SAN GABRIEL VALLEY / COVER STORY : Seeking Justice for Latinos : Fabian Nunez leads an aggressive campaign for the rights of the 'disenfranchised.' His tactics have drawn praise and stirred criticism.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Is la migra on your back?

Does the sewing factory refuse to pay minimum wage?

Want to become a U.S. citizen and cast your ballot against Proposition 187?

If you live in the Pomona Valley and have answered yes to any of these questions, chances are that sooner or later you will cross paths with Fabian Nunez.

In a community where Latinos--many of them poor and undocumented--make up more than half of all residents, Nunez is something of a folk hero: a labor organizer, immigration activist and businessman.

"We are in a struggle for justice for a segment of the population that has been marginalized and disenfranchised," thunders Nunez, who favors the fiery rhetoric of the civil rights movement. "We're tired of being scapegoats. We want to be part of the mainstream of American society and we want the door to be open to us as people who give more to the system than they take."

But the fast-talking, 28-year-old Mexican American also has become a lightning rod for controversy among some who believe his methods are manipulative and his voice shrill.

Last month, after helping students at Ganesha High School organize a walkout in opposition to Proposition 187, the initiative that would deny education and most social services to undocumented immigrants, Nunez drew the wrath of school officials.

"I'm not against any of his political activities," said Cassandra A. George, Pomona Unified School District's assistant superintendent of secondary schools. "But adults who use schoolchildren as a ticket to publicity for their own personal political agendas are harming the education of children who need it the most."

With days to go before the election, Nunez has even drawn criticism from more conservative Latino leaders who prefer a more low-key approach and think that mass demonstrations and the waving of Mexican flags will raise the hackles of white voters.

Nunez disagrees.

"I tell them that our people have been taking a conventional approach for the last 502 years and look where it's gotten us," Nunez fumed. "As a community we haven't prospered. So it's time for a different approach."

But sometimes, Nunez's tactics can lead to a bigger reaction than even he anticipates.

When he helped the students organize the walkout against Proposition 187, the teens marched to City Hall, where they slammed Pomona Unified for failing to take a stance against the measure, even though the school board had already adopted a resolution opposing it. The lead speaker and organizer of the protest also used derogatory terms for homosexuals.

The district responded by suspending 70 students, infuriating Nunez.

Nunez defends the students, saying the district hadn't gone far enough in fighting the initiative. "It's a nice gesture to see them wearing (anti-Proposition 187) buttons, but we want to see concrete action" fighting the measure, Nunez said.

Regarding the derogatory comments, Nunez said that they could not be seen as discriminatory against gays, another group that has been fighting for civil rights, because Latinos are not powerful enough to be guilty of discrimination.

"After 500 years of having to endure slavery, oppression, exploitation in our community, our people are in no way, shape or form able to discriminate," Nunez said.

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Many of the kids in the San Diego barrio where Nunez grew up became junkies and criminals, he says. Some were recruited by Mexican gangsters last year to kill the Catholic archbishop of Tijuana. But Nunez, one of 12 children in a poor family of day laborers, says he realized early that education was a ticket out. Encouraged by an eighth-grade teacher who prodded him to consider college, Nunez challenged counselors who wanted to track him into vocational education courses and signed up for advanced-placement classes instead.

He also began questioning the disparity of wealth around him. In Tijuana, the young man saw mansions standing next to cardboard shanties. In his San Diego neighborhood, he saw bright, talented friends succumb to violence. He was told it was a matter of choice, but to him it seemed more like luck.

"You can walk away from it but you can't take it out of you," he says of the barrio.

While taking Latin American studies and political science courses at UC San Diego, Nunez had his first taste of activism, organizing workers to join a shipbuilders union and writing political stories for the school newspaper.

In 1988, after graduating from UC San Diego, Nunez wanted to head for Central America. "I was ready to join the Sandinistas," he said. Instead, a friend persuaded him to take a job in East Los Angeles at the One Stop Immigration and Educational Center.

