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187

Cristina Vazquez on the Anti-187 March of Tens of Thousands

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

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

On the day of the march against Prop 187 in Los Angeles, Cristina Vazquez was on stage, getting ready to introduce some of the labor leaders that attended the event and expecting at most about 5,000 people to show up.

Like all the other union and community organizers, Vazquez wasn't sure what was going to happen on the ground. She had worked many late hours with others to organize the logistics and mobilize people. Her own union had more than 500 marchers, the largest organized group that showed up, she says.

Vazquez had been a union organizer for many years and was then the International Ladies Garment Workers Union's political and education director. Immigrant workers were already working in many industries, but few unions sought to organize them. The ILGWU was one of the first to do it, starting in the early ‘80s.  

On that Sunday, October 16, 1994, Vazquez saw tens of thousands of people, many immigrant workers, and their families, walking in the streets of downtown Los Angeles coming from the east. Many had handmade signs demanding respect from governor Pete Wilson, who was pushing Proposition 187 to take away education and health care from undocumented immigrants. He had made it the centerpiece of his reelection campaign.

The initiative had become a racially-charged issue that followed demographic change and a recession in California with calls for taking services away from undocumented immigrants.

“We really were not expecting that many people at the march,” she remembers. “But we saw people coming out of everywhere and joining it. It was incredible.”

“I cannot describe the moment, there were tens of thousands of people coming, and we could not start the programs because they kept saying the march is just turning ten blocks away,” she remembers.

Her family had come from Ecuador in 1971. She worked in the unions from an early age. By the time Proposition 187 came around, the ILGWU was representing a lot of the garment workers. It was one of the first unions to do that.

“A lot of the labor movement were blaming immigrant workers for being the reason for low wages or taking jobs,” she says. "They also believed you could not organize them. But we were doing that from the 1980s, and this initiative actually helped change the union movement.”

Her two kids, Gaby (4) and Adrián (11), went to the march with her and husband Mario. Her husband, also an organizer, took many pictures of that day that she keeps in a big photo album. "Twenty-five years later, I look at the messages, and I can see the feeling people had back then. It was beautiful.”

The event was much criticized by the media and some mainstream politicians because many marchers had Mexican flags.

But for Vazquez, it was a critical moment for the broader union movement to see that immigrant workers "have courage, they're willing to fight, documents or not.”

From then on, it became “sexy” to organize immigrant workers, she adds.

“Many unions started to do citizenship schools, legal clinics to help people become citizens,” she says. “For years, many in our community would not become citizens, thinking they would go back to their country, including my mother, who did not want to do it until Proposition 187 came about.”

Today, Vazquez is the International Vice President of Workers UNITED, SEIU (Service Employees International Union), the ILGWU's current name.

Read more