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SAN GABRIEL VALLEY / COVER STORY : Seeking Justice for Latinos : Fabian Nunez leads an aggressive campaign for the rights of the 'disenfranchised.' His tactics have drawn praise and stirred criticism.

November 03, 1994|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Is la migra on your back?

Does the sewing factory refuse to pay minimum wage?

Want to become a U.S. citizen and cast your ballot against Proposition 187?

If you live in the Pomona Valley and have answered yes to any of these questions, chances are that sooner or later you will cross paths with Fabian Nunez.

In a community where Latinos--many of them poor and undocumented--make up more than half of all residents, Nunez is something of a folk hero: a labor organizer, immigration activist and businessman.

"We are in a struggle for justice for a segment of the population that has been marginalized and disenfranchised," thunders Nunez, who favors the fiery rhetoric of the civil rights movement. "We're tired of being scapegoats. We want to be part of the mainstream of American society and we want the door to be open to us as people who give more to the system than they take."

But the fast-talking, 28-year-old Mexican American also has become a lightning rod for controversy among some who believe his methods are manipulative and his voice shrill.

Last month, after helping students at Ganesha High School organize a walkout in opposition to Proposition 187, the initiative that would deny education and most social services to undocumented immigrants, Nunez drew the wrath of school officials.

"I'm not against any of his political activities," said Cassandra A. George, Pomona Unified School District's assistant superintendent of secondary schools. "But adults who use schoolchildren as a ticket to publicity for their own personal political agendas are harming the education of children who need it the most."

With days to go before the election, Nunez has even drawn criticism from more conservative Latino leaders who prefer a more low-key approach and think that mass demonstrations and the waving of Mexican flags will raise the hackles of white voters.

Nunez disagrees.

"I tell them that our people have been taking a conventional approach for the last 502 years and look where it's gotten us," Nunez fumed. "As a community we haven't prospered. So it's time for a different approach."

But sometimes, Nunez's tactics can lead to a bigger reaction than even he anticipates.

When he helped the students organize the walkout against Proposition 187, the teens marched to City Hall, where they slammed Pomona Unified for failing to take a stance against the measure, even though the school board had already adopted a resolution opposing it. The lead speaker and organizer of the protest also used derogatory terms for homosexuals.

The district responded by suspending 70 students, infuriating Nunez.

Nunez defends the students, saying the district hadn't gone far enough in fighting the initiative. "It's a nice gesture to see them wearing (anti-Proposition 187) buttons, but we want to see concrete action" fighting the measure, Nunez said.

Regarding the derogatory comments, Nunez said that they could not be seen as discriminatory against gays, another group that has been fighting for civil rights, because Latinos are not powerful enough to be guilty of discrimination.

"After 500 years of having to endure slavery, oppression, exploitation in our community, our people are in no way, shape or form able to discriminate," Nunez said.

*

Many of the kids in the San Diego barrio where Nunez grew up became junkies and criminals, he says. Some were recruited by Mexican gangsters last year to kill the Catholic archbishop of Tijuana. But Nunez, one of 12 children in a poor family of day laborers, says he realized early that education was a ticket out. Encouraged by an eighth-grade teacher who prodded him to consider college, Nunez challenged counselors who wanted to track him into vocational education courses and signed up for advanced-placement classes instead.

He also began questioning the disparity of wealth around him. In Tijuana, the young man saw mansions standing next to cardboard shanties. In his San Diego neighborhood, he saw bright, talented friends succumb to violence. He was told it was a matter of choice, but to him it seemed more like luck.

"You can walk away from it but you can't take it out of you," he says of the barrio.

While taking Latin American studies and political science courses at UC San Diego, Nunez had his first taste of activism, organizing workers to join a shipbuilders union and writing political stories for the school newspaper.

In 1988, after graduating from UC San Diego, Nunez wanted to head for Central America. "I was ready to join the Sandinistas," he said. Instead, a friend persuaded him to take a job in East Los Angeles at the One Stop Immigration and Educational Center.

Nunez stayed four years, teaching English and civics to immigrants and helping them become legal residents under the amnesty law. He rose to regional director at One Stop Immigration and opened offices statewide. Along the way, he married his college sweetheart, a nurse. Nunez and his wife, Maria, have two children, Esteban, 5, and Teresa, 3.

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