If East L.A.'s Latinos speak for the nation's, a wall could come tumbling down on Trump

One thing about Donald Trump.

Say his name and you get a reaction.

On the Eastside of Los Angeles, as Trump's star rises, most of those reactions are not simpatico.

The first word out of the mouth of Juan Gris, for instance, was unprintable, and what came after that was just as prickly.

"He's a racist," said Gris, a musician who was hanging out at Jim's Burgers in Boyle Heights, preparing to entertain lunch-hour diners on 1st Street.

For months, Trump was dismissed by many as an egomaniac without a chance of winning the GOP nomination to be president of the United States. But now he leads the race, even though you could fit the entirety of his policy plans on a matchbook cover.

His popularity is partly an anti-establishment phenomenon, but it's largely because Trump is still riding the horse that got him to the head of the pack: tough talk on immigration.

Trump has gone from sparring with the pope to jousting with former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who — like Juan Gris — resorted to unprintable language when Trump promised not only to build a border fence to the clouds, but to make Mexico pay for it.

"Please, you Hispanics, Latinos in the U.S., open your eyes," Fox said last week on CNN, warning that the U.S. "is going to fail if it goes into the hands of a crazy guy."

Orlando Calderon, 19, says his eyes are wide open.

"It's a joke that Trump is running for president," said the Los Angeles Valley College student. He wants to be a physician. He predicted an agricultural industry collapse if Trump's promised "deportation force" becomes a reality.

See more of our top stories on Facebook >>

But he doesn't think Sens. Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz would be any better.

He'll be punching in his first-ever vote for a president this fall, and he's hoping Bernie Sanders' name is still on the board.

As I roamed the Eastside, stopping by restaurants and shops, I found more disappointment than surprise among Latinos who've been following the presidential campaign and the spectacle of Trump's candidacy.

"I haven't heard anything positive," Sally Zhu said at BJ's Party Rentals in Monterey Park, where she and Veronica Lozano told me the Donald Trump piñata business remains brisk. "I heard someone say, 'Maybe we should get this so we could beat the blank out of him.'"

Trump has been gloating about dominating last week's Latino vote in Nevada, which would have been remarkable if it weren't so misleading.

He got the most Latino votes in the Nevada caucus, but that was a tiny sampling of registered Republicans in a state where the huge majority of Latinos are Democrats.

Latino Democrats outnumber Latino Republicans 2 to 1 in the U.S.

Not all Latinos support illegal immigration, by any stretch, and reasonable people have legitimate concerns about the costs and implications of having 11 million people here illegally. But on the Eastside of Los Angeles, just about everyone has a personal connection to the issue and understands the nuances and complexities ignored by Trump.

They know that people who are hungry, poor, living apart from loved ones and in fear for their lives because of violence are willing to take great risks for safety and opportunity.

And they know, often firsthand, that American titans of industry — many of them Republicans — are happy to wink and nod and hire housekeepers, strawberry pickers and chicken pluckers without much concern about documentation.

Interested in the stories shaping California? Sign up for the free Essential California newsletter >>

Get rid of them, says Trump, simple as that.

Build a wall and send the bill to Mexico. And each time one of Mexico's ex-presidents quite sensibly says, "Shove it, Trump," the candidate has a favorite applause line: "The wall just got 10 feet higher."

By election time, Trump's wall is going to be higher than Trump Tower.

"I really can't fault him for saying it because people are liking it," said Chris Ortega, a volunteer at Libros Schmibros lending library in Boyle Heights. "On the other hand, my parents came illegally for the opportunities here, and I think everyone does at least deserve an opportunity to succeed."

Ortega, a 22-year-old Amherst College graduate, said his parents came decades ago and are both legal now, his mother having received amnesty as a refugee from El Salvador.

"Trump has found an angle within the Republican Party — the immigration issue. And he's put it at the forefront, trying to be as extreme as possible," said Alberto Sahagun, who teaches history at Cal Poly Pomona and is a regular at Libros Schmibros.

The campaign has become a hot topic there.

"It's sad that we've gotten to this point," Sahagun said. "And I think a lot of white, American, working-class poor are mistakenly blaming immigrants for economic and social problems."

Libros Schmibros clerk Cuauhtemoc Hernandez, 25, said the targeting of one group or another has been a powerful force throughout American political history. If things aren't the way you think they ought to be, there's got to be a villain out there.

African Americans, Communists, Muslims.

"If you don't have a clear understanding of the system, and you're looking for scapegoats, it makes it easier when a candidate points out an enemy and everyone can rally behind that. Latino people are being targeted now because of shifts in demographics," said Hernandez.

"When you see some of the rhetoric Trump uses, making America great again, well, it was only ever great for white people. And when you say let's take it back, there's this mentality of making America great by regressing. It does appeal to a certain population."

Yes, which is why some people think Trump is a self-promotional marketing genius.

But if his red-meat pandering sends a stampede of Latinos to the polls nationwide to take mighty swings at the piñata, he could turn out to be this campaign's biggest fool.

Twitter: @LATstevelopez


The presidential race is so awful you can't look away

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 28, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "THE LATINO VOTE - Trump is no match for them - Mention the GOP front-runner's name on L.A.'s Eastside, and you're likely to hear a lot of responses that aren't printable" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe


9:18 p.m.: This column was updated with minor changes and a new headline.

This column was originally published at 12:00 a.m.