California has 456 cities, and more than 400 use the at-large
system of voting in which all candidates for city council and school
board are elected by all of the city's voters. In 1985, Latinos in
Watsonville, then a city of 28,000 south of San Francisco, challenged
the at-large system under the Voting Rights Act, arguing that it
denied them a fair chance to participate in local politics. The
lawsuit was filed after an 18 month cannery strike that encouraged
Latinos to become more politically active.
In 1989, the US Supreme Court upheld a decision that agreed with
the Latinos that the fact they were half of the city's residents, but
no Latino had won an election in 15 years, was evidence that the
at-large voting system discriminated against them. Joaquin Avila,
former president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and
Educational Fund (MALDEF), was the lead attorney in this and several
A survey used as evidence in the Watsