In the Southwest, every quarter-century or thereabouts, Mexican-Americans get messed with by the White Man.
That’s what I plan to tell my kids—ages 10, 12, 14—when the time comes to have “the race talk.” Before they graduate high school, I intend to lay out the facts of life for the estimated 30 to 35 million Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in this country.
They should know that, as U.S. citizens, they live in the greatest country in human history, that they have unlimited opportunities, that hard work and perseverance pays off, and that they should avoid playing the victim.
But they should also be aware that—along with the constant annoyance of being of two worlds but belonging to neither, the oddity of being too Mexican to be fully American and too American to be fully Mexican—for all their attempts to assimilate and live as full-blooded Americans, there will be those moments when the White Man puts them in their place and reminds them that they are not worthy.
My kids can wear blue contacts, listen to Taylor Swift, date white people, live in a predominantly white neighborhood in the suburbs and one day perhaps attend a mostly white college in mostly white New England like their old man did—and still they will occasionally be reminded that they’re as Mexican as margaritas and menudo.
And those moments will come, oh, roughly 25 years apart.
Let’s flip the calendar back to June 1943. That’s when U.S. Navy personnel stationed in Los Angeles attacked Mexican-American youths who were legal residents of the city for defiantly wearing flamboyant “zoot suits.” When police showed up, they arrested the Mexican-Americans. Naturally. Several days of riots ensured, and it’s now widely accepted that the conflict was rooted in anti-Mexican racism.
Now let’s jump ahead to August 1970 when—during the largest march ever by an organization called the National Chicano Moratorium Committee, which was opposed to the Vietnam War—police stormed in and beat the protesters. More than 150 people were arrested. Four people were killed, including acclaimed Los Angeles Times columnist Ruben Salazar, who was shot in the head with a tear gas canister.
Then, let’s march on to November 1994, where in the state of California—but especially in heavily Latino, and heavily immigrant Southern California—the White Man decided to mess with Mexican-Americans and their ancestral compadres: Mexicans.
I was 26 at the time, and living in Los Angeles where I held down a nightly three-hour radio show for KABC/KMPC with co-host Tavis Smiley.
In neighboring Orange County, a group of mostly white anti-immigrant activists who had grown tired of pestering local, state and federal representatives to do something to stop illegal immigration took matters into their own hands. They convinced themselves that since the power to apprehend and deport illegal immigrants belongs exclusively to the federal government, the only weapon that Californians had at their disposal was to create a hostile environment and make life so miserable for the undocumented that they would self-deport.
The immigrant-hating busybodies put on the state ballot a proposed initiative. Employing a scorched-earth strategy, Proposition 187 would have cut off illegal immigrants from civilized society by denying them and their children access to social programs, non-emergency health care, and public schools.
Booting kids out of school was what got the initiative thrown into federal court, and eventually struck down as unconstitutional. The courts reached that conclusion because the measure represented an obnoxious power grab by the state onto authority—i.e., the regulating of immigration—that the founding document specifically delegates to the federal government and because it ran contrary to existing case law, namely a Supreme Court decision in Plyler vs Doe that said that undocumented children have a right to be educated in public schools.
Sorry. I gave away the ending. The point is that Proposition 187—while blessed by the California Republican Party, exploited by then Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, and ultimately approved by more than 60 percent of California voters—was legally doomed all along. Supporters were warned that the courts would never co-sign the measure. But they didn’t care. They’d call into radio shows, including the one I was co-hosting, and say they just wanted to “send a message.”
They did that for sure. And that message went out to a number of recipients.
Republicans got the message that dividing people can pay political dividends, that fear of change can drive people to the polls, and that convincing people that others get a benefit that they’re not actually getting can get them to rise up. Other GOP-driven ballot initiatives would follow, outlawing affirmative action in 1996 and bilingual education in 1998. Given that California is the most diverse state in the country, before long, the Republican brand became synonymous with bigotry and eventually grew toxic. Currently, in California, Democrats outnumber Republicans 61 to 18 in the State Assembly and 29 to 11 in the State Senate. Since they control a “super majority,” Democrats don’t need a single Republican vote to pass any piece of legislation. The result: a hard-left tilt that makes even some progressive Democrats in the state uneasy.
Democrats in Washington, including those in the Clinton administration, got the message that Republicans were going to continue to take the low road and pander to people’s worst instincts. So Democrats decided to inoculate themselves against the charge that they want an “open border” by overcompensating and dropping the hammer on immigration enforcement. President Clinton militarized the U.S.-Mexico border south of San Diego with sensors, lights, and border patrol agents through Operation Gatekeeper, and President Obama deported a record 3 million people. Couple this with the fact that Democrats are forever trying to please blue-collar voters, who are often opposed to immigration because they dread having to compete with immigrants for jobs, and immigration has become a complicated and confusing issue that Democrats would just as soon avoid.
Lastly, Latinos got the message that, while Democrats are more than willing to take a free ride on the mistakes of Republicans and that party will often talk a good game about defending immigrants and fighting off Proposition 187-type measures in the future, Latinos can’t always depend on their supposed allies to be there when the interests of Latinos run counter to the interests of Democrats. Like when Democrats feel like they have to crack down on illegal immigration to avoid being seen as weak on border security, and Latinos object to the crackdown. We’re on our own, and while Mexicans and Mexican-Americans might—in calmer times—find plenty to squabble over within the family, wholesale assaults like Proposition 187 are a broad-based attack on everyone whose ancestry comes from south of the border. Some of the undocumented got legal status, and some of those who had green cards became citizens. All so they could do the one thing that could ward off demons in the future: vote.
And now, roughly a quarter-century later, the White Man is at it again, under the direction of the whitest of white men—Donald Trump and Stephen Miller. In 1994, Miller was in elementary school and living in Santa Monica, west of Los Angeles. Today, Miller works in the White House, where he directs the administration’s insidious immigration policy. He reportedly considered enacting a federal version of the ban on illegal immigrants attending public schools. After being told by White House officials that the idea would never fly, Miller dropped it—for now. The proposal could come back if Trump wins a second term. Bad ideas never really die.
As a native Californian, let me say: Happy Anniversary, Proposition 187. You changed everything. We’d never seen the likes of you before. And God willing, we never will again.