!Ask a Mexican!

Mark Dancey illustration

"Rich fellas come up an' they die, an' their kids ain't no good an' they die out. But we keep a'comin'. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out; they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people."
—Ma Joad in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

Orange County historians will remember 2005 as one of the most anti-Mexican years on record. It started in the spring, when mild-mannered Aliso Viejo CPA Jim Gilchrist announced the creation of the Minuteman Project, a border-watch group that attracted worldwide attention and hundreds of volunteers. Shortly afterward, Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona announced he wanted to train deputies to detain Mexicans suspected of committing felonies; one of those deputies, Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor, wants to extend that proposal so his city's police officers can question any Mexican detained for the tiniest infraction about their immigration status. 2005 also saw the closure of the Costa Mesa Job Center after a small band of residents complained that too many Mexicans loitered there, and almost-monthly protests outside the Laguna Beach Day Laborer Center by mostly gabachogeriatrics and skinheads.

The year ended with the federal Border Protection, Anti-terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act, the most drastic legislative clampdown on Mexicans since the Immigration Act of 1924. During the bill's debate, Orange County's congressional delegation competed to see who could screw Mexicans worse. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) was instrumental in ensuring the bill didn't include any guest-worker program. Rep. Gary Miller (R-Diamond Bar) tried to insert an amendment that would ban Mexican women from coming into this country and giving birth, while Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) wanted to stop Mexicans from benefiting from Social Security. And recently elected John Campbell (R-Newport Beach) snuck in an amendment that denies law enforcement grants to cities such as Los Angeles that forbid police from turning information about Mexicans over to federal authorities.

"Pincheliar," some of you will say. All the above actions weren't against Mexicans but illegal immigrants, you will insist. There is no war on Mexicans; it's a war on illegal immigration. Separate the Mexican from the border hopper. The legals from the wetbacks. Distinguish between the good Mexican-Americans and the wabs. My response: do we ever?

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A couple of months ago, a friend who works for TheOrange County Registertold me they'd never seen as much animosity toward a nationality or race as the hatred Mexicans face in Orange County—and this person worked in the Deep South. I laughed it off until I shared the anecdote with other reporter friends. They all glumly agreed.

"You should hear what our readers say," said another Reg scribe. "If I write anything even remotely positive about Mexicans, people leave messages asking 'Why don't you write about how Mexicans ruin our schools?' And those people call almost every day."

It's simplistic to dismiss those callers as anomalies, the last gasps of a generation that now spends its days in Barcaloungers and flip-flops as minorities take over Orange County. Fact is, Orange County boasts a proud Mexican-bashing tradition. This is the place, after all, where a group of Santa Ana civic leaders in 1892 hanged Mexican laborer Francisco Torres on the corner of Fourth and Sycamore—California's last lynching. The county where, in 1936, Sheriff George Logan Jackson issued a "Shoot to kill" order to quell a Mexican citrus picker strike. (The resulting chaos was so brutal that famed labor historian Carey McWilliams expressed "astonishment in discovering how quickly social power could crystallize into an expression of arrogant brutality in these lovely, seemingly placid, outwardly Christian communities.")

Here is where the county Board of Supervisors agreed with citizens who were angry that "indigent Mexicans" received the bulk of aid after the Great Flood of 1938, a disaster that, like Hurricane Katrina, was preventable and afflicted mostly poor minorities. It was in Orange County where Gonzalo and Felicitas Méndez had to sue the Westminster, Santa Ana, Garden Grove and El Modena school districts in 1945 just so their children could attend the school near their home instead of the "Mexican" campus miles away. And many of the national immigration battles over the years—Proposition 187, bilingual education, the controversy over day laborer centers—arose in Orange County thanks to the Huntington Beach-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform.

Mexican-bashing will always have a place in our county's discourse—it's as integral to our identity as Interstate 5. (This paper even publishes a column called "¡Ask a Mexican!" for chrissake.) But polite folks nowadays cloak their vitriol under the guise of opposing illegal immigration. Now, there can be a reasoned, calm discussion about illegal immigration, but I've yet to hear it. Inevitably, opponents of illegal immigration begin talking about the conspiratorial they. Theyfill up our schools. Theydon't speak English. Theydon't want to be Americans. Why can't theybe like other immigrants?

Even an icon like labor leader César Chávez couldn't resist bashing they. He was a vociferous opponent of illegal immigration—his United Farm Workers frequently worked with immigration authorities to nab illegal immigrants that farm owners snuck in from Mexico to break the grape strikes. The UFW even started a proto-Minuteman project in the 1970s along the Arizona-Mexico border called the "Wet Line," the "wet" standing for wetback. Mexican-bashers can trash wetbacks all they want, but the American Dream lives with every kid smuggled across San Ysidro. Hell, even my dad—himself a former illegal immigrant—hates illegals.


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