Cristina Vazquez | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"

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

Cristina Vazquez: I'm Cristina Vazquez, and presently I am International Vice President of Workers United, SEIU. Back in the '90s, I was labor organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, one of the unions that was in the forefront of fighting for immigrant workers. Later, in the middle of the '90s, I was a political and education director for the union.

In the '80s and early '90s, the labor movement was not altogether defending immigrant workers. There were few unions. As a matter of fact, when 187 happened, there were few unions in the labor movement that came out in defense of immigrant workers. My union was basically the first who even filed a lawsuit against INS at that time to protect workers. The labor- not all the labor movement, but some of them were blaming the immigrant workers for low wages or the reason for lack of employment it was because of immigrant workers and also that immigrant workers were not organizable. They didn't want to join the unions until we proved them wrong.

At that time, my union was like I said International Ladies Garment Workers Union so I represented a lot of the garment workers. There was this reporter that came from France, and she was interviewing a lot of people but mainly she was focusing her interviews on sweat shops in Los Angeles. She got to my union, she interviewed me and I remember her saying that we had so much power but we didn't know. That we don't use our power and that what she was able to see was that all the work was being done by immigrants, like in the garment industry, the farmworkers, the service, the hotels, all the work was being done by the hands of immigrants. She said, "You guys have so much power, but you don't know how to use it. If everybody worked together and you guys stop working for one day you can paralyze the country, but you guys don't realize the power that you guys have."

It was true. It was sad that everybody can see the work and value, the work that immigrants do for this country but the workers themselves sometimes don't realize how powerful they are. The organizing that we were doing in the '80s, the '90s, it was immigrant workers. As a matter of fact, we had more than 200 workers out on strike defending the rights and also voting on elections. Back 25 years ago, the labor movement is not what it is today. There was a transformation for the better of the workers.

187 was the beginning for not only unions, for the community, for politicians to start looking at us immigrants as something positive, as something that we bring not only labor but also we bring ideas, we bring hard work, we bring within the labor movement we join the unions. Immigrant workers were joining the unions, fighting for their unions. I think it was a matter of survival for a lot of unions. If we don't organize immigrant workers, then those unions were going to die. I think there was, like I said, a matter of we want to survive or we're just going to deal with the issue, deal with the immigrants and little-by-little I think they were changing their way of looking at us.

Like I said, it was the same thing with the politicians. There were politicians that didn't want to have anything to do with immigrants or come out in support of immigrants. On the contrary, there were a lot of politics that attacked us. The big example was at that time, Pete Wilson, which was the reason why we basically change the whole movement in California. I'm not going to say that woke us up because I think we have been doing a lot of work before 187, but I think gave us the courage to fight and to unite I think community labor and make the changes that we needed to make.

I think 187 was what pushed us in the front. Not that we were not fighting, we were fighting but I think this pushed us more towards the front to be stronger and to be more- like think about how we were going to be able to change. That's when the whole world was focusing on registering people to vote and encouraging people to become US citizens. It was a big push that he did it. I think it's the same thing that is happening in the country right now with the president that we have but it's at the national level. I hope that the people will really realize what's going on and do it and become US citizen and use the power to vote and change. That's the only way that we're going to be able to change things.

I remember those meetings usually, they will be late in the afternoon until midnight just trying to put together all the logistics, trying to get funds for everything that was needed for the march and some of the people at the table were my compadres [unintelligible 00:07:31] was at the table from the side of the Union. I remember other people that joined us too like Ken Juan, Kevin De León, Fabian Nuñez. They were not politicians at that time. They were community organizers. On the side of the politicians, I think the one that stands out it's Richard Polanco and Richard Latorre. They were the two politicians that were there with us.

The meetings usually took place at Local 660, which then it was SEIU that Gil Savio was the general manager of the Union, and we will go there and meet and plan and figure out what the program was going to be. Figure it out where the resources were going to come. The slogan, the flyers, everything was being done at those meetings, just basically all the logistics that was going to take place for this big march.

