Programming note: To learn more about the Hmong, watch “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell” on Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
Sandra Celedon’s hometown barely resembles the California we know. There are no Golden Gates or Hollywood walks. No sweeping Malibu vistas. No Pacific fog creeping over a city by the bay. Here, labor leader Dolores Huerta has more star power than Angelina Jolie.
This Fresno County town is in the “other California,” and though it is situated smack in the middle of the state, equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles, there is nothing else that’s “middle” about it. It’s not middle class. Nor middle of the road.
It grew up around a large brick winery owned by the California Wine Association, from which it gets its name: Calwa. It’s a good guess, though, that few here can afford vintage libations, red or white.
Of the nearly 1,400 people who call this place home, 1,221 are Latinos like Celedon. Mexicans, really, according to the latest census. Lately, Punjabi families have started to move in. You can see them along with Hmong in Calwa Park, the rare place that makes news in a good way. A quarter-mile graffiti wall is celebrated as the largest legal one in Northern California.
Of the 1,400 people, more than a third are officially classified as poor. Unofficially, many more are struggling.
Once a shipping yard for the Santa Fe Railroad, Calwa is now consumed by heavy industrial companies like Allied Electric and Gray Lift. Trains and trucks blow through here so fast and so often that people automatically raise their voices and think nothing of it. When Celedon was a little girl, she thought the thunderous noise was a sign that Jesus was coming.
Calwa, a suburb of Fresno just 4 miles southeast of downtown, lies in the heart of California’s Central Valley. Forgotten to the rest of California. Forgotten to America. Just forgotten.
That’s what Celedon tells me on a glorious spring afternoon. The rain, so unrelenting that it damaged tender tomato plants and flooded almond orchards, has finally stopped and given way to a sky as blue as it gets around here. The air, too frequently, is a toxic mix of dust, exhaust, crop pesticides, tainted water and poverty; Central Valley counties routinely get failing grades for pollution.
The air, too frequently, does not carry change. But now with Donald Trump in the White House and California’s midterm primaries set for June 5, Celedon is convinced change may finally come – to her beloved hometown and to the Central Valley, one of the few remaining bastions of conservativism in America’s bluest state.
To understand Celedon’s optimism is to understand that a whole generation of activists like her grew up in places like this, in a California that has not always been friendly to immigrants. Young people here acquired a quiet but fierce determination to make sure their own sons and daughters did not get burned by the same forces, which they saw rising during Trump’s campaign and subsequent election. They were galvanized to action.
As an immigrant myself and as a journalist who has covered politics, I grew curious about what seemed like a fresh injection of energy in Valley towns and cities. Immigrants are not always politically engaged. What was different now?
Some of the answers lie here in Calwa Park, where Celedon played as a girl, got her fill of hot dogs and dreamed her American dream. But years of mismanagement left this green space littered and forlorn, part of a Fresno park system that earned the dubious distinction of being the worst of any metropolitan area in the nation. It was an indignity Celedon helped erase. Without parks, where would children play? Where would people walk?
On our left is a 26-foot-tall metal rocket, a Cold War relic boasting American prowess in space. To the right are picnic tables volunteers will soon paint, along with the rocket. The improvements, planned by Celedon’s nonprofit Friends of Calwa, also include planting nine Raywoods.
Fresno County has been home for Celedon since she arrived in California as a little girl. Her parents crossed the border legally from Mexico to work in the Central Valley farms and fields that produce one-fourth of America’s food. But she didn’t have a visa and grew up undocumented until she turned 16, when she was able to get a green card. At 21, she became a citizen.
Celedon does not take her civic duties lightly. At 33, she’s a mother, an advocate, a social worker, an activist on fire. She carries childhood memories that remind her of her destiny.
One is of a public hearing at her elementary school, where local politicians promised speed bumps for her neighborhood. She finished high school and went on to earn a college degree in public health, but the breakers were never built.
Another is of Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot measure that was designed to block undocumented immigrants from receiving state-funded services. Under it, Celedon would have been barred from public schools and hospitals. She felt politicians were attacking the very core of who she was, as though she were less than human.
