I TEND TO SNORE during plays, but my peepers didn't flutter once when I attended a staging of "The Mexican OC," a new play highlighting the history of Mexicans in Orange County. Though the vignettes jump from the 1892 lynching of a Mexican laborer by Santa Ana civic leaders to the student walkouts of this March, the theme remained the same: If you're a Mexican in the county of milk and Mickey, expect mucho discrimination.
"The Mexican OC" retells many familiar yarns -- about the Minutemen, gentrification battles, Mendez vs. Westminster (the 1945 legal case that desegregated schools in Orange County and that Thurgood Marshall cited in arguing Brown vs. Board of Education). My only complaint with the play was that it only scratched the surface of my county's bizarre history of hating the Mexican.
For instance, it didn't mention the late INS Commissioner Harold Ezell, a Newport Beach resident and local GOP stalwart who once told reporters that "illegal aliens shouldn't be deported; they should be deep-fried." Or the recent incident in which a Rancho Santa Margarita woman accused three maids of stealing her purse and got the Orange County Sheriff's Department to help deport them before officers determined that this Desperate Housewife had left the purse at a McDonald's.
Truth is, Orange County is the Mexican-bashing capital of the United States. Our racist sneezes become national hurricanes.
County residents birthed both the notorious Minuteman Project and Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that scared us with images of shadowy Mexicans crossing the border and spawned copycat measures nationwide. Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor and O.C. Sheriff Michael Carona are seeking to transform their respective police and sheriff's departments into la migra, a plan other municipalities across the country are considering. And members of our Republican congressional delegation -- some of whom boycotted President Bush's recent amnesty-touting speech in Irvine -- played a crucial role in crafting the notorious Sensenbrenner bill, HR 4437, which would make assisting an illegal immigrant a crime. Orange County is even home to the headquarters of Taco Bell and Del Taco, the worst apings of Mexican culture since a brown-face Charlton Heston hammed it up in "Touch of Evil."
What explains our Mexican-bashing ways? The old stereotype of Orange County as a bastion of wealthy white conservatives doesn't suffice; a Mexi-phobic streak even exists among assimilated O.C. Mexicans, who use a unique-to-Orange County slur --"wab" -- to deride recently arrived Mexicans. The deep well of racism stems directly from the county's foundation.
Unlike East Los Angeles or other regions with significant Mexican communities, the lords of Orange County never let their Mexicans become anything other than Mexicans. After receiving generations' worth of cheap Mexican labor to power the county's chief industries -- citrus before World War II, real-estate development afterward -- the O.C. psyche is wired to view brown-skinned folks as perpetual peons. City ordinances forced Mexican immigrants like my great-grandfather and grandfather to live in shoddy citrus camps instead of the good parts of town for decades; the resulting barrios still exist and account for our continued housing segregation. Orange County's recent emergence as a gateway for Mexican immigration -- the county seat, Santa Ana, is percentage-wise the most Latino city in the U.S., with a population of more than 100,000 -- also ensures that the trek toward assimilation and acceptance won't begin anytime soon.
Ask the haters, and many will insist that some of their best friends are Mexicans; it's illegal immigrants they despise. But the slope here between "Mexican" and "illegal immigrant" has always been a Slip 'N Slide. And even if immigration stopped tomorrow, Orange County would still look down on Mexicans.
I'm a fourth-generation descendant of naranjeros (orange pickers), barely speak Spanish and am lighter-skinned than most of my gabacho friends. Still, a couple of years ago, I attended a fundraiser at the Balboa Bay Club -- the Musso & Frank's for O.C.'s old money, and John Wayne's favorite drinking well -- and while I was standing in line for a horrid Mexican buffet, a skinny, prissy thing approached. She asked if I could serve her some beans. I laughed. While I waited for the valet later that night, the same woman asked if I could grab her car. "Not unless you want it on cinder blocks," I replied. My Camry arrived. I paid the $5 charge and slipped the Mexican valet an extra $20.
The Mexican-hating here isn't all bad, I guess -- it does provides for delicious, ironic comedy. Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist has a Mexican son-in-law and owns a Chihuahua named Tia. An Anaheim club that used to be host to white-power rock shows is now one of the county's most popular Mexican nightclubs. And two days after viewing "The Mexican OC," I got to watch a group of about 60 prune-faced white folks do their comical worst to counter-protest the tens of thousands of Latinos demonstrating in downtown Santa Ana at the "Day Without Immigrants" rally. Under the cover of mounted police, the furious fogies hurled chants of "tacos," "welfare" and "amigos" to the bronze-skinned moms and dads, kiddies and abuelitas.
Orange County, as always, was itching for its Mexicans to riot. But most of the marchers were too busy waving American flags to notice.