There was community meetings, there were labor meetings and back then I don't remember having any issues. We were working together and our surprise was I think we were not expecting that many people at the march and so maybe when we were planning, when we were doing the logistics, it was simple and not that much of an issue until the day of the march it was when we were like, "Oh my God, this is amazing. This is incredible." People were just coming out and joining the march which I think it was good, but the planning was I think everybody was there for the same reason, for the same purpose, which was to show our strength, show that we were mad that we were not going to take this any longer and that we were going to take the streets. That was very simple and the people who were basically organizing the March, we all had the same goal in mind, which was, absolutely just get our people out, and let's demonstrate that we can- we're not going to allow this. Well, I can speak on behalf of my union. At that time, I was the political and education director, and we were able to mobilize more than 500 workers for that March.

We were the largest contingent at the March, my union has had a lot of mergers, but at that time we were, like I said before, International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Now when you look back at all the videos, and all the marchers they were with the ILGW, and it was one of the largest. I think, for us was a matter of we were not going to fight for workers at the worksite, we had to fight for workers and their families on the streets and that was the reason why we participated. We were part of the organizing committee of187- in protest of 187 we have to go out on the streets.

We have to bring our members out to protest, and then we have to show them that the union was there with them again to protect their children, one of the workers was quoted, in the LA Times the day of the march saying that 187 was not against undocumented workers, 187 was against their children, their future and that they wanted to, basically, keep us down, and because we were becoming too bold, and taking the streets. I believe that it was not against undocumented it was about the future, and we can see what the future looks like today. We got there very early, to the march at that time, my son was 11, my daughter was four.

They had told them get to the march around 9:00, 10:00. People were coming out earlier than that, people were anxious to March. I think that was, what I remembered also was the signs that people homemade signs that you don't see that. It's like, usually their pre-may signs with slogans. This March was not like that, this March, people really were expressing their feelings, and they were like, homemade signs that mean, saying Pete Wilson respect us or some other messages that I don't want to repeat, but the messages were very clear.

I think that was the beautiful thing about it was that I was able to see that people understood what's at stake and making their own signs for testing. It was not just people coming out to see what was going on. I think people were coming out, because they knew what they were coming out for. The messages that they wrote sai it. I had, my husband took a lot of pictures and looking at those pictures and looking at the messages, it's incredible, 25 years later, it's incredible to see the feeling that people had back then. It was beautiful.

That was really impressive. My task was I was MC and I was supposed to introduce all the labor people that showed up to the march and I was in- fortunate enough to be in the platform, looking at the people coming towards the end of the march and it was-- I cannot describe the moment when your head you're expecting 5000 at the most and it's thousands and thousands and thousands of people and we couldn't start the program, because they keep saying the march is just turning in 10 blocks away. My role there was to introduce some of the labor leaders that attended the March, but at the same time, I was able to see how powerful that March turned.

I have to say, there were some politicians that got there. I think after the fact, after they were probably watching the march on TV, and they saw that it was a real movement, and they wanted to come and they wanted to be on the program. Whoever was dealing with the list of the politicians had a real problem. My job was easy, I knew exactly who was going to be there from the unions, because we knew who had committed not only to come but also to bring members out, but in terms of the politicians whoever was dealing with that, they had all this add-ons that they wanted to speak, because it was an amazing March.

What the unions that participated that that I know, was hotel workers, local 11, there was UE, Electrical Workers, the machinist, the UFCW and we have the farmworkers and my union, which at that time was international ladies garment workers union, we had the largest contingent of the labor, which probably was about 500 plus. Everybody was able to see that we were not afraid to take the streets, that we prove to the world that immigrant workers will fight shoulder to shoulder with anybody that wanted to fight with them.

Because the myth was that the immigrant workers were afraid that they will not join the unions, because they were afraid that they were going to lose their jobs, that because of the status, that they will not take that step to form a union. I think with 187, and seeing people on the streets not afraid it was a game changer.

It was that union started to look at those workers have courage, it doesn't matter if they have documents, or they don't, they're willing to fight, they're willing to join unions, they're willing to change the working conditions. That, I think, gave the rest of the unions the idea that more than anything to invest in organizing undocumented workers. I think that the all the the unions that make that decision, back then, have been the unions that are successful today. We knew that if we didn't register people to vote, and if we did not provide English classes or citizenship classes for our members, we were never going to change anything.

