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Go back to any major US political event within the past few decades and you can see the same key themes resonating with today’s climate. I leave it to you to decide whether this makes such times prophetic of our own or merely indicates the cyclical nature of the beast. In either case, the battle over California Proposition 187 in 1994 is a dark forbear of contemporary discourse around immigration. That ballot initiative was a reaction to a string of economic, social, and environmental upheavals that laid the blame for all the state’s woes on undocumented immigrants. The new documentary 187: The Rise of the Latino Vote, directed by members of the art collective Dignicraft, revisits this controversy and examines its fallout.
Among other things, Prop 187 called to block undocumented immigrants from public services, including education and non-emergency healthcare, and for the institution of a statewide citizenship-screening system. It was blatantly unconstitutional, flagrantly targeted people of Central American descent, and would cost more money to implement than it would supposedly save by preventing undocumented people from “leeching” off the system. A large majority of Californians opposed it. And yet a majority of those who voted (or at least were able to vote) allowed the measure to pass. Racism and xenophobia overrode all logical concerns. The echoes of 2016 are obvious, and demonstrate the distressing staying power of anti-immigrant (especially anti-Latinx) sentiment in US politics.
But despite its passage, Prop 187 was never enforced and ultimately discarded after a few years, and that’s thanks to the wave of activism and solidarity it galvanized among Latinx Californians and their allies. The documentary 187 posits this political awakening among the state’s Latinx population as the prime mover for California’s shift to becoming the Democratic stronghold it’s been for the past few decades.
Dignicraft incorporates archival materials into 187 with flair, playing historical news footage on miniature TV screens to clearly delineate it from contemporary interviews with figures like California State Senator Maria Elena Durazo and Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund (MALDEF) President Thomas Saenz. It’s as though the materials are the collective memory of the interviewees. (And in a sense, our media history could be said to be an embodiment of our collective memory.) This also underscores how political movements in the modern age are both driven by and filtered through the mass media. Despite all the changes to the communications landscape since the ’90s, that’s another element that certainly hasn’t changed.
187: The Rise of the Latino Vote premieres Tuesday, October 6 in Southern California on KCET, with encores following nationwide.