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Joel Ochoa: Pushing Back on the Myth of the ‘Encino Voter’

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

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

Joel Ochoa is a political refugee from Mexico who arrived in the United States at the end of 1973. By the time Proposition 187 came around, he was a seasoned union organizer. 

That's probably why he didn't buy the argument some democratic politicians and consultants made to him and others, that to fight the anti-immigrant initiative, immigrants had to keep a low profile, not participate in big marches and not anger the so-called “Encino Voter."

“It was at the beginning of all the 187 process that a group of us were called to have a meeting, and their whole approach was to keep us kind of quiet, not to alienate traditional voters. The Encino man approach to defeating 187,” says Ochoa, now a retired union leader.

"Our response — I don't think I can say it on camera — but we were not happy with that assessment, it was a very simplistic approach to a big problem, which was the whole issue of racism with 187. So, we just walked away and ended up doing our own thing,” said Ochoa.

Ochoa understood 187 in the same historical context that other anti-immigrant policies had at different moments of the United States. 

“The voters were upset about economic conditions at the time, and were looking for someone to blame, and in this case, Mexican immigrants were the target, the perfect enemy.” It was not the first occasion that Ochoa came across this scapegoating philosophy —it wasn't even the first in his lifetime, he says.

However, there were earlier leaders who thought that immigrants, even those undocumented, had a right to be organized and be treated with dignity. The founder of an organization called CASA (F. 1968), the legendary activist Bert Corona, was one.  Ochoa and others of his generation took to heart Corona’s example and the work he did to educate the country that immigrant workers were not a “temporary phenomenon” but a significant segment of the U.S. labor force.

“It was Bert Corona who organized immigrant workers to defend themselves, some of the political players of the 90s, even today, came out of that and were CASA members,” he says. “So, by the time 187 came around, many of us were ready.”

Ochoa had a significant role in the organizing and the logistics of the October 16, 1994 anti-187 march.  During the time, the organizing for that took place, he and others "lived" at the old local 660 of SEIU, which then-President of the local Gil Cedillo had opened up for them.

"For some of us, local 660 became our house, that's where we slept, that is where we ate and took showers when possible. Ten days before the march, I ventured out to downtown, and I saw people making their own signs, that's when I knew the march was going to be bigger than we thought,” he recalls.

One anecdote he remembers from that time is getting a message —among more than 60 — of the head of the Charros (Mexican cowboys) in Southern California offering horses.

“How many horses do you want?” he said. “I said, ‘How many can you take to a parade?’ and I told him they needed to be at the end of the march, so I asked for 20. He said, ‘That's it?’ We ended up having like 100 charros with their horses; it was beautiful.”

The fact that many labor unions took the issue of undocumented workers’ rights publicly at the time was personally important to Ochoa, who would have many years as a union organizer and lead many campaigns to organize immigrant and Latino workers. 

“Labor had already started to see that the future, the survival of labor was right there in front of them,” Ochoa says. "Politicians also learned that in social movements, you cannot stop people; you cannot say ‘Stop, you will offend the Encino voter.’ Cannot do that.”

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