To Calif. schoolkids, spiteful Prop. 187 feels alien and illegal

November 23, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

Huntington Park, Calif. -- At first blush, Huntington Park looks like any other high school, if you don't count the palm trees dotting the sprawling campus. The kids certainly look the same. Nirvana T-shirts, Lakers caps and whatever else the mythic Head Teen has ordered for the day.

You'd have to look very closely to see the anger and the fear.

The problem is, it's unlikely you'd get close enough. Huntington Park is part of Greater L.A., but not so you'd notice.

It's that part of town you might call drive-over land. That's because the freeways roaring above are always pointed somewhere else, in this case toward Palm Springs, the land of Spiro Agnew and Sonny Bono.

If by chance you did get off the road, though, a few miles past downtown L.A., where the Santa Monica Freeway turns into the San Bernadino, you'd think you landed a thousand miles away.

It's a busy place, but nobody is having power breakfasts. It's a place of hard work, of actual sweat, of industry, of large and loud trucks, of flat, seamless forever-ness. You never saw this L.A. in a movie.

But it's where you might come if you want to learn about Proposition 187 -- the new California law, now on hold in the courts, that would deny illegal aliens access to all governmental services, including schools. It's where you find Huntington Park High and Mayra Marcelo and her friends.

They know all about Prop. 187. They have to. Huntington Park High is 97 percent Hispanic in a town where Spanish is the language of choice. Perhaps half the students, maybe even more, are illegal. All that's at stake is the rest of their lives.

"It's cruel," Mayra says of the law. "It's not nice."

She pauses while giving full weight to the issue.

"People," she says, "should think what it's like to wear somebody else's shoes. Just because you don't have papers doesn't mean you don't want the same things everybody else wants."

Mayra is 14, in the ninth grade. She is wearing braces and has hair to her waist. You could easily picture her in another part of L.A., the one where they film "My So-Called Life," the story of teen angst. Mayra's angst is a little different.

"How do they decide who goes and who stays?" she asks. "If you want to say who was here first, it was the Indians, not the white people."

Her friends all agree. They're angry and upset. Already, the school has had a few walkouts, protesting the law. They wonder if they belong.

Maybe they don't belong. The rationale for the law is that California, in a deep and enduring recession, can barely support its own citizens. And 59 percent of those citizens voted for Proposition 187. It sounds reasonable, unless you know more. Unless you know that the California economy lures the illegals here, mostly from Mexico. They pick the fruit. They clean the houses. They watch the kids. They work for less than anyone else will.

Nobody can seriously imagine California without them.

"At least a third of the kids here are transients," says Huntington Park principal Antonio Gomez. "Their parents work in the fields part of the year and work in the factories the other part."

The illegals -- about 1.5 million throughout California -- come because they can get work. And now Californians, who came here in search of paradise and now see it crumbling around them, want to punish somebody. Because they're angry. And because they can.

And it doesn't seem to matter which brown-skinned Californians, most of whom are American citizens, get hurt in the process.

Proposition 187 is a particularly ugly law, requiring schools and hospitals to turn away illegals and even to turn them in to the authorities. The L.A. city council voted not to enforce the law even before the courts stepped in.

The ugliness extends beyond the law, too. In Stockton, Calif., a pizza parlor cashier refused to serve three Hispanic girls -- who were, incidentally, completely legal.

What will happen if the courts say Proposition 187 is constitutional? I ask Mayra and her friends. Their answer shows they know how to get things done in L.A. It shows they've been paying attention.

"We'll riot," Mayra says, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

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