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California and the West

Seasoned Activist's Passions Burn Bright Again

Rights: Feeling Latinos are under siege, Mario Obledo vowed to burn a billboard and threatened a boycott of a fast-food chain over its TV ad. The tough talk angers some, but he's not about to stop.

August 02, 1998|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For weeks, Mario Obledo waited for someone to do something about the sign declaring California the "Illegal Immigration State." But no one did.

The question before Obledo was a tough one: Should an aging civil rights warhorse like him jump into the fray or leave it to the new breed of Latino leaders and civil rights activists?

When no one stepped forward, he decided to again do battle.

"Somebody had to do it," Obledo said. "I vowed to burn or deface the sign."

For the 66-year-old with a bad back and diabetes, the sign was the straw that broke his silence. Obledo said he believed that Latinos in the state were under attack--with initiatives targeting social services for illegal immigrants, affirmative action and bilingual education.

"He's been evaluating, looking at what's happening in the past decade or so," said Gil Flores, state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, one of the largest civil rights organizations in the country. "Nobody was doing anything. Everybody was sitting back. . . . Latinos don't have a brown Jesse Jackson who can rally support. There are politicians, but they can't do as much as civil rights leaders like Mario."

Now, Obledo again is becoming a symbol of activism.

In June, he vowed to burn the billboard near Blythe. Two weeks ago, he threatened to launch a boycott of Taco Bell for its Chihuahua "Yo quiero Taco Bell" TV commercials. He was offended by the animal's "Mexican accent" and felt that a dog was a negative representation of Spanish-speaking people.

Last week, he sat in a Long Beach courtroom in support of a defendant who was electrically shocked by a bailiff on orders of a judge. He later drove to Ontario to support Latinos whose float was excluded from a Fourth of July parade.

"I've devoted most of my life to civil rights," Obledo said. "I'm relaxed in my life now, and I can afford to take on these issues."

Obledo is president of the California Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, an umbrella for about 50 Latino advocacy groups.

During former Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr.'s administration, he served as secretary of health and welfare. He also helped found the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and is former chairman of Jackson's Rainbow Coalition.

In January, Obledo's years of community work were recognized by President Clinton with a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Obledo acknowledged that he did "drop out" of the limelight in the early 1980s, but that the recent rash of initiatives prompted him to say, "Enough is enough."

"We're being batted over the head with these initiatives, and throughout the state people have been telling me of racial injustices," he said. "I think it's a reaction, because [non-Latinos] see our growing political influence and they see us become more active in the state, taking over more institutions. So it's a matter of fear."

Obledo is quick to point out that with Latinos now 29.4% of the state's population and their numbers growing fast, they will become a majority in the 21st century.

"It's inevitable that Hispanics or Mexican Americans are going to control the institutions of the state of California in the not-too-distant future," he said. "If people don't like that, they can leave."

Provocative statements and Obledo's willingness to encourage civil disobedience, such as burning a billboard, rub many Californians' emotions raw.

Barbara Coe, head of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, which co-sponsored Proposition 187 and erected the sign, is among Obledo's critics.

The sign was eventually removed by the advertising company out of concern for property damage and community pressure against Burger King and Best Western, which bought space on the flip side of the billboard.

"Obledo called for criminal, terrorist attacks [to the sign] in an effort to deprive Americans of the freedom of speech," said Coe, who contended that the sign was not racist. "We believe that Americans of Hispanic heritage do not and will not support these terrorists."

The sign, which was erected near the Arizona border, warned of "the devastation that has occurred in California because of illegal immigration and bilingual education," Coe said.

Ben J. Seeley, executive director of the Border Solution Task Force, a San Diego-based group that calls its members border watchdogs, interpreted Obledo's actions as "the last gasps of anarchy" from an aging Latino leader.

"Mexican illegals are a nationality," Seeley said. "Mario just decided to make it a racial issue, and it's not. We need billboards like that all over the place."

In Blythe, not all Latinos agreed with Obledo. Carmela Garnica, 42, executive director of Escuela de La Raza Unida, a private school, said she was reluctant to follow Obledo, who lives in Sacramento, because he's an "outsider."

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