Nunez stayed four years, teaching English and civics to immigrants and helping them become legal residents under the amnesty law. He rose to regional director at One Stop Immigration and opened offices statewide. Along the way, he married his college sweetheart, a nurse. Nunez and his wife, Maria, have two children, Esteban, 5, and Teresa, 3.

In 1992, Nunez moved to Pomona as a consultant for a nonprofit group called the Small Business Development Center. He learned how to do feasibility studies, draw up business plans and assess the needs of small Latino businesses.

After concluding that more networking was needed, Nunez founded the Latino Chamber of Commerce in Pomona, which now has 70 members. He also used the skills he had learned to start his own mortgage business, which provides a modest living for his family and gives him the flexibility to continue his activism.

That same year, Nunez started La Alianza (The Alliance), a Pomona immigrant rights group, with Humberto Camacho, a labor union organizer. He also helped found the Latino Forum, an umbrella organization that coordinates the activities of various community groups in the Pomona Valley.

One of the Latino Forum's biggest successes so far has been pushing through district elections for City Council to replace at-large elections, a change aimed at taking advantage of Latino voting blocs. As a result, the number of Latino City Council members jumped from two to four (there are seven seats). The city also has a Latino mayor, Edward Cortez.

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With his '90s yuppie savvy and '60s civil rights consciousness, with one foot in Mexican issues--he writes a weekly column for a Mexico City newspaper--and another planted in U.S. ones, many say Nunez exemplifies the coming of age and diversity of Latino power in the San Gabriel Valley.

Harry Pachon, director of the Tomas Rivera Center, a national policy research institute at the Claremont Colleges, says changing demographics in the Inland Empire have helped propel Nunez into the limelight. In the 1980s, Pachon says, cities such as Pomona, Montclair and Ontario became ports of entry for Latino immigrants. The newcomers brought with them a panoply of needs that Nunez is bent on addressing.

"Fabian emerged out of nowhere two years ago," Pachon said, "and it's his constant presence on issues that has made him a leader."

When the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service staged a raid near a Pomona school last May, Nunez organized press conferences and rallies to focus attention on what he called civil rights violations. They culminated with Mayor Cortez announcing the city would sue the INS over what it considered a pattern of illegal search and seizure by Border Patrol agents targeting people with brown skin.

When 200 Latino workers walked off the job last year, claiming unfair labor practices at Cal Spas, a Pomona firm that manufactures fiberglass spas and wood frames, La Alianza organized a food drive to make sure their families didn't go hungry. Nunez has kept the issue in the public eye, organizing demonstrations and lobbying the City Council to investigate whether Cal Spas violated the law.

Through its attorneys, Cal Spas said that Nunez offered to mediate the labor dispute but that it declined because the matter is before the National Labor Relations Board. Cal Spas declined to comment further. The NLRB has scheduled a hearing in December to address the complaints and cross complaints filed in the battle.

Some believe Nunez's tactics are divisive.

On Oct. 16, Nunez, who is on the steering committee of the National Coordinating Committee for Citizenship and Civic Participation, an anti-Proposition 187 group, filled 27 buses with 3,000 protesters to join the 70,000 people who marched through downtown Los Angeles to denounce the measure.

Nancy Lopez, a community and civic leader who has organized the Cinco de Mayo festival in Pomona for 16 years, also opposes the initiative but believes that a confrontational approach can only backfire.

"I'm not a shouter," Lopez said. "I respect and admire the young man but I don't believe in marches. I felt that they only gave more strength to those who are in favor of Proposition 187 when they go to this extreme.

"And Fabian wants recognition. He wants to be out there in front. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's the way you do it. He says he's for the Hispanic people, but he's not completely honest. Fabian is looking for something for himself and he's using people to get it."

Nunez contests that view.

"There's no gain for me in this. I have no interest in running for political office," the activist responds. "I feel a responsibility to work with the community I serve. I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I didn't battle the problem, make a dent in history, not as an individual but collectively with the work we're doing."

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Indeed, Nunez seems to relish the battle, choosing inflammatory metaphors to make his point.

"Latino workers are the modern-day slaves of Southern California," he said. "The only difference between slaves in the 1800s and workers in factories today is $4.25 an hour."

The activist said he recently received a death threat. He also says he gets frequent anonymous calls from people who utter racist slurs, then hang up.

But Nunez says he is willing to use whatever means necessary to bring attention to issues he considers important. For that he has won kudos from other local organizers.

"He has brought fresh blood to the labor movement and is a key player, not only in Pomona but in the region. One thing that stands out is his willingness to unite workers across ethnicity," said Trevor Campbell, an African American labor consultant who teaches sociology and history at Cal State San Bernardino.

One recent day, Nunez got a call from a woman who worked at a lamp factory in the Inland Empire. The workers had been told that from now on they would be paid 19 cents for each lamp they assembled instead of being paid by the hour.

Under a streaked dawn sky, Nunez pulled up outside the factory in his beat-up BMW with a bumper sticker proclaiming "No Te Dejes, Inmigrante" ("Defend Yourself, Immigrant") to meet the workers before their morning shift. Nervously, they gathered.

"Look, what's important is to set a time to meet so that we can talk about these problems," Nunez told them in rapid-fire Spanish. "How about in someone's house? Where? What time do you think we can get the most people to attend?"

After setting a date, Nunez handed out his La Alianza business card. Then, as the workers filed in to start their shift, Nunez loitered conspicuously around the back entrance, making sure he caught the eye of the foreman.

"Sometimes it helps if they know someone is watching," he muttered. "Then maybe they'll realize they have to pay attention to the law."

Nunez says immigrant workers often don't realize they even have rights--thus a large part of his job is explaining the law to them. Sometimes, factory bosses actually like having him come around, he says, because when workers know their rights, they're less likely to run from INS agents and their companies don't lose a trained employee.

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With polls showing Proposition 187 with a shrinking lead, the controversial measure is shaping up as Nunez's biggest challenge. But whether it wins or loses, Nunez says he believes the proposal has had an effect its backers never intended: galvanizing Latinos into a massive political bloc that will make them a potent force in the 21st Century.

Each week, Nunez visits factories and wades into strawberry fields to persuade Latinos to apply for amnesty in their adopted country, become citizens and vote for leaders who will fight for their rights.

He estimates that since 1991, community groups in the Pomona Valley have registered 10,000 people who are eligible to become citizens. (There's no way to confirm this since figures are kept by county and Nunez's work spans Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.)

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While some, including Pachon, believe the figure may be high, they point out that even half that number is significant, since 200 votes can often decide a local election. In the Pomona Valley, La Alianza is at the center of efforts to mobilize Latinos.

"Fabian has become a symbol in Pomona," said Angie Carrizosa, a Pomona councilwoman and bilingual education teacher. "To many people in our community, he represents the soldier against discrimination. He can articulate the fear, the anger. . . . Whenever he needs my assistance or support, I'll be there."

Carrizosa said that Nunez was instrumental in resolving a perennial problem with Latino laborers--many of them legal immigrants--who congregated in front of a Pomona hardware store looking for day work. Concerned that the loitering would scare off customers, local merchants called the police, which brought the INS.

Nunez brought the issue before the City Council, Carrizosa said, offering suggestions such as setting up a center where workers could register for jobs and employers could call up to hire day labor. Pomona has allocated $100,000 to do just that.

On a more personal level, Nunez set up a canopy under which workers could get doughnuts and coffee on rainy days while they waited for work.

Ramon Garcia-Ponce, a Cal Spas worker who walked off the job last year, says Nunez helped his family survive when he was unemployed.

"We didn't know where to turn to find food, we didn't know the government had a plan to help people in need, and he found this out for us," Garcia-Ponce said.

"He's trying to intervene for those who are oppressed," the laborer added. "He wants to work with the most humble."

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