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Reporter's battles with mom over illegal immigration

August 19, 2011 |  4:18 pm

http://opinion.latimes.com/.a/6a00d8341c7de353ef015390272c37970b-800wi A memorial service was held this week in East Los Angeles for veteran L.A. Times reporter and columnist George Ramos, who died last month. At the service, journalists, elected officials and others praised Ramos for his pioneering coverage of the Latino community, which included being among the recipients of a Pulitzer Prize for a series on how Latinos were changing L.A. Below are two Ramos columns cited during the memorial.

This is one in a series of L.A. Now posts highlighting examples of memorable storytelling from the archives of the Los Angeles Times. More examples of such journalism can be found at Twitter by searching #longreads and #lalongreads. Do you have a suggestion for a story from The Times' archives that we should feature? Send us a note at metrodesk@latimes.com

Bashing Illegal Immigrants Is on Today's Menu

Dec. 14, 1992

There's a lot of immigrant-bashing going on these days. L.A. County Supervisor Mike Antonovich blames them for the county's budget woes. Mayoral hopeful Julian Nava gets booed for suggesting that resident immigrants be allowed to vote in city elections. Leticia Quezada got much the same reaction when she proposed the same for L.A. school elections.

Many Latinos also are jumping on the bandwagon. In a recent front page Times story, a majority of 2,800 Latinos surveyed in the United States by the Latino National Political Survey think there are too many immigrants -- illegal and otherwise -- coming to this country.

While I am outraged by this point of view, I'm not surprised by it.

My mother, the daughter of an illegal immigrant, has been saying much the same thing for several years.

At family gatherings over holidays like Thanksgiving, Mom likes to occasionally gauge the state of the world by asking me questions that she knows will provoke. Like, "Well, what do you think about 'Slick Willie?' "

Naturally, I take the bait and the debate is on. This time, no matter how much I talked about the President-elect, Mom wouldn't give up. She took special delight in repeating the derisive nickname given to Bill Clinton by his detractors.

I pointed out that she was fighting a losing cause: Mom was outvoted on Election Day by her two sons, who thought Slick Willie deserved a chance to run the country.

"Well, let me tell you one thing," Mom retorted, not giving an inch.

The discussions are fun because Mom is my version of grass-roots America. She is of a generation that struggled in the Depression, grew up during World War II and shaped the ideals and aspirations instilled in baby boomers like me. When I wonder about the Silent Majority, I think of Mom.

As I grew up, she reminded me of the tough trip her mother made when she left Mexico in the mid-1920s to illegally come to Los Angeles. My maternal grandmother stayed for about 15 years before returning to Mexico. In those years in L.A., she gave birth to three children who became instant U.S. citizens, including Mom. Among family members, there is no significance attached to this fact. It's treated simply as part of family history.

I'm also reminded that my father, who was born in Mexico and came illegally to the United States, served as a U.S. Army infantryman during World War II.

I am proud of that and am not afraid to admit that I'm also the offspring of an illegal. It is one of the special bonds that makes life in my family so special.

So as the turkey went into the oven, Mom let out a sarcastic laugh when the subject of illegal immigrants came up.

"There are too many illegal aliens coming into the country," she began, "too many undesirables. Many of them come here simply to have babies at the county hospitals. And you know who is paying for it all?

"We the taxpayers are. These aliens are using up all of our resources. No wonder the county is having problems."

I've heard this before. But while I might doggedly question a politician, I gently interrupt my mother.

"Aren't you forgetting something?" I asked. "People just don't come here to have babies. They come here for a lot of reasons, many of them good and decent. Many of these immigrants contribute to our society. Our family has contributed to this society.

"And," I concluded, "isn't there an irony in all this? You are the daughter of an illegal immigrant. How can you denounce as evil this process that many Latinos view as part of family history? After all, the U.S. is a country of immigrants. Don't you see the irony of what you're saying?"

"No," she countered.

She might have been more forgiving in her younger days. But she now believes that illegal immigration today is an out-of-control plague, aided and abetted by unsavory smuggling rings and conniving forgers who peddle fake government documents on street corners. Before the Second World War, times were simpler and immigration did not seem to threaten the republic.

