do we do when we're in the space. I think what we do when we in this space is we have to fight to build power and to feel power collectively for our communities. I also know that when I speak to the janitors that we represent when I speak to workers, they don't feel like it's gotten better. We're hanging by a thread, not knowing if we're going to be able to have a roof over our head. I think that you have our communities under siege. You had Pete Wilson in California, but now you have Trump in the nation. I hear the kids that are terrified, just like I was when I was a kid and I saw my mom be taken away.

Only my mom came back and I know that the folks that are being away now are not coming back. I say that because I think that there's hope in the sense that folks fought to open doors. Now that the doors are open, how do we build power? I'm looking at what's our responsibility as labor leaders. What's our responsibility right now to be able to tap into the power that our community has. When I look at the janitor that's cleaning the buildings that nobody sees at night, could she believes that she has a power to not only be seen as a human being, and to be recognized for what she brings to the table in this country, but to thrive and for her family members and her kids to thrive in this country?

That's where I hope we're going towards. Could we have people believe that collective action and coming together in unity as immigrants, as Latinos, as central Americans, as Mexicans and coming together and saying, we don't just want to be seen. We don't just want to open the doors. We're fighting for our communities to thrive and that's where I hope we're building towards. Well, when I see the dreamers I see a lot of energy and vibrancy of young kids, high school students, college students that are saying, unapologetically, we're here. We're unafraid and we're going to fight beyond this moment and I, frankly, when I look at them, I see Wow.

I know that I came out, and I protested it and I saw and I began to discover power in me, they're coming to and they know they have power and that, to me, can only bring like, the excitement of what's to come. Even when I look at janitors, when I look at [unintelligible 00:30:36] when I look at women in the workforce, when I look at immigrants in the workforce, I also begin to see a lot of them seeing the same attitude, unapologetically, we're here and we're here to stay and not only do we want to have you recognize that we're here to stay but we're going to fight.

We know that these corporations are becoming wealthier, wealthier because of our the fruits of our labor. We're demanding our share of that pie and I say that because it brings a lot more hope. I think that we grow, I think that there's some portions of as I have learned the lessons of the 90s. We came out of the 90s and we did a lot of amazing work, we began to get Latinos to vote and we began to fight to be included in the discussions and what I see happening, or what I hope happens in a much larger way is not only wanting to have a seat at the table but demanding, like real systemic change. I do see young people having that anger, that energy, and that unapologetic approach of, we're here, we're here to stay, we're going to win, we're going to fight and we're going to thrive.

That gives me hope and I'm hoping that we can translate the energy of a dreamer, that energy of the janitors, the energy of [unintelligible 00:32:01] that are being bold in the frontlines to the rest of our communities and could we inspire and capture the imagination of folks that were like me in the 90s, that were so far removed from any movement building that discovered power in me? How do we bridge that gap in our communities and I think that the dreamers, I think that the labor movement and immigrant workers are doing that and now the challenge for us is how do we do that at large scale and how do we do that in a way that we bring` long term change for our communities and advancement? I'm afraid of that because we're at this moment right now, where sometimes it feels like we're losing because you have kids in cages.

We have concentration camps. It almost feels like we're fighting to just exist sometimes and I'm afraid that as communities, we will be too afraid or too demoralized to fight in demand for real long term change. Yes, it's incredibly exciting right now to look at. Here we are, we are going into 2020 and I believe we're going up against the fight for democracy, the fight for not only the fight for immigrants and people of color, and the fight for our values as a nation.

I also know that in California, we've done some good work on engaging Latinos and we want to make a national impact. How do we continue to strive and demand for more in California, but not forget that we have the whole country? I think that janitors and security officers say we need to flip Arizona, because Arizona went through 1070, Arizona is going through what we went through in the past. Arizona, Latinos are there and they're fighting and they've been fighting to get our Pio out and you have a movement, and you have people that are also fighting for long term change. Could we go to Arizona and could we help build that infrastructure that begins to also fight in demand for a change in that state and to me, that's really exciting because could we build alliances across states?

In code, we have our own agenda, just like people say, well, you have the Midwest, like, well, how about the Southwest? How about where you have a large, vibrant Latino community come together and begin to change the national narrative of who we are, and what we deserve as a community? I'm really excited and I hope that we can flip Arizona in 2020. I believe in the hard work that our community has been doing there for now more than 10 years. I think that 2020 is going to be it. Right now where we're at is you have, like I mentioned who we are, as a union, we represent a large Latino immigrant community and a large African American community. That's where members are. What that has done for us as a labor movement, we also have a growing API community in our airports.

What that has done is how do we bring communities together and say, do we want to build all together? The goal is, could we build an anti racist society, or could we build a society where we recognize that I think we're beginning to understand we have similar struggles but could we actually recognize the differences in our struggle and still have solidarity? Could we recognize the name as Latino communities? Could we be allies, understanding that black community has disproportionately been impacted by criminal justice system and when we talk about police violence and brutality, knowing that it's been disproportionately impacted and could we have Latinos fighting against incarceration numbers because we're quite frankly, not far behind them and could we begin to build those bridges amongst us we say?

