DOWNEY, Calif. — When Mario Guerra strolls through the streets of downtown Downey, he can’t help but play the role of seasoned salesman for the city in southeastern Los Angeles County he adopted more than 35 years ago.
Guerra, a Cuban-American immigrant who served eight years on the city council and two terms as mayor, sings the praises of Porto’s Bakery, a Cuban sandwich and pastry shop that he helped lure to Downey. He shows off the vibrant murals and sleekly designed street sculpture that he commissioned as a city leader to spruce up the downtown area and imbue it with a sense of culture and character. Subsequently, an acquaintance stops Guerra, known about town for his role as a Catholic deacon as well as consummate problem-solver, to ask if Guerra would perform his wedding at the town’s annual Dia de los Muertes festival.
Guerra, a Republican in a city that is 70 percent Hispanic and leans Democratic, attributes his success as a GOP politician to a laser-like focus on finding solutions, building bridges and approaching every problem with a kind of neighborly compassion. It’s how Guerra says he came within 5 percentage points of his opponent in his race for a state Senate seat last fall in a district where Democrats have a 24-point voter registration advantage
“I govern in that 60 to 70 percent where I feel that we can all agree and say, ‘Let’s just make things better,’” he said. “We’re not going to agree on everything but we can agree on this stuff that we can fix, and it’s in that space that you can get things done.”
But to Guerra’s dismay, it’s a markedly different philosophy than the one that seems to have taken hold within the Republican Party at the national level in the 2016 presidential cycle, particularly with the rise of Donald Trump. Guerra has watched with a mixture of bewilderment and exasperation as the business mogul has ridden to the top of the polls in part by spewing barbed invective against illegal immigration, and branding Latino immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists.”
In preparation of going on Spanish-language television to talk about the summer of Trump, Guerra brushed up to make sure he had one specific word in his arsenal — payaso — clown.
For Californians, the narrative playing out at the national level has an air of déjà vu.
Twenty years ago, a similar wave of anti-immigrant sentiment washed over the Golden State, and voters responded by passing a ballot initiative that blocked undocumented immigrants from receiving a litany of critical state services, including public education and health care. Strongly championing Proposition 187 helped then-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson win re-election in 1994 but the victory for the California GOP turned out to be short-lived. Political analysts believe the referendum mobilized dormant Latino voters and helped transform the state into a Democratic stronghold. No GOP presidential candidate has won the state since George H.W. Bush in 1988, while Democrats have had a lock on most statewide offices and the state legislature since 1996.
“It was a frustration with the finances of the state at the time and who was getting what benefits, and the Republican Party was painted by this broad stroke that we’re anti-immigrant because of Prop 187. It’s not true, but that’s the way we were painted,” Guerra said.
The impact of that characterization has been long-lasting, Guerra noted, with officials like him continuing to fight a particular stigma among some Latino-Americans because of their party identification. “If there were no D's or R's on the ballots next to our names, I’d be a state senator today,” Guerra said.
As the GOP candidates prepare to descend on Southern California this week for the second Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, some warn that the national Republican Party is destined to suffer the same fate if it continues to elevate Trump’s immigration positions and alienate large swaths of the nation’s growing share of Latino voters. Among other things, Trump has proposed mass deportations and building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“What happened in California then is what’s happening nationally today,” said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org, a California-based Latino civic advocacy organization. “In 1994, Pete Wilson dared to go after services for pregnant mothers, he went after educational services, in a way that no other governor had done in recent history and it energized the Latino electorate in a way that we had not seen. It changed the face of California’s electoral map for decades.”
“Now, this field or Republican candidates have all but declared war on immigrants and Latinos,” Carmona added. “That’s not something that we can let go of.”
In Downey, it seems the association between the Republican Party and anti-immigrant stances and rhetoric has already taken root.
“It’s embarrassing, to be honest, for Trump, and it’s a cruel stance,” said Gabe Enamorado, a 26-year-old Guatemalan-American and creative director for a local art gallery. “All you’re doing is riling up this army of young Latinos to vote against you. They are going to stand up to what they believe in, so in a weird way I see it as a good thing.”
Luis Castrellon, 35, a businessman from neighboring Rialto, Calif. who works in health care, said he lays the blame not only on Trump but at the feet of the wider GOP field for mimicking his talking points. Indeed, even as some GOP candidates — most notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — have beat back against his characterizations of illegal immigrants, others have been more reluctant to attack Trump.
“It’s very infuriating that it’s so accepted for Trump to be able to say those things and still be a leader in the Republican Party,” Castrellon said, noting that in the past he’s voted for both Republicans and Democrats. “I feel offended for my community.”
Still, in the midst of a heated national battle over what to do about the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants and indeed, how to best integrate immigrants into the fabric of U.S. society, the city of Downey is instructive in other ways. A majority-white suburb whose economy was powered by aerospace engineering in the 1980s, Downey is now known as a thriving community made up of first and second-generation immigrants who have climbed into the middle class.
Nick Velez, 28, a Mexican-American veteran who opened a downtown bar after returning home from serving in the Marine Corps in 2012, said Latino success is one of the town’s unique characteristics and may show the path forward for the rest of the country.
“Everywhere you turn there are brown faces, and they are successful brown faces,” he said. “It’s a city that says I started from nothing and I’m here now and I’m on my way up.”