Grocery bags with Salvadoran boy's story headed for shredder amid furor in Calif.

July 26, 1994|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Contributing Writer

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. -- Grocery bags with a 9-year-old Salvadoran boy's story of how he illegally reached California are headed for a shredder this week, after enraged residents succeeded in getting the bags withdrawn.

The incident is the latest evidence of the growing disdain for illegal immigrants in California. Gov. Pete Wilson has blamed the undocumented aliens for the state's laggard economy, saying that the immigrants drain the budget by clogging welfare rolls and medical clinics.

Tensions have been particularly high here in Marin County, a wealthy San Francisco suburb that in recent years has become a refuge for thousands of immigrants, including many who work as gardeners and construction laborers.

San Rafael, a city of 52,000, houses the headquarters of the campaign for the Save Our State ballot initiative, which would cut medical care for undocumented residents and would not allow children who are here illegally to attend school.

The grocery bags were part of a community arts project featuring the lives of Marin County children. They have been taken out of circulation and are scheduled to be shredded this week, said Bill Daniels, president of United Markets, an independent company with stores in San Rafael and San Anselmo, about 15 miles north of San Francisco.

Mr. Daniels said that he acted after more than 20 infuriated customers called to say that the boy's story glorified illegal immigration and threatened to boycott and picket the supermarkets if they continued to use the bags.

"I said we're not political," Mr. Daniels said. "We don't support anything illegal." He said the message of the boy's story was, "It felt very good to be in America, to be in California and to be in Marin County." When he read it, he said, "It made me feel so warm inside."

The projects' artists, husband-and-wife Larry and Kelly Sultan, said the goal was to let children speak for themselves. Three other grocery bags featured the stories of immigrants from Ethiopia and Vietnam and a child whose mother was a drug abuser.

"Because immigrants are an important part of what's going on in Marin County, their story needs to be heard so people don't stereotype them," said Mr. Sultan.

Despite the complaints, some Marin residents say the anti-illegal immigrant backlash does not reflect the views of the majority. Since word of the planned shredding was reported in area newspapers, hundreds of residents have called Mr. Daniels to say that they liked the bags. Customers offered to pay $2,000 to buy all 40,000 bags with the Salvadoran boy's story, and someone offered to sell the bags as collectors' items.

In the story, the boy, who was not named, says he fled across the Rio Grande to join his mother here. He traveled with the help of a so-called coyote, a smuggler who assists immigrants in crossing the border.

"I saw police hiding behind trees on bicycles," wrote the boy, a fourth-grader at Bahia Vista Elementary School in San Rafael. "I saw them start to approach us and I was the first to run. They caught everyone else but me." He concludes his story with a wish list: "I want to be a lawyer. I would like to have a dog. I would like to see my sister again. She is still in El Salvador."

The boy and his mother, an undocumented resident who works as a house cleaner, are afraid to comment, said Jeff Blackwell, superintendent of schools in San Rafael.

"Now they're fearful someone is going to figure out who they are and this will result in a knock on the door," Mr. Blackwell said.

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