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Conservative Oildale could be a bellwether of how Trump's message translates in California

Betty Robison got so riled up debating with her son over Donald Trump and immigration that her voice drowned out the barks of her two Chihuahuas.

Betty Robison got so riled up debating with her son over Donald Trump and immigration that her voice drowned out the barks of her two Chihuahuas.

"I don't like Mexicans. I don't like them," the 58-year-old said in the frontyard of her apartment, which is littered with empty soda bottles and hamburger buns still in their plastic bags. "To me, if you can't speak English, why be here? Go back to where you come from."

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"That's the point of coming to America," said Sean Kearns, 31. "Just because of the color of your skin doesn't mean you're not welcome here."

"Well, you watch [Trump] get everyone the hell out of here," retorted Robison, who wore a Dia de Los Muertos shirt. "What gives them the right to come to the United States and take over everything they see?"

Oildale — the conservative hometown of country legend Merle Haggard that is north of Bakersfield — might be as close as California gets to Trump Country. The region has remained loyally Republican while California as a whole has become more Democratic.

Places such as Oildale could prove to be important points on the political map June 7 when California, for the first time since the 1960s, will hold a contested Republican presidential primary. Trump faces Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Oildale, an unincorporated community with a population of 30,000, remains predominantly white while Kern County as a whole is 51.5% Latino. In 2014, the most recent year for which figures were available, it had an unemployment rate of 16% — well above Kern County's 10.2% and Los Angeles County's 6.7% in 2015. Oildale's poverty rate is 32% — well above the county average.

For generations, the community has ridden the boom and bust of the oil industry, but in recent years it's been far more bust than boom.

"If you go through Oildale, it's not as economically thriving as some other quadrants of Bakersfield," said Jeanine Kraybill, assistant professor of political science at Cal State Bakersfield. "We've been seeing a trend of where Republicans are in pockets or areas where it's more manufacturing, blue collar or economically disenfranchised, those sectors are going for Trump, because he's targeting those demographics."

Across the nation, these types of communities have embraced the Trump message of stronger borders and tougher trade policy. In the view of Kraybill and others, Oildale could be a bellwether of sorts as to how well that message translates in California.

"Based on what other trends we've been seeing — if he's going to be gaining ground in the Central Valley, it may be more likely in places like Oildale," she said.

Crossing over the bridge from Bakersfield into Oildale immediately yields a street that most residents warn outsiders to avoid. Beardsley Avenue is where the tweakers roam, residents say, and where one can find drunk men wandering the street polishing off a can of beer.

In a community made up of conservative, blue-collar workers, the appeal for Trump is rooted in ideas that he can fix a system many feel is broken. Residents believe Trump will help the country financially by not allowing other countries to take advantage of the U.S. and that he will support the military.

Also on the list of concerns is immigration, which was one of the top issues of Trump's campaign early on.

Raised in Oildale, Melody Jackson, 54, said she believes Trump's business savvy will help the country's economy. She said she agrees with his views when it comes to immigration, including his call to build a giant wall along the Mexican border to stave off illegal immigration.

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"I have nothing against the Hispanics. But, like they say, do we have a country if we keep letting everybody come over here if they're not legal? No," Jackson said. "He is not a racist. Absolutely not. They want him to appear that he is, but he's not."

Race is a sensitive issue in Oildale.

Residents argue that times have changed the town, but some feel bias against nonwhites persists in some corners of the community. Last year a man, 24, was arrested and charged after he allegedly shouted racial slurs and fired a sawed-off shotgun at a Latino man while the man and his family were outside their Oildale home, according to the Anti-Defamation League. He had the letters WP on his shins, for "white power."

Trump supporter Leonard McGill, 73, flies the American flag from his scooter as he rides through Oildale.
Trump supporter Leonard McGill, 73, flies the American flag from his scooter as he rides through Oildale. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The Oildale Peckerwoods, a racist skinhead clique, operate in the area and periodically make headlines.

Oildale's black population is just about 2%, but the Latino community is now 19%; almost three-quarters of the community is white.

