On Oct. 17, 1994, my wife and I took our two US-born kids to our first protest in downtown Los Angeles. My 5-year-old son and I worked together to make a big sign that said “proud of our heritage,” and we carried my 6-month-old daughter with us. We were protesting against an anti-immigrant ballot initiative that we saw as unjust and mean-spirited: Proposition 187.
I had heard radio announcements about the march, inviting us to come out. I had also seen what Gov. Pete Wilson, and the ads about the initiative, were saying about us: that we were draining and harming the state and its future.
I felt the campaign was unfair because most immigrants come here to work. All the people I worked with cleaning demolition sites from asbestos, lead and other toxic materials were good people. We weren’t involved in drugs or crime. We contributed a lot to the economy and to this country.
But the way they talked about us felt discriminatory. The change that Prop 187 would bring about would hurt millions of people and their families. People just like us.
The initiative not only spoke ill of immigrants in California, but it sought to take away education from children and exclude us from non-emergency medical care. It sought to make every public official in the state into an immigration officer. This caused a lot of fear among my friends, many of whom were still undocumented.
Fearing the worst, two of my cousins returned to Mexico.
My wife and I had work permits through something called “late amnesty” but were not yet permanent residents. Many of my coworkers were undocumented and did not dare go to the march, but we did. I felt we had too much to lose not to participate.
I arrived in the United States at age 15. In Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico, where I grew up, it was common for young men to go north to the United States. So when a friend of mine invited me to join him on his journey, I said yes and asked my dad for permission. He said yes and I took off.
It was a tough journey, and we stayed for 28 days in Tijuana until we were able to cross to the other side. In Los Angeles, I lived with an uncle and aunt who were cooks and had been there since the mid-1970s.
I started getting work in the kitchen. I loved working and everything about Los Angeles and decided not to go back to Mexico, except to visit. One of the times I did go back, I met the woman who would later become my wife and brought her with me here. We have been married for 32 years.
After the 1994 march, the initiative won at the ballot box. We felt sad and betrayed. It was a direct attack on all of us. I felt impotent at first, but it made me more resolute to make it in this country and to demonstrate that I had value.
It took a long time for me to get my green card, but I got it. In the year 2000, I became a U.S. citizen. It was a dream come true. I also registered to vote and have never missed an election.
A few years ago, I finally founded my own construction business with my son, a friend and her daughter. I am not the only immigrant I know who felt that Prop 187 encouraged us to open our businesses and leave the low wage jobs behind.
My philosophy is that, if I am successful, I am living proof that immigrants are worthy of this country. It is my way of resisting: not with violence, but by moving ahead.
I know my community needs to vote a lot more. Many of my friends are aware that we are living through another difficult and racist time and that we need to show up at the ballot box.
Twenty-five years later, I feel that Prop 187 encouraged me to be better and to become successful, but also to be active as a voter. Right now, I think we need to do more of that.