By Jesus Cortez, Guest Columnist
In 1994, the world seemed to be crumbling around me in California. Governor Pete Wilson was in power and for undocumented people, it seemed that nobody was coming to defend or rescue us. The 90’s also happened to be one of the most violent decades in the state. All the while Proposition 187 loomed large threatening to limit the lives of those of us who were thrown into the shadows due to our immigration status. Youth all over the state knew something had to be done.
In Anaheim, that sense of urgency 25 years ago proved no different.
During the fall of 1994, as I walked to my introduction to French class at Magnolia High School, I got a flier promoting a school walkout for later that day. I went to class nervous and wondered if I would take part in it. A few minutes passed before a small group of students walked out the door–I joined them. Once outside, we realized nobody else had gone through with the action. Everyone went back to class, except me. I ended up getting chased off campus by security along with an acquaintance.
For the rest of the week, I didn’t go back to school—I was too embarrassed by my failed attempt at political activism. The day after the first aborted action, hundreds of students ended up walking out, including my friends and my cousin. For days, I watched the news about similar actions happening across Orange and Los Angeles counties while remaining on the sidelines.
I felt the weight of my failure for years. I rarely shared my experience with anyone, especially after Prop. 187 passed. It seemed like everyone was against us, including those with immigrant roots themselves—interview after interview on Spanish-language news showed people of my same skin color supporting the ballot measure. Yet, the actions taken by my classmates made me realize the power of community and organizing. Even if the walkouts were rarely organized, they were an opportunity for the youth to show their anger towards a common enemy. In years that followed, I made every attempt to show solidarity, whether it was with farm workers or with undocumented people like me.
Once I was able to attend college, due to Assembly Bill 540—a law that allowed undocumented students to attend college—I felt the responsibility to do something for those in my situation. During my time at California State Fullerton, I belonged to a group of people who created the first undocumented organization on campus after feeling ignored by other organizations. My days of being on the sidelines out of embarrassment came to an end. I made sure to give the best of me in every action, to prove my younger self that my heart was in the right place on that autumn day in ’94.
Eventually, I joined another organization—the now defunct Orange County Dream Team. It worked directly with the undocumented community, especially with the youth. In ’94, no groups existed like that, especially led by undocumented people themselves. That such organizations arose in the decade following Prop. 187 is another of its political legacies. Our organizing efforts made me feel like I was making a difference, something I didn’t get to feel as a youth. Though I am no longer involved in organizing spaces, I feel that the young man I was in ’94 would be proud of the man I became.
Despite my shortcomings and limitations by the continuing anti-immigrant sentiment that continues to plague this country, my hopes are with the youth, who may not have the organizing experience, but have the energy and the history to back them up in hopefully making this world a better place.