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ON CALIFORNIA

They Kept Coming

November 09, 1994|PETER H. KING

PICO RIVERA — Javier Rodriguez came to the polling place straight from work, still wearing the uniform of a school custodian. He came, as he put it, "to vote thumbs down on Proposition 187. Mostly it's because of the kids. Students shouldn't have to suffer because their parents brought them here. They have it hard enough as it is."

Annabella Ramirez brought her baby. The 20-year-old mother bounced the child on her hip as she voted for the first time in her life. There had been, she said, "a lot of clashing" over Proposition 187, in her neighborhood, among her friends and even her family, and in this election she wanted to make her opinion count for something more than talk. "I wanted to be part of the voting," she said. She voted no.

Victor De La Riva, a 35-year-old forklift operator, came with a co-worker--and a sense of personal history. "My parents were from Mexico," he said, "and at first they were illegal. Should I have not gotten my education because of that? It makes no sense. I mean, this is supposed to be the Land of Opportunity and all that, right?"

Ernesto Ricarte Jr. came with his birth certificate in his hip pocket. "I carry it with me everywhere I go," he said. Once a boss had demanded to see his green card, and Ricarte had been obliged to explain that, no, he had been born in the U.S.A. He understood that Proposition 187 will institutionalize these little inquisitions. He also understood the politics behind it. "I know what Pete Wilson is doing," Ricarte said. And he said he would remember it, too, down the road.

*

All day Tuesday, they kept coming. They kept coming to St. Bartholomew's Church, polling place for Precinct 32A. People waited outside in the rain before the church hall doors opened at 7 a.m., and the traffic never let up. They came on their lunch break. They came as families. They pushed strollers, dragged along novices, double-parked, waited 10 deep in line. "We have never seen anything like this," said a precinct election worker, estimating a turnout of 50% or better.

They came to St. Bartholomew's with something in their eyes that looked a bit like excitement and a bit more like anger. The 821 registered voters in precinct 32A are predominantly brown of skin and blue of collar, which is to say they belong to the future middle class of California. Many came, more than anything, to vote against Proposition 187, which they saw as either wrongheaded or racist or both.

"What 187 did," said a young woman, who gave her name only as Carmen, "was make me call and beg everyone to vote against it. This is going to affect everybody who is Hispanic."

Some who came to vote spoke of spouses and parents who had crossed the borders, of aunts and uncles who fear Proposition 187 in a real way. "Personally," said Barbara Velasquez, "I know too many people who are illegal. They are good people. Hard workers. They want to educate their kids. I know one mom who has five kids and all of them are straight-A students. What will happen to them?"

Velasquez had brought her daughter along. The young woman, who is deaf, had never voted before. "She will again," her mother said.

*

In the end, they came and voted in a losing cause. Not only did Proposition 187 pass, it also worked its magic for Gov. Pete Wilson. He could have assured the measure's defeat. Instead, he chose to ignore his own history of moderate realism on the issue and play to anger. For this, he has been rewarded with an easy reelection.

Wilson no doubt is pleased. He might be a bit less pleased, though, had he stood outside St. Bartholomew's and watched the voters come. Latinos were voting 3 to 1 against both Prop. 187 and Wilson--a not insignificant parallel--and at St. Bartholomew's the split seemed to be running about the same.

Latinos already represented the state's fastest-growing voter segment. Judging by pre-election registration, Proposition 187 kicked that process into a higher gear, and at the same time turned countless Latinos away from Republicans. Thus, Wilson's victory might well have been borrowed against his future and that of his party. This was the ignored wisdom of Jack Kemp and William Bennett, who had warned that "the Republican Party helped to create a Democratic base in many of America's cities with its hostile stand toward the last generation of immigrants from Italy, Ireland and Central Europe. Can anyone calculate the political cost this time of turning away Asians and Hispanics?"

On Tuesday, at St. Bartholomew's, the calculation was not so difficult. They came on their lunch break. They came as families. They pushed strollers, dragged along novices, double-parked, waited 10 deep in line . . .

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