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Celia Lacayo: It Was Race Then; It Is Race Now

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino

Find more firsthand accounts of the campaign against Prop 187 here.

UCLA Adjunct Professor Celia Lacayo shows the pro-187 “they keep coming” ad in her university class to illustrate how it all came about in California in 1994. The students learning of this today were not even born then, and she points to the "codes" used in that ad which, she believes persist to this day.

“I can definitely see many connections with Proposition 187 and what is happening today in our country,” she points out. "One way to think about it is that demographic change really spurred more and more whites to be fearful of Latinos and to vote on that fear. That's how we get Trump; he tapped into that fear.”

In 1994, Californians were reeling from an economic recession and had seen increased immigration of people from Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s. Today, Latino populations are growing all over the United States, more by birth than by immigration. The 2000 and 2010 Census pointed to tremendous growth.

All of this change underlies Lacayo's theory that Latinos are seen as “less-than” immigrants.

Among her research papers on race, one of the most awarded and talked about was the one she entitled: "Perpetual Inferiority: White's racial Ideology toward Latinos.”

“The way that I came up with the concept of perpetual inferiority really comes from the empirics, the actual data gathered about from whites about their attitudes towards Latinos,” she adds.

In her theory, much of the United States' mainstream white population sees Latinos (or Mexicans, the main and historically present group), not as they see other groups of immigrants, but closer to how many see African Americans.

“In the work I do, I interview whites to find out their perceptions, and how that affects their political behavior,” Lacayo explains. “Many of these folks were very candid to really talk about how they differentiated between so-called minority immigrants and Latinos, which they perceived to be not model minorities at all.”

This thinking of Latinos as inferior is a common thread to many policies of the last century, she adds.

Going back to the “They keep coming ad,” the 1994 Pete Wilson campaign and the push for Proposition 187, the governor always insisted that it was not about race or ethnicity, but about resources and the rule of law. Lacayo challenges that idea.

“The ad never says Mexicans, but the visuals are powerful. He taps into this idea of threat, invasion and criminality and that this is simply an issue of law and order, but the campaign and the ad is a very racialized visual: Latinos understood they were being targeted.”

She also compares the name given by its proponents to the campaign for Proposition 187 (“Save our State”) with the Trump slogan: “Make America Great Again.”

“Race or explicit racism is not in the phrase, but people understand what is meant.”

Something good came out of the Proposition 187 campaign, Lacayo says. It allowed for a show of solidarity between minority groups in the state, and it helped spur political mobilization. But she is also opposed to the metaphor of the Latino vote as the “sleeping giant.”

"It's problematic. On the one hand, it isn't really true; Latinos have been organizing before 187. It really ignores really powerful social movements that came before that but also, the idea of a giant who is unintelligent and lazy is very close to the stereotype of the lazy Mexican,” Lacayo points out.

However, some awakening did happen, changing the politics of the state in significant ways.

“Latinos in California are really setting the bar and the standard for equal rights for all groups in the U.S.”

Lacayo was born in El Salvador and came to the U.S. when she was three years old, growing up in the Bay Area. She received her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies from the University of California Berkeley. Her research interests include Race & Ethnicity, Immigration, political behavior and Media. She finished a postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA with the Institute of American Cultures in the Sociology Department and is now Associate Director of Community Engagement for the College of Letters and Science.

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