Resisting Proposition 187
— an interview with Angel Cervantes
Angel Cervantes is an activist with the Four Winds Student Movement. Darrell Moellendorf, a member of Solidarity in Riverside, California, interviewed Cervantes about the student movement opposing Proposition 187 and the prospects for ongoing resistance in support of immigrant rights.
Against the Current: What was the scope of the student walk-outs leading up to the November elections? Where were they heaviest? How many students walked out altogether?
Angel Cervantes: Most of the organizing in California was based in Los Angeles. The northern California manifestations were the result of L.A. initiatives. There were 20-30 campuses involved. Each mobilized 500-1000 students. That means that statewide there were tens of thousands of students who were conscious of their actions, with thousands more just doing it for the hell of it.
ATC: The students walking out were quite young. How much contact was there between university students and high school students in order to organize the walkouts?
A.C.: The irony of the mobilizations is that the high school students began it spontaneously and they reached out to us, and woke us up. The high school students should get the credit for waking up the entire community. The high school students have emerged as the leadership.
Those of us in the colleges are the old farts who keep things structured by calling meetings. We do the paperwork. The high schoolers are the ones providing the spirit and energy to the movement.
ATC: Obviously these walkouts were in response to 187, but do they also signify some more significant change in consciousness on the part of the students, some greater willingness to take political action?
A.C.: I'm a history graduate student studying social movements. So I'm weary of those talking about a movement that is just getting started. But this has been developing for the last two or three years.
There's been a growing amount of cultural awareness throughout the southwest. Quebradita, a type of dancing, has become popular throughout the area, even in Mexico. As opposed to my generation of high school students, there is now pride in being Mexican. There was the hunger strike at UCLA for the Chicano Studies program.
Then 187 came along and brought together all the pieces. At this time in history the level of consciousness within the student community is at its all-time high. It's different from my generation and my parents' generation.
ATC: A lot of the mainstream opposition to the 187, particularly that located within Democratic Party campaigns, didn't take a very positive view of these walkouts. There was some criticism of the students from this direction. It seems that there is a need for students and young people to develop their own political organizations. To what extent are these organizations being formed?
A.C.: The student movement now is a federation of coalitions all over the State including MECHAs, CASAs (Central American Student Associations), and the ACLUs. Since the election I've received calls from Swarthmore, Georgetown, and students in Seattle. There's growing national interest in a multi-ethnic coalition. Even though some people from mainstream organizations are pointing fingers at us saying we lost the elections and we should disband, we're still organizing.
ATC: What's your response to that finger pointing, to those people who say that the results of the election show that there has been backlash against student activism?
A.C.: Some of the campaigns against 187 claimed that they were "in defense of the community," but they weren't of the community, they were for the community. They were trying to win the campaign by saying that if 187 passes, "the diseases and the crimes of these people are going to come into your communities." So they were basically not helping much. They had a very short-term perspective.
The student movement was from the community. We were people who were going to be affected by Prop. 187. We aren't for the community; we're of the community. So our tactics involve pride, like the walkouts and the waving of the Mexican flag. Our concern wasn't the election per se, our concern wasn't to garner votes, not to reach out to the white community. Our goal was to defend our community, in whatever way we knew how, and to show our anger.
ATC: Why do you think that Prop. 187 passed?
A.C.: I think that there's a lot of fear and anger throughout the country and in this state in particular, even among Latinos. A lot of our people went out and voted for it. There's a lot of frustration. And it's always easier to blame than to look at yourself and what the real problems are.
This was basically an easy way out for everyone who was too scared to look at the problem. There's a lot of sentiment that these people are taking over. There's a lot of fear that Latinos, Mexicans in particular, are taking over the state. That's the fine print of Prop. 187: Vote for this and you stop them from taking over the state.
ATC: What's next? How will this struggle continue? What role will students play in continuing to fight racism?
A.C.: I hope that the national student movement will do what student movements have always done. What we do best is not influence elections. What we do best is, as King said, prick the nation's conscience. We can bring the issue to light and change the way it is looked at.
Our tactics should involve mass mobilizations to change the way people look at this issue. Right now our "allies" and even the racists are just applying bandaids: either kick them all out or put more guards on the border. No one is looking at it as a human rights issue.
Nor are they looking at the fundamental reason why people come to this country. It's not the love of America. People leave their country because they can't make enough money there. Through our tactics and rhetoric, we're going to show that there are humans involved, attempt to change the way people look at the issue. These are real people that are being affected.
So we protested on International Human Rights Day. And we're thinking of calling a national day of mourning during Governor Wilson's inauguration, with fasting, to appeal to the nation's conscience.
ATC: When you look at the student movement in the late '60s, it was the mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War that were so effective. Do you foresee continued attempts to try to build mass demonstrations?
A.C.: That's going to be the key to anything that we do. That's why we keep in contact with unions and other non-student organizations. We're trying to keep alive the idea that it's not only students for a just society, but that society should join the students in their struggle.
ATC 55, March-April 1995