"When my mother came here," Mom said, "she wasn't out on the dole. I have the same attitude. My mother's big thing was, 'No pida ayuda.' Don't ask for help. Today, you have illegals suing people. Drywallers demonstrating. Illegals doing this and doing that."

No minds were changed during the meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, carrots and warm biscuits. Which means we'll probably have the same argument on Christmas Eve, the time for another traditional family dinner.

If it weren't for her homemade tamales....

From 'Chicano Beverly Hills' to Street Vendor

Feb. 22, 1993

You see them at busy intersections and freeway off-ramps. They're selling oranges, peanuts and sometimes candy apples. I usually give the vendors, who implore you with begging eyes to buy a $2 sack of oranges, a negative shake of the head. I never give much thought to these brief encounters.

Until I recognized one of them.

It was "CT Andy."

In that brief moment, and the conversation that followed, it became clear how middle-class Southern Californians can find themselves in such a predicament. Andy became the human face of a recession that toppled a President.

I call him "CT Andy" because Andres grew up in the City Terrace part of East Los Angeles, practically next to the San Bernardino Freeway. We were raised about 1 1/2 miles apart but we never met until 1971 when we had a chance encounter on a helicopter pad in Vietnam.

I hesitate to say more about him because of his reaction when I recognized him near Atlantic and Pomona boulevards. Obviously embarrassed, he took off running, leaving a shopping cart full of oranges.

It took me nearly a mile in my Nikes to chase Andy down. When I did catch up with him it didn't take me long to realize that this 40-something Chicano was no longer the wisecracking radio-telephone operator who used to punctuate his conversations with the same observation, "There it is."

He is now angry and sullen.

His rapid-fire delivery includes words you can't print. What printable things he does spit out paint a grim picture.

A thriving electronics-related career in the defense industry soured. He tried to find work in similar fields but he couldn't catch on at several places. He said he scanned the newspaper want ads and drove by some new mini-malls for jobs, but for one reason or another things didn't work out.

With a wife who works part time and two growing kids in a comfortable home in Hacienda Heights, the "Chicano Beverly Hills," he knew he had to find work to pay the bills.

So, among other things, he's pushing oranges and peanuts.

After reminding him of our chaotic lives near Chu Lai, he agreed to go over to Belvedere Park to talk about oranges, the economy and the Chicano Beverly Hills.

"Life had been pretty good," he began. "I got a pretty good job after the Army and I was making decent money. You know how it is, my folks worked hard and lived in East L.A. They wanted us kids to have more. You worked hard to have some success for yourself and also to make them feel proud. To let them know that the sacrifice they put in for us was paying off, that it was worthwhile.

"When my wife and I bought the house in Hacienda Heights, I wanted to show it off to my folks. We had a big party. Everything's cool when my mom goes, ' Mijo, it's such a big house. Can you afford it?' And I go, 'Sure, Ma. You think the bank would give us a loan if they thought we couldn't make the payments?'

"I never thought I'd lose a job. Business went down. Everybody said it would be temporary but things got worse. Next thing I know, I was out of the door after 13 years. It hurt my pride. I mean, it wasn't just any job. It was my job.

"And what was I going to say to my parents? That I messed up? That I failed them? I felt like I no longer deserved that house. I thought about moving to Pico Rivera, or Montebello or even East L.A. Then, I decided, 'Screw it. I'm staying....'

"Selling oranges? It's pretty tough. People don't want to acknowledge you because they think you're dirty or homeless or whatever. They're too busy [to] be bothered with you. Some [vendors] just mumble something or don't say anything. I try saying naranjas softly and oranges loudly. Then, I reverse it. It works sometimes.

"I try and sell over by the Long Beach Freeway or on Olympic Boulevard [near Montebello]. There is no perfect spot to sell oranges in this city."

I asked Andy if he had heard about President Clinton's proposed remedies of tax increases, spending cuts and new programs to fix the economy.

"Yeah," he said. But he had more pressing concerns, like finding a decent job, putting food on the table and keeping that dream house.

"Maybe I got too much pride to want to hang on to that house," he said. "But it's mine and I worked to get it. I want to work to keep it."

There it is.