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Trump spurs a fresh wave of Latino activism

Trump spurs a fresh wave of Latino activism
Anti-Trump protesters clash with police Friday outside the California Republican Convention in Burlingame. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles TImes)

As Donald Trump's presidential campaign moves into California, he's being met by a revitalized, youthful Latino-rights movement playing from a different rule book than its predecessors.

Trump faced large and hostile demonstrations outside a rally Thursday night in Costa Mesa and at the Burlingame hotel where he delivered a speech to the California Republican Convention.

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Protest organizers in Southern California said the anti-Trump demonstration spread through word of mouth and involved mostly young people, including many high school and college students. They brought with them Mexican flags, which were once discouraged at immigrant rights rallies for fear they would be regarded as un-American.

But in reaction to Trump, the Mexican flag has re-emerged, unfurled and unapologetic and a symbol for a new generation of Latino activists. Protesters said they have no hesitation about putting their heritage on display, especially when it comes to the rise and rhetoric of Donald Trump.

"People are angry — they are feeling personally attacked and in danger," said Luis Serrano, 28, an organizer with California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance.

Some activists have discussed whether aggressive protests might actually boost Trump with his conservative base and help him win the Republican primary, where he faces Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

On Friday, Trump tried turning the protests to his advantage. After demonstrators blocked his entrance to the hotel, forcing him to walk around a back way, he joked: "It was like crossing the border."

Serrano and other activists said speaking out against Trump outweighs the risk of their protests inadvertently earning the presidential candidate votes. Some groups are trying to use outrage against Trump to register more Latino voters.

"We get pushback regardless what we do. We played, for years, the role of trying to fit into this model minority. We're still not getting accepted," Serrano said.

The demonstrations outside the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa on Thursday night blocked traffic and caused tense moments. Some protesters performed screeching burnouts in their cars or did doughnuts at intersections. Others kicked at and punched approaching vehicles, shouting expletives. Ranchera and hip-hop music was blasted throughout the streets. At least 17 people were arrested, and both a Trump supporter and a teenage anti-Trump protester were hurt.

"They're standing up for their parents and their ancestors," said demonstrator Gaby Hernandez, 36, of Costa Mesa. "The time of tiptoeing around you so you can be at peace, those days are over. We're not afraid."

The crowd of several hundred was significantly smaller than the immigration marches in Los Angeles a decade ago, which drew hundreds of thousands of people.

It was also different in tone. Back then, organizers became concerned about the Mexican flags protesters carried and encouraged them instead to carry American flags. Many complied.

"If we want to live here, we want to demonstrate that we love this country and we love the American flag," radio personality Eddie "Piolin" Sotelo, a protest organizer, said at the time.

Those rallies decried federal bills that would criminalize providing food or medical services to immigrants without legal status.

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The Mexican flag was also an issue in 1994, during protests against Proposition 187, which threatened to deny public services to immigrants without legal status. The flag was prominent in several big demonstrations, and some later felt that hurt the cause by making the protesters somehow seem unpatriotic.

In more recent years, the movement has become bolder.

It was sit-ins, acts of disobedience and other in-your face tactics that helped spark President Obama's executive action in 2012 that shielded a group of young immigrants from deportation and gave them a work permit.

Trump has faced criticism from Latinos and others for his outspoken views about illegal immigration and his plans to build a massive wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. A USC/Times poll found that 77% of Latinos in California have a negative view of Trump.

Still, some demonstrators acknowledged Thursday's protest could have been better planned.

David B. Villanueva, a 23-year-old Fullerton college student, said the last-minute news about Trump's Costa Mesa rally didn't give them much time to organize the community, which led to the disorder.

"Out of personal experience, when there are community organizers present, rallies tend to follow a group of organized leaders that keep the crowd abiding by city regulations in order to have a legal protest," Villanueva said.

With demonstrators willing to push boundaries, a disconnect has surfaced between them and those who paved their way. Some worry that the protests have become out of control.

"While I share the community's anger and frustration, destroying public property is not the answer," Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Norwalk) said Friday in a statement. "When we resort to violence, we're playing into the very hands of people like Donald Trump. I believe the solution must be peaceful protest and more importantly, directing our energy towards shifting our voter registration efforts into high gear."

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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