“I was a middle school student who walked out in protest of CA Proposition 187, Looking back 25 years later I know I’m a high school Chicano/Latino Studies teacher because of it”.

By Irene Sanchez

Irene Sanchez, Ph.D. is a high school teacher, writer, and poet. She is the author of the blog Xicana Ph.D. Irene is a 2019-2020 Teacher Advisory Council Member for the National Humanities Center. Her work has been featured in CNN, Huffington Post, Public Radio International, Zocalo Public Square, Inside Higher Education and many more. She has been featured on multiple public radio outlets. For more information see http://www.irenesanchezphd.com

“They hate us”.

I remember the whispers sitting in a class at Mission Middle School in the Inland Empire city of Jurupa Valley, CA in 1994. We turned and talked to one another and every time I heard someone say “they hate us” something began to boil up inside me. Word was out that students from the high school I would later attend, Rubidoux, were marching nearby and we were to walk out of class to join them in protest of Proposition 187.

Proposition 187 which was a racist intiative passed by voters in the state of California in 1994 that would’ve made it criminal to provide basic social services such as health care and education to anyone “suspected” of being undocumented. Thankfully the proposition was struck down as unconstitutional, but fear had already set in. Looking back 25 years after Prop 187, I realize without the fear so many of us from that generation would not have become the people we are today. 

“They hate us”.

I remember how for months during that campaign season I would see commercials on TV from Pete Wilson’s campaign narrated with a message about how “They keep coming…” 

“They hate us”. 

I remember my mother telling me the fear her students felt, the fear that set in with the families she worked with as a bilingual aide in the same school district I was a student in and how after Prop 187 passed, whole entire families just disappeared never to be seen or heard from again. 

“They hate us”. 

I was on the verge of 12 years old when Proposition 187 passed, but I knew enough to know that I had the power to do something so I didn’t hesitate when I walked out of class. Unfortunately for me, we went to a middle school that had gates that enclosed us in the school and while some of my fellow young classmates made a mad sprint and dodged administration and the closing gates, I didn’t make it out. I remember how my friends and I ran to one gate only to find it locked and ran to another in the front of the school only to find that they had just closed it. We watched for what seemed like forever, but in reality was only a few minutes and cheered on fellow classmates that made it out the gates and were running towards the street. As they sprinted across the large vacant dirt lot and dodged a few more administrators and security guards, my eyes were fixated on what it was they were running towards. In the distance there was a group of high school students from Rubidoux marching and chanting as they made their way east down Mission Boulevard towards downtown Riverside to join what I would learn many years later was a larger rally with other local area high schools. 

25 years after Proposition 187, I find myself as a teacher of Chicano/Latino studies who often goes back to this transformational moment in my young life because I have a responsibility to. Unfortunately I am a rarity in my profession, I am a Xicana teacher of our rich history that our communities have long struggled for and often been denied access to for far too long. I have to go back to that moment often because I know I would not be the person or teacher I am today had the proposition not been proposed or passed by the majority of voters that year. I also know I would not be who I am today had I not walked out of class even though I didn’t make it to the march beyond the gates of my middle school. I still chose to and looking back at that moment, my only regret is that I didn’t run fast enough to get to the march with the Rubidoux High School students in 1994. 

Although during the time of Prop 187, there was much to be fearful of, from that fear rose a sense of responsibility that we as a community and especially as young people could do something about injustice in our communities and our state. That is what I try to teach my students about this moment in history.

25 years after Prop 187, I recall another memory. I remember how my father had me sit with him and watch a documentary series on the that aired on PBS titled Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. Then two years after walking out of class and watching the high school students from Rubidoux march against proposition 187, I would find myself thankful as a freshman at Rubidoux High School sitting in the first ever Chicano Studies class implemented in our school district. The class being a direct result of activism surrounding opposition to Prop 187. Nearly 23 years later I would find myself supporting Rubidoux High School students as an alumni. In February 2017 Rubidoux High School students made national news as they walked out in protest of racist comments by five teachers and a counselor after students participated in A Day without Immigrants. 

As an Ethnic Studies teacher who knows that our history is U.S. history,  I teach not only to get my students to connect the past to the present, but also to realize their own role as agents of change in our larger society. They are capable of making history right now and one of the most important things to know about transformational moments like Prop 187 was for me, is that it usually isn’t just one moment or event in history, but a series of moments connected over time.  

Proposition 187 was a spark to light a fire of resistance in the Latino community once again so that we would unite against those who speak ill of us, unjustly criminalize our communities and make us targets. Unfortunately, we still need that flame of resistance today because there are many similarities between the Trump administration’s rhetoric to that of Pete Wilson during the time of Prop 187

Looking back on Proposition 25 years later as a high school teacher of Chicano/Latino Studies (Social Studies), I know we can’t forget the violence our communities still face especially a few months after El Paso and Gilroy. Even this past month a Latino man in Milwaukee was told to go back to his country and suffered burns to his face and neck after acid was thrown on him by a white man. Despite the rise in hate crimes against the Latino community and continued attacks in the last decade on classes that teach our history like Arizona’s HB 2281, a bill that banned and targeted the Mexican American Studies in Tucson Unified School District and led to the case Arce v Douglas which led to the 9th circuit ruling that the AZ ban on Ethnic Studies was discriminatory and specifically targeted the Mexican American Studies Program in TUSD.

Even as we fast forward to today, we can clearly see how the fight is long from over as The Supreme Court just heard arguments on November 12, 2019 to save DACA after the Trump administration has racially targeted the program.

From these moments in history and the current historical moments we are living, as a teacher I recall how sometimes we win, but only if we fight back. I learned in my childhood from Prop 187 that if we continue to stand up to injustice no matter what our age, we will continue to inspire future generations to use their voice and power to unite against all that seeks to divide us. That perhaps is the most important lesson I could ever be tasked in teaching.

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