Just across a bridge from Oildale, Maria Hernandez, an immigrant from the central Mexican state of Zacatecas, spoke in dismal terms about Oildale. A lot of people resent and blame immigrants for their own struggles, she said.

"They look at us like we're the trash people," Hernandez, in her late 60s, said from a Bakersfield bus station. "Like we are the intruders."

Lynn Hughes, 49, has lived in Oildale with her husband for a year. They plan to vote for Trump. This leads to constant arguments with Hughes' best friend and roommate, Letisia Mendez, who is Mexican American.

"She just hates Trump," Hughes said as she stood on her porch. "Trump is far from racist. What he's trying to do, people don't stop and listen far enough to what he's saying to understand exactly what he's doing."

Trump just wants Mexicans coming into the U.S. to "legalize themselves," she said.

"You know I don't like that fool," yelled Mendez, 34.

"Oh, here we go," Hughes said, with a smirk. "She's got a whole lot of not nice things to say."

Mendez said she believes that anyone in the country illegally who commits a serious crime, such as selling drugs, should be deported. But Mendez said Trump's rhetoric about immigrants and Mexicans has crossed into prejudice. She said her father came from central Mexico and was undocumented for a while and did nothing but work hard.

She said there should be more staffing to provide security along the border and that immigration officials should "do better investigations on people coming in and out." But Mendez disagreed with Trump's idea of building a mega-wall.

Mendez said she's amazed that Trump has managed to get as far as he has with his campaign, saying: "We have a lot of racist people in this country."

"One of the greatest presidents we ever had was Ronald Reagan, and nobody said he'd get very far, because he was an actor, he wasn't from political things," Hughes said.

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"Yeah, but he wasn't racist," Mendez replied.

Mendez said she feels Trump is bringing racial issues to the surface, making for an uglier climate.

"I think he's racist and I think he's sexist," she said. "I don't appreciate him one bit."

Trump support extends into Bakersfield, the county seat and another GOP stronghold.

Four of the five county supervisors are Republican, as are most of the members of the Bakersfield City Council, said Dean Haddock, Kern County Republican Party chairman. Reagan, Haddock notes, is "like a hero" in Kern County.

Support for both Trump and Cruz has been solid in the county, Haddock said.

Trump "brought up immigration and I know he offended a lot of people, but he even said that if he hadn't brought it up the others would never have talked about it," Haddock said. "I think a lot of the people here see that kind of a message. They're looking for someone who has the guts and the backbone, willing to make the changes, or at least try to, and they haven't seen that happen for a long time."

Jason Powers, 19, from left, Cyrena Jones, 18, and Erika Davis, 19, talk about Donald Trump outside Dagny's Coffee Co. in downtown Bakersfield. They say they oppose the GOP presidential candidate's views but believe their parents will agree with some of his stances.
Jason Powers, 19, from left, Cyrena Jones, 18, and Erika Davis, 19, talk about Donald Trump outside Dagny's Coffee Co. in downtown Bakersfield. They say they oppose the GOP presidential candidate's views but believe their parents will agree with some of his stances. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Though Bakersfield is more demographically diverse than Oildale, Trump's message has appealed to a variety of residents there.

Joyce Monaco-Olivas, a Bakersfield resident, said she plans to vote for Trump. She said that "people who have been here illegally and have children here — if they're upstanding citizens and people who don't have a lot of problems with the law, allow them to stay."

That differed from the billionaire businessman's call for deporting 11 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.

"People are just tired of nobody doing anything," said Monaco-Olivas, 73. "We need to do something about that, or we're going to be a little Mexico in California."

Over his morning coffee at Happy Jack's Pie n' Burger in downtown Bakersfield, Anthony Tarango called Trump's call to deport all immigrants in the country illegally a pipe dream. He didn't give the candidate much of a shot to win the presidency either, he said. But Tarango opposed illegal immigration, saying: "I'm a believer that we should come here legally."

"That being said," the Mexican American added, "my father didn't come here legally."

Twitter: @brittny_mejia

Times staff writer Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.

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