Republican politicians promoted the highly divisive measure, and the anti-immigrant rhetoric turned ugly. So ugly, in fact, that years later state lawmakers called it the “most mean-spirited and un-American” measure in California history. In heavily immigrant cities and towns like Calwa, the campaign to pass Prop 187 was crushing, a total repudiation of an entire group of people.
Voters approved Prop 187, although a federal court ruled it unconstitutional and it was never implemented. Still, it proved to be an earthquake for California politics. Things would never again be the same. Over the years, California became the most liberal state in the nation and now, the beating heart of the Trump resistance.
It’s not necessarily that way, however, in the cities and towns that surround the vast Central Valley farmlands tucked between I-5 and Highway 99. These are places where many immigrant families still live in isolation and fear, heightened after Trump’s election. Little has changed – politically, culturally, economically – since the time Celedon was a girl.
But things feel different now, Celedon tells me as we drive alongside sidewalks on Maple Street that didn’t exist too long ago. Now they glisten under the sun, trophies of Celedon’s activism. We meander past the Cowboy Café, a store owned by a Yemeni man who helped Celedon obtain her green card, and the Los Amigos Food Market, the sole grocery in Calwa.
For Celedon, politics isn’t just about the presidency or the men and women who represent her in Washington and Sacramento. Politics starts at ground level.
And it is very personal.
“People get elected to office and then move on,” Celedon says. “We have to be able to create power in our communities.”
Calwa may be forgotten and the people may even be forgiving. But they never forget. And this is the most woke she’s ever seen her people.
‘We were so scared’
At Calwa Park’s El Dorado Taqueria, Celedon orders mangonadas for herself and two of her closest allies: Amparo Cid and Aida Macedo. The three women slurp their mango drinks laced with chamoy and chile-lime salt and reflect on the things that inspire their activism.
Cid and Macedo, both 34, are young lawyers who left more politically comfortable environments in San Francisco and Los Angeles to devote their energies to the Central Valley.
“There are so many Calwas in California,” Cid says. “People here have been kept down for so long.”
“I didn’t even know where Fresno was,” adds Macedo. “Then I come out here and realize people don’t even have safe drinking water here. Or sidewalks. I had never seen illiterate people before.”
Agriculture is a $47 billion industry in California but there’s a mighty chasm between farmers and their laborers, who are mostly minorities and immigrants and make next to nothing for toiling long hours in fields and factories. That’s why cities like Fresno and Bakersfield top the list for most concentrated poverty. That’s why a Congressional Research Service study found parts of the Central Valley were even poorer than Appalachia.
Cid’s parents left Mexico and worked in a garlic factory in Gilroy, about 30 minutes southeast of San Jose. Even now, garlic reminds her of when her mother and father would come home from work, their clothes and hair drenched in the pungent aroma.
Cid’s father idolized Ronald Reagan. He loved Reagan’s cowboy hats and boots and his talk of the American dream. He was a socially conservative Catholic man and he respected the GOP. Perhaps his whole family might have been that way except for Proposition 187.
“Because of that, the GOP lost my entire family,” Cid says.
California Republicans, led by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, touted Prop 187 in the same way Trump talks about building walls. It was even called the “Save Our State” initiative.
Cid remembers being called a wetback for the first time by elementary school friends she had known since kindergarten. At 10, she realized that no matter her successes, some people would always see her only as a Mexican.
The GOP did not see the backlash coming. The Los Angeles Times described it like this:
“His re-election apparently doomed, Wilson seized on the provocative initiative and, through a racist campaign, tapped the latent bigotry of Californians to rescue his flailing candidacy, a Pyrrhic victory that has badly damaged Republicans by alienating Latinos in the state and nationwide ever since.”
Things got even worse. In 1996 came Proposition 209 outlawing affirmative action, and then two years later Proposition 227 restricted bilingual education in public schools. For Latinos, who have since surpassed whites in population in California, the measures felt like a direct attack on their heritage. They began asserting their political power and got their ultimate vengeance at the polls by voting, along with moderate whites and Asian-Americans, for Democrats.