I think the program, within the Union, the political program within the union, not only my union, but I think a lot of other unions change and therefore we started looking at registering people to vote. If you were not a citizen, what do you need to do in order to become a citizen and vote? We started schools, citizenship schools, we started a legal clinic within the union that helped people become citizens. That's how I think our minds also change because before we were not looking at that a lot of-- Including immigrants, they didn't want to become US citizens.

It's like, "I'm going back to my country", including my mother she came to this country, same year, as I came and I became US citizen within eight years, but my mom didn't want to do it. When everything was happening with Pete Wilson, she called me and she said, "give me that application. I want to become a US citizen. This guy is it's gonna deport all of us". A lot of people thought that way, that they were going back. Then we had to change our message, our view on how you do things. We started actively to recruit people that were eligible to vote and or trying to help them become US citizens. We had the first, I remember in our union, the ILGWU, we had our first group of people that became US citizens, about 200. We had classes on, after work, on the weekends. There was a lot of demand for that and people understood that they had to become US citizens, that they have to exercise their right, that they have to vote, that that was the only way that we were going to be able to stop the, what was going on, all the attacks that were happening to us. Immigrant workers continue to face the same threats and the same issues, the same problems. I think that even, before, back in the nineties, we had rates but not at the scale that, the attacks that we're facing today, but yes, we had employers who basically call immigration on workers a day before a national labor relations board election. Some of them were deported, some of them were able to come back the following day to vote on the election. At the end, we filed charges and we ended up with a contract, a collective bargaining agreement for those workers and I think that was the first contract in the history of labor movement that has protection even today, that they have protection for immigrant workers, meaning that, if anybody from that time INS contacted employer, they had to contact the union first because we were the legal representatives of the workers. That changed the whole labor movement in terms of, what the needs of immigrants and the need to have language like that to protect them from employers that will try to take advantage. Back then, I think we work as one, and we were able to even though 187 passed, but I think we were able to over turn the proposition because we were united, we were working together. I have to say that 25 years later, I'm very proud of the accomplishments and what we have, looking at California, and the way we have changed California. The politicians that represent the state of California, they're concerned and you can look at all the laws that have passed and since 187, have been, majority has been in favor of workers, trying to give more protections to workers. For unions, I think, we continue to struggle, but I think that we have been very successful at the same time. Now you have home care workers that are part of a union, you have childcare that are part of a union. At the federal level, still, we're still fighting, but I think at the state level, we have been able to gain a lot of momentum, workers have been, thousands of workers have been able to join unions, because of the fight, that we started back in 187. Right now, I think we can't stop, we have, 187 was the cancer that spread through the whole country. There are some States that are fighting and also, looking at the results in Arizona, for the first time in years, Arizona passed an increase in the minimum wage. With, that will, that-- Nobody could imagine that that could happen, in Arizona. Now we have the first Latina mayor in Tucson, so things are happening and also it was not Pete Wilson who did, it probably was Arpaio, but I think they like the people reacted the same way, we're not going to sit, we're not going to wait for people to do things for us, we're going to do it. We're seeing, Nevada is changing a little bit, but like I said, this is an opportunity that we have to change things in our country in the next election. We can't sit, we can't wait. Nobody is going to give us an immigration reform, I think we have to fight for. We have had presidents that have been friends and they did not deliver immigration reform. We have to demand, we can't sit, we had to continue to be on the streets, we had to continue to get more political power, to change things. That's, I think it was a lesson we learned and it, I had to say it was a successful time, but we can't just sit and celebrate. I think we have to go out and continue to fight. I think the 187 gave us- the product of 187 is so beautiful right now. We got so many lawyers, we got politicians, we got great union leaders and that was a product of 187, so now it's our responsibility to continue to fight and to-- Now with the youth the- and the community and the laborer. I think we are stronger today and we might be able to accomplish more than what we accomplish in 25 years.

- 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.

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