The key to infiltrating any anti-immigrant organization when you're a Latino reporter is silence—don't ask a lot of questions, don't volunteer your name, don't carry a boom box playing ranchera or a sack of oranges. Low profile. And I did that during the three years I tracked the Huntington Beach-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR). CCIR members wrote Proposition 187, helped start the Minuteman Project and are behind almost every anti-immigrant movement in the country.
Attending CCIR rallies and meetings incognito—and biting down firmly on my tongue—rewarded me with great stories. I heard the group's guest speakers compare Latinos to cockroaches and spin wild conspiracies about a Mexico-Cuba-China axis aiming to take over the United States, and I said nothing. Elderly whites called elementary-school students "illegal alien savages," and I stayed quiet. Even as CCIR member e-mails warned me to stay away from future events, even vowed to unmask me, I didn't say peep.
Or only peep. Once, a CCIR African-American member mistook me for Japanese or Filipino and called me a "jap" and "flip." In return, I asked how he liked the word "nigger."
I shouldn't have said that. But the slur didn't blow my cover. No, what did me in was honesty.
I attended a June 23 CCIR meeting last year at the Garden Grove Women's Club, a crumbling building just down the street from a hookah bar. Speaking that night was Tim Bueler, a northern California high school student who would entertain an audience of about 130 with stories of wishing to kill Muslims.
Before entering any CCIR meeting, you pay a $5 fee (free if you're a CCIR member), sign in and fill out a name tag. I assumed a different pseudonym for each meeting—Donnie Ramirez, Larry Sanchez and J.R. Jauregui were my favorites. But when Bueler spoke, I jotted down my real, mexcellente name.
I still don't know why. Perhaps I was tired. Perhaps the cops outside spooked me straight. Perhaps I'm just an idiot hotshot who thought no one would discover my true identity even if I used it. Perhaps.
Five minutes after signing, a man the shape and density of a boulder approached me.
Victory gleamed in his eyes. There was a face to the spy.
"All your articles are lies," he replied. "YOU'RE the racist!"
We debated for about two minutes before it became clear his buddies would properly welcome this distinguished journalist after the meeting. I walked out of the Garden Grove Women's Club halfway through Bueler's speech, ran to my car, and sped away from one of the most fruitful beats of my career.