Could we have the black community recognize that Latinos disproportionately are being targeted by this president as immigrants and could we build those alliances that translate to long-term change and it's not easy to do, but it's important? What I've seen happen is, with our members, saying let's focus on empowering our community to have a strong voice but politically, as we're focusing on Latinos to have strong voice politically, could we focus on doing work on the AAPI community, understanding that it's multiple language, multiple cultures, and be able to honor all of the differences between us to be able to build an agenda where you have people of color, frankly, coming together and saying the system hasn't worked for us, has impacted us in different ways, but it's not working for us.

The only way that we're going to win is going to be if we can come together. I see some of those spaces coming together now and I know that when we do political work in our local, we run multi lingual operations. We run operations that say we're going to empower, there's a concerted effort of how do we build a racial justice movement that encompasses all of us and how do we become an anti racist society where we are able to dismantle systemic racism? I know that sounds very lofty and big and long the road, and it may take us decades, if not generations to get there but we have to cement the seats now. I believe that with younger generations, it's already happening and how do we have that happen with generations of my parents, with generations that are in the workforce right now and I would say that, in California, we've been able to see the emergence of the emergence of those models.

The AAPI community, we've invested a lot of time and resources in leadership development to lift up the growing AAPI community in California and we've also been doing that with Latinos but we have to do a lot better of work in California to empower the African American vote, because our African American communities been displaced from California and the numbers are decreasing. If we're going to build a real true movement across solidarity in the how do we look at? We're building a California for all of us and that means that it's about equity and what do we need to do with our communities to be able to support one another to build that power?

Yes, the janitors' movement's deep in my heart when I landed in the labor movement, but I remember that I had been doing a lot of work in the immigrant rights movement, and a lot of work and human rights organizations and then growing up seeing what was happening in front of me, I always thought I was going to be a lawyer. I said, okay, I'm going to take a break from working on the human rights organization, I'm going to practice, take my LSATs and in the meantime, I'm going to work with the janitors union and I started working where I work now and within a month, the janitors went out on strike. Again, I've never seen something like that. The janitors went on strike and it was mostly immigrant women, Mexican immigrant women that came out of strike as well.

All these things. I could see them taking over lobbies of buildings, I could see them taking intersections, taking the streets with their drums demanding health care, demanding better wages, demanding to be able to live in dignity in this country. I was like, "Wow." It just reminded me of like, "Wow, if my mom had of this how would my life have been different?" I remember working in the human rights organizations and seeing our communities never have access to the doctor, never have access to health insurance or anything. I didn't have it growing up.

The fact that we were able to fight and win a pathway to get health care was for me like, "Wow, I want to be here. I want to be here because it's the first time I've seen us tangibly win something for us." It was a pathway for health care, it was wage increases and it was janitors saying, "We demand more but more than anything, we demand you to treat me with dignity and respect." I was like, "I want that." The laws aren't there. The laws right now in this legal system so I'd have made a decision that the laws right now I've been

banging my head trying to have the Department of Justice care that they're like that there's gross violations in our communities but here the janitors were building power.

It was the first time that I saw how collective power could lead to tangible victories because unfortunately, Prop 97 some of those collective power but for the immediate future, we didn't win but here we won and so I wanted more of that.

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

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

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.”

She had seen the images on TV, the ads about this ballot measure proposed by then-Governor Pete Wilson.

"I understood that if you were immigrant, if you were Mexican and in California, you weren't welcome to go to school or go to the doctors, and you were not just welcomed here at all,” Diaz remembers.

Something clicked by then in her, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, living in a white city but surrounded by Mexican immigrants who cleaned houses, were gardeners — many of whom were not documented.

She was a citizen, but her parents were not, and she remembers once seeing her mom being taken away by Border Patrol, the sheer terror of it all, but then coming back, not knowing when one of these encounters was going to happen again.

Diaz grew up worrying whether her parents would be home when she got there or that at any moment, the authorities would stop them on the street, as was common in the area then. She and her siblings learned to run and identify places they could hide if these men showed up so they could protect their parents.

"It didn't matter whether we were born here or not, the racial slurs were something that our parents warned us about even before we could understand them,” she recalls. “She would say, mija, si alguien viene y te dice cosas malas o te dicen “beaner” o “wetback” tu no les hagas caso.”

But when Prop 187 happened, and she was an adolescent, Diaz understood that this sentiment of not being accepted or wanted in their city and state happened beyond the confines of the neighborhood: it was a larger problem.

When she was in 8th and 9th grade, the 187 campaign was on. More and more, and bigger, confederate flags started showing up at school, and the walkouts started happening. She and others participated organically in them, but she realized there were some organizers that “knew exactly what they were doing.”

“They were preparing the next generation of warriors to take on these fights.”

Her parents, and the parents of other kids, also showed up after they left work. 

These are moments that she still remembers vividly. “It was quite beautiful,” she recalls, “You had students junior high and high school students accompanied by their parents who were and still are the folks that cleaned the houses of these wealthy communities, who tend their lawns and who take care of their kids. But they were there. And I think that for us, it was a moment of pride.”

She eventually became one of those warriors, getting into the union movement, representing immigrant workers.

Today, Diaz is political director and Vice President of SEIU United Service Workers West.  Her union represents janitors who are mostly immigrant women and security officers who are mostly African American men and women and security workers at the airport.

“For me, it's been an honor to be able to grow as a Labor leader and be able to fight for workers of color in California.”

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