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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / PROPOSITION 187 : Student Walkouts Transform a Political Issue Into a Cause

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The student walkouts that have disrupted schools in Los Angeles in recent weeks have their roots in a televised speech by Gov. Pete Wilson last spring that offended Angel Cervantes.

Cervantes did not like the governor’s tough stance against illegal immigrants, and now the 22-year-old graduate student finds himself a somewhat reluctant leader of efforts to channel youthful energy against Proposition 187, the Wilson-backed measure that would deny public services to illegal immigrants.

“I’ve been trying to organize students for years, but this is the one issue I’ve been waiting for,” Cervantes said Thursday, preparing for the final days of campaigning before the Nov. 8 election.

“We want to have statewide, organized student mobilizations--hopefully in the form of sit-ins and forums . . . and precinct walking,” Cervantes said. “And our goals are 100% after the election to continue the movement.”

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The number of students who walked out declined Thursday to about 4,000 in the Los Angeles area, less than half the number that participated in Wednesday’s demonstrations. Students from dozens of schools joined in, but as in past days most protests involved only some of the youngsters, mostly Latino, at each campus.

The largest demonstration Thursday was at Cerritos College, where 1,000 youths from nearby high schools took part in a protest rally.

Although most were peaceful marches, at least 11 students were arrested for throwing rocks--seven in the harbor area and four in Palmdale.

The potential for the protests to turn more violent worries student leaders such as Cervantes who are more confident in their power to incite than in their ability to calm.

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“We are concerned,” he said. “We’re trying to send the message to keep the peace.”

Born in San Fernando, the son of Mexican immigrants, Cervantes grew up steeped in Chicano culture. He began his activism as Occidental College’s first Latino student body president, fighting for financial aid for undocumented students. He graduated with a degree in history and is now studying history at Claremont Graduate School.

He and friends formed the October Student Movement with the intent of staging anti-Wilson rallies the month before the election. The Republican governor has made slowing illegal immigration a main point in his campaign for reelection against Democrat Kathleen Brown.

But Cervantes found himself swept into the Proposition 187 cause. He was recruited by Californians United Against 187, one of the groups formed to campaign against the measure.

He joined hundreds of high school and college students to discuss mobilization techniques at a summer conference in Fresno sponsored by the group Californians United, and he organized several large student meetings at Occidental College this fall.

To get the word out about what became known as “the Student Movement,” he tapped into time-honored political networks, such as campus MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) groups, and made use of the electronic mail that is available to many college students.

It was during the September meeting, Cervantes recalled, that he first heard casual talk from high school students about walking out. The first walkout occurred about two weeks later.

Although the Student Movement supports students’ decisions to walk out of school, it has pushed for more involvement in traditional political activities. A rally and precinct walk against Proposition 187 is scheduled for Saturday morning at Elysian Park, near Dodger Stadium.

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Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina on Thursday joined efforts to redirect student emphasis. Greeted by applause and chants at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, Molina challenged students to sign a pledge to walk door-to-door Saturday.

Asked whether she thought the opposition to Proposition 187 is galvanizing students for a more lasting political movement, Molina was circumspect: “We don’t know yet,” she said. “Right now it’s just a lot of confusion and a lot of anger.”

Not all students who oppose the proposition have gotten caught up in that anger, however. Many high school MECHa chapters have tried to take a measured stance, opposing walkouts and providing alternatives.

Araceli Resendez, a senior at San Fernando High School, attended one of Cervantes’ meetings but remained resolute that walking out of school was not her style. Instead, on Thursday, she and other members presented Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) with a petition bearing thousands of student signatures against the initiative--and a few for it.

In Spanish class at Huntington Park High School last week, 15-year-old Mariela Flores watched the film “El Norte,” a Spanish-language saga detailing the northward trek of Central American immigrants in search of a better life in the United States.

While sitting in the darkened schoolroom, viewing immigrants who find brutal exploitation and racial discrimination, Flores said she thought: “Yeah, that’s the way it is here and it’s just getting worse.”

So Flores began calling classmates, encouraging them and their friends to join school walkouts.

Pyle is a Times education writer, Romero a special correspondent. Times staff writers Henry Chu and Isaac Guzman and special correspondents Leslie Berestein and Jon Garcia contributed to this story.

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