If there is a legacy of Prop 187, it is this: After the referendum, California’s Republican Party experienced a steady decline, and the state that gave its electoral votes to Richard Nixon, Reagan and then George H.W. Bush became solidly blue. Interestingly, it happened about the same time that Southern states like Texas, also with large numbers of immigrants, were turning red across the board. Today, the GOP controls all statewide Texas offices, the state legislature and makes up a majority in the Texas congressional delegation.
But in California, no Republican has held statewide office since Arnold Schwarzenegger completed his last term as governor in 2011. Hillary Clinton defeated Trump with nearly 62% of the vote, and the state has sued the Trump administration on virtually every issue: environment, health care, education, technology and, of course, immigration.
The irony of Prop 187 was that the backlash against the GOP went on to benefit the very people their measure once targeted.
More than 10 million immigrants – a quarter of America’s foreign-born population – live in California and no state is more immigrant-friendly in terms of laws and policies. A driving force was a fundamental belief that all boats need to be raised; that the world’s seventh-largest economy had to do all it could to protect its huge immigrant labor force.
In just over two short decades, the state has transformed itself from Prop 187 to innovative thinking on immigration policy, providing tuition, financial aid and health coverage to all children, issuing driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status and now, allowing even undocumented immigrants to obtain professional licenses, including law licenses.
With it came the growth and maturity of the state’s immigrant rights movement, which exploded in the urban centers and is now commanding attention in the agricultural Central Valley.
The three women standing before me at this Calwa taqueria are part of that movement, children of immigrants who grew up witnessing hatred and are now saying: enough.
“For sure, it shaped me,” Macedo says of Prop 187. “Nobody in my neighborhood went to school at the time of Prop 187. We were so scared.”
She was born in Mexico City and raised in southeast Los Angeles by a single mother who worked factory jobs. The family overstayed their US visas, but Macedo became a citizen when she was 18.
She met Cid at UC Davis law school, and eventually they made the difficult decision to devote their energies in the Central Valley, in the “other California.”
Temporary gain, permanent enemy?
Hillary Clinton narrowly won in Fresno County, but 10 other Central Valley counties sided with Trump. That falls in line with the urban-rural divide that manifested itself in national results. Many voters here define themselves as culturally Republican and argue the liberals in urban, coastal California are elitists out of touch with rural lifestyles.
Farmers and ranchers feel Democrats prioritize environmental regulations over what’s best for agriculture. And while agriculture is dependent on immigrant labor, residents in this area feel strongly about national security.
I called Tom Barcellos, a Central Valley dairy farmer, to better understand the mindset of Valley conservatives.
“People who live in the cities don’t have a clue where their food comes from,” he told me. “Look at the population centers – San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego. That’s why California is blue.”
In these lowlands that parallel a stretch of the Pacific Coast to the west and the Sierra Nevadas to the east, politics remain murky and muddled. Old world power still holds sway over the newest Americans: Mexicans, Vietnamese, Indians, Hmong, Yemenis.
Central Valley city and county councils are not always in sync with the state. Lee Brand, Fresno’s fourth consecutive Republican mayor from whiter and wealthier north Fresno, opposed becoming a sanctuary city. Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims has publicly criticized California’s sanctuary law and said her deputies work closely with federal Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials. And last fall, the Fresno GOP invited none other than controversial former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio to headline its fundraiser, a move that made a lot of people bristle.
Barcellos’ father immigrated from the Azore Islands, and Barcellos’ position on immigration is one I have heard before from foreign-born people who gained status through legal – and often arduous – channels.
“I don’t believe anyone should get a free ride,” he said.
At the same time, he believes anyone who works hard and assumes responsibilities should be given legal work status. Roughly half the workers Barcellos hires on his 1,200 acres are Latinos. Few were born in America.
“I know undocumented workers who are pillars of their community,” he said. “A lot of them pay taxes and never get Social Security. That’s wrong.”
Some conservatives worry that California Republicans who choose to align themselves with Trump on immigration may be haunted by the ghosts of Prop 187. They stand to once again alienate Latino and Asian-American voters – whose numbers are growing exponentially – not just in 2018 but for generations to come.
This is how Karthick Ramakrishnan, 34, a professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, put it: “You might win an election or two by being anti-immigrant. But those people you insult are always going to remember it. You are making a permanent enemy by making a temporary gain.”
Ramakrishnan is himself the son of Indian immigrants who settled in California and has written books and articles on civic participation and immigration. He says anti-immigrant rhetoric now is even uglier than it was during Prop 187. Then, Republicans targeted those who were undocumented.
“What is different this time around,” said Ramakrishnan, “is that this administration is trying to make even legal immigrants look bad.”
He cited the Trump administration’s usage of “chain migration,” once a derogatory and fringe term that is now used to attack a legitimate avenue for immigrants to bring family members to America.
Ramakrishnan pointed me to a 2016 survey of Asian-Americans, the fastest growing immigrant group in California and the nation. The poll concluded that exclusionary rhetoric was a big reason Asian-Americans are shifting toward the Democratic Party. From 2012 to 2016, there was a 12-point national increase in the percentage of Asian-Americans who identify as Democrats.
Voter trends suggest Republicans may struggle to hold onto their last vestiges of power in the Golden State. Increasing numbers of Californians are registering with “no party preference,” threatening to outnumber Republicans here.
The GOP’s loss of power has been so staggering that Schwarzenegger, the former governor, warned his party was going to go down like the Titanic unless it embraced tolerance and inclusivity. Not just here in California but in other states that are fast browning like New York, Nevada, Texas and Virginia.
In Fresno, I was eager to speak with Darius Assemi. He’s a powerful Iranian-American entrepreneur who runs Granville Homes. I had spotted several billboards for the ubiquitous, family-owned building firm in Fresno.
Lately, Assemi’s name has been bandied about in debates not about development but about immigration. He has been vocal about how he feels. “Illegal immigrants will ruin America. But only if we boot them out,” read a headline over Assemi’s commentary in The Fresno Bee.
“We can’t say all immigrants are bad,” he told me. “What is that going to get the Republican Party? We are already becoming irrelevant in California. Soon we will become irrelevant in our own community.”
In the Central Valley, the young activists I meet tell me they are excited about the prospect of electing more immigrant-friendly candidates this year. That includes congressional seats held by ardent Trump supporters like Devin Nunes, arguably the President’s closest ally in Washington.
Nunes has come under fire in his district as being out of touch with many of his constituents. One of three billboards in a campaign inspired by the Oscar-winning movie asks: “How can you forget us?” Another Valley Republican, David Valadao, is running in a district that has more Democrats and Latinos than white Republicans, and activists are hopeful they can unseat him, too.
Massive political signs urging people to “Rise and Vote” tower over dusty Valley highways. In their shadows, lawyers Cid and Macedo launched their own consulting firm a few months ago with the goal of connecting those working in the anti-Trump space. They hope to empower people, whether it is someone considering a run for office like school board candidate Robert Fuentes, or someone who has never voted, like the immigrants who show up for sessions called “Know Your Rights.”
“We are social justice attorneys whose philosophy is to live and work within the communities we serve,” they announced on their website. “As the daughters of strong immigrant parents, we believe everyday people are the key to transforming their own communities. The community holds power now.”
They talk about the lack of immigrant and minority representation everywhere, from city councils all the way up to Congress. They want to change that starting with this year’s midterms.
“We are at a tipping point in the Valley,” Cid told me. “That’s why if the GOP doesn’t shift they are going to lose. Landowners don’t get more votes because they own more land. When you feel your family is on the line, your vote becomes very powerful.”
Although the immigrant population is burgeoning, Valley activists recognize that demographics alone are not enough for seismic political shifts. History has shown that immigrants are less likely than their native-born counterparts to vote or engage politically.
In the Central Valley, about 285,000 immigrants are eligible to become US citizens. Many others who are already citizens are not registered to vote.
That adds up to a lot of potential votes, and Valley activists have ramped up registration efforts to help immigrants overcome barriers; to get them to act at this moment in history when they are perhaps paying more attention.
Cid introduced me to Maria Lemus, 36, one of three Latinos who earlier this year founded Valley Forward, an organization that focuses on mobilizing voters.
Lemus tells me “she cried a lot” after Trump won the election. She knew her life as an undocumented woman was about to get considerably worse. Then over dinner and wine she met with two other DACA recipients, and the so-called Dreamers launched their dream.
“Now we are channeling our feelings into action,” said Lemus, who spends long hours knocking on doors. “Just because we cannot vote doesn’t mean we cannot stay engaged. If I can get one person who was not engaged before to show up and vote – that’s a win.”
The upcoming election, Lemus predicted, will be an important one for California not just on a federal level but locally.
A recent study of city governments found that Fresno was the second-most conservative major California city, behind Anaheim, in terms of policy preferences.
Lemus belongs to a Valley-wide coalition reinvigorated by a sense of urgency after the election of Trump. It includes people like Mai Thao.
When she was only 14, Thao worked in Fresno on the 2008 campaign of Blong Xiong, who became the first Hmong to serve on a California city council. That experience motivated Thao, 27, to move back to the Valley permanently.
Her parents had been uprooted by the CIA’s Secret War in Laos; her mother spent more than 10 years in a refugee camp. They immigrated to the United States in 1987 and restarted life as tenant farmers growing Asian crops like lemongrass, Chinese eggplant and long beans. Her mother learned English and later worked at the Sierra Nut House and in factories that made belts, headbands and purses.
More than 30,000 Hmong live in Fresno, the second largest community in the United States after Minneapolis. Thao says her parents related to politics through the lens of war, but now an entire generation has been born in America. Younger Hmong, including herself, are progressive in their views and more apt to engage politically.
In December, Thao joined Hmong Innovating Politics, or HIP, one of the first Hmong organizations to take on issues of immigration.
“Our mission is very, very simple: to strengthen the political power of the Hmong,” she says. “Five years from now, we hope to be a voting bloc. Like the Latino vote. People are now standing up for what they believe in.”
Steve Ly was recently elected mayor of Elk Grove, the first Hmong mayor in the country. And television anchor Paula Yang is vying for a Fresno city council seat.
Thao tells me she grew up in a neighborhood of drive-by shootings and survived on food stamps and swap meets. That all seemed normal when she was a girl. Now, she knows better.
Thao and Lemus reminded me of Celedon, Cid and Macedo. Children of poverty forged by anti-immigrant tactics. Thao remembered once seeing a poll that said 62% of Americans opposed the resettlement of Hmong in the 1970s.
“More than half of Americans did not want us here,” she said. “That’s my family. That’s my history.”
No more the joke of California
On this spring evening in Calwa, we climb back into Celedon’s Toyota Prius a little before 6 and make our way a few miles north to “The Place.”
That’s Celedon’s term for a section of Fresno south of McKinley Boulevard that roughly divides the city between the haves and the have nots. More than 90,000 people call The Place home. Most are not white; together they speak 100 languages.
Here, the median income is less than half the rest of the county. Celedon tells me people pay more than 30% of their incomes for housing that is dilapidated, bug-infested and often without air conditioning even as Valley temperatures swelter above 100 degrees. Many people don’t have health insurance and are deeply affected by cuts in social services and education, but their prevailing tenor is to retreat and keep their heads low.
Celedon started another nonprofit, Fresno Building Healthy Communities, to tackle the problems plaguing The Place. Tonight, she’s planned a small meeting to gather support for a citywide parks initiative, which includes a measure on this November’s ballot to raise the city’s sales tax by 3/8th of a penny. The proceeds, about $37 million a year, would benefit Fresno parks.
A large monitor in the conference room reads: “Creating One Healthy Fresno. Parks Matter.” Off to the side is a pasta and bread sticks dinner catered by Olive Garden. Cid and Macedo take their seats along with community activists who have shown up to learn more about the initiative.
This evening marks 518 days since Trump was elected president, and Celedon’s energy has erupted fierce like the crops in the surrounding farmlands. Her colleagues have even encouraged her to run for office.
“It’s our choice,” Celedon says. “We grow and make change, or we stay the joke of California.”
There are no better advocates than those who have themselves lived through cycles of injustice, she says. No better advocates than those who did not forget.