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Town Rooted in Migrant Labor Is Leery of Prop. 187 : Immigration: Many Latino residents fear that measure could shred social and economic fabric of farm belt areas.

November 04, 1994|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARLIER, Calif. — There may be no city in California where Proposition 187 is met with more trepidation than this rural town carved out of the fruit orchards and vineyards of the San Joaquin Valley.

Scratch the surface and nearly everyone at one time, including the mayor, in this Latino community of 10,000 people is the product of an illegal trek across the border. Residents fear that if the initiative becomes law and school and health officials are required to report illegal immigrants, so much that is cherished in Parlier and towns like it throughout the farm belt would be threatened.

"I was born in Mexico and my parents came over illegally," said Leo Valdez, a third-grade teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary School. "When I look at these kids, I am looking at me 23 years ago. And they want me to turn them in?"

Every imaginable voice in this political season, it seems, has weighed in on the possible consequences of Proposition 187. But very little attention has been fixed on the rural San Joaquin Valley where migrants--legal and illegal--are the lifeblood of the farm economy and where a law requiring neighbor to report on neighbor could shred the social and economic fabric.

In this second-poorest city in the state, where the Mission-style Our Lady of Sorrows Church looms over the vineyards and salsa music pours out of battered cars, teachers are not simply teachers but translators of American culture and escorts to the doctor and dentist.

"We provide a sanctuary for these kids," said Noemi Flores, a kindergarten teacher whose mother recently became a U.S. citizen after years as an undocumented worker. "In one act, this proposition would take away all that security and trust."

Teachers and health clinic workers are well aware of the phony documents and double identities that some illegal immigrants use to collect unemployment checks. And they have seen one generation's farm worker sometimes beget a new generation's welfare mother. But they also know that illegal immigrants from Mexico make up as much as 50% of the labor force, doing tough farm jobs that few citizens are willing to do.

"I had to laugh the other day when Gov. Wilson chose Sun Maid raisins up the road to hold a press conference," said Mayor Arcadio Viveros. "Who do you think picked all those raisins, Mr. Governor? They were migrants, both legal and illegal."

Viveros, 47, runs a medical and dental clinic for migrant workers from a comfortable, sunlit office, but he can still taste the sweat of the fields. Viveros was born in Michoacan, and his early life was defined by the bracero program that brought his father to California each spring to pick crops, then sent him back to Mexico each winter.

The program ended in 1964 but the poverty that impelled the flight across the border did not. His father crossed into California illegally and obtained a green card with the help of a farmer in the Imperial Valley. He brought across his family a year later.

"I've picked every fruit and vegetable from here to Coachella," Viveros said. "You name it and I've picked it. Then one day we ended up in Parlier and decided to stay,"

His health clinic serves patients based on need, he said, and the needs are great in a region where the fields sustain workers only 22 weeks a year. Nearly two-thirds of the migrants who enter the doors of United Health Clinic receive MediCal benefits. How many of them are here illegally is not a question Viveros has ever asked, though he thinks the percentage is small because of fear of being caught and deported.

"Some have documents, some do not," he said. "It does not matter here. And if Proposition 187 passes, we still won't ask the question."

On the playgrounds of a school district where 99.5% of the 2,400 students are Latino, there is no easy way to discern legal from illegal. The children are all brown-eyed and speak Spanish more or less the same. Any distinctions, school officials say, poverty blurs.

Gloria Munoz, 49, a kindergarten teacher born in a Texas migrant camp, has no stomach for choosing one over the other. She can still remember the big barn off the highway near San Jose that her parents and seven siblings called home when she was a child in the fields. She can still smell the kerosene that heated their tent and the smoke that stuck to her skin through the school day.

"I remember my father getting up sick and going to work," Munoz said. "He never had a day off."

She said she is troubled by the "lack of pride" in some newcomers who regard government assistance as their due. But for every immigrant from Mexico who exploits the system, Munoz said, there is a child growing up who reminds her of herself.

"I went to work to help my brothers go to college and it wasn't until I was 35 years old that I got a chance to go to college myself," she said. "I worked 60 hours a week and graduated from Fresno State with honors. I will not deny that opportunity to a child because he or she lacks some document."

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