Angel Cervantes did not mark his 23rd birthday with cake. Instead, he celebrated the occasion with "birthday water."
"It's a birthday I won't ever forget," said Cervantes, one of five Latino college students now in their 10th day of a hunger strike at UC Irvine in which they are consuming only liquids.
The students, who are beginning to exhibit physical symptoms from their fast, vow not to eat food until affirmative action programs in the UC system are restored and expanded. They also plan to ignore a deadline imposed by university officials to leave their tent encampment at the UCI administration building by midnight tonight.
In expectation of a showdown with UCI officials, students from UC San Diego, UC Riverside, UCLA and UC Santa Barbara are expected to join the strikers in a rally at UCI today, the hunger strikers say. The strikers also are calling for a statewide camp-out at all UC schools today.
As a result of the strike at the placid suburban campus, the students say that two of them have undergone tests and X-rays this week at a hospital for severe back pain, aggravated by the fast and sleeping on mattresses on cold concrete. Another striker with a heart murmur has complained of chest pain and is scheduled to have an electrocardiogram today.
All five say they exhibit symptoms associated with starvation--headaches, stomach pains, declining blood pressure and heart rate and extreme fatigue. The body's major organs begin to fail after 30 to 50 days without food, according to medical experts.
The strike was sparked by the UC Board of Regents' decision in July to roll back affirmative action programs at the 162,000-student system. That vote prompted walkouts and protests by thousands of students at UC campuses across the state earlier this month.
"My mother doesn't like this. It scares her," said UCI student and hunger striker Cesar Cruz, who uses a wheelchair to go to the restroom because of what he says is weakness from fasting. "But she believes in our cause."
Before beginning the fast, the students signed an agreement with UCI officials to end the strike after 10 days. But with no official response from the UC governing board about their demands--which also include a substantial reduction in student fee hikes--the strikers say they won't stop now.
"The only way to get us out of here is to have us arrested," said Cervantes, a graduate student at the Claremont Colleges who joined the protest as a gesture of solidarity. "A hunger strike has no limits."
UCI officials have remained tight-lipped about whether they intend to enforce the deadline.
"I don't think anyone has made a firm decision yet as to what will be done," said Richard Elbaum, UCI's director of communications.
Students have held hunger strikes on UC campuses over the years, with mixed results.
In May and June, 1993, nine UCLA students fasted for 14 days, demanding the university grant departmental status to its Chicano studies program. In a compromise, UCLA agreed to bolster the program.
Around the same time at UCI, 70 Asian American students were staging a "controlled fast," in which groups of five would refuse to eat, in shifts of 24 hours. The monthlong protest, aimed at pressuring UCI into accelerating the creation of an Asian American studies program, raised campus awareness but did little to move administrators.
If their health permits a trip to Sacramento, Cruz and Cervantes on Monday or Tuesday plan to seek a meeting with Gov. Pete Wilson, whom they blame for the affirmative action cutbacks. Last week, the pair went to San Francisco for a UC regents' meeting to press their demands.
"Wilson is the one with the power to appoint the regents," said Cervantes. "He is our main target."
Aside from physical risks, the hunger strike has also jeopardized the students' academic standing. Confining themselves to their tent encampment, the students haven't attended their classes since the strike began. Some have been forced to drop out of class completely.
Friends are sharing class notes with the strikers, and some faculty members are volunteering to tutor the students during the protest. But the physical effects of the strike make it difficult for the protesters to concentrate, they say.
"I really can't read for more than 30 minutes," said Cruz, 21, majoring in Spanish, history and women's studies. "I'm physically worn out."
Enthusiasm for the hunger strike has been lukewarm on the campus, which has never achieved distinction for student activism. Though a petition supporting the strike has been signed by more than 400 students, several noon-time rallies have attracted fewer than 25 people.
A handful of students have mocked the nonviolent protest by eating meals within plain view of the encampment, say the hunger strikers. Someone else left a box of doughnuts--later discarded--just outside their encampment earlier this week, they say.
"That was really ridiculous," said Enrique Valencia, 21, who like the other strikers has his vital signs checked twice daily by university medical staff.
The students defend their decision to stage the strike at UCI instead of a school like UCLA or UC Berkeley, which would be more likely to rally behind them. In fact, they say, that's the point.
"There is no history of struggle on this campus, and if we can create consciousness here, we can do it anywhere," said Cruz. "I think we've scored a major victory here in the most conservative county in the state, the birthplace of Proposition 187."
Meanwhile, it's with a sense of irony that the current UCI hunger strikers view the upcoming Halloween. In Spanish, the celebration is called Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
"It's an inside joke among us," said Cervantes. "We are just hoping that's none of us."
Times staff writer Dexter Filkins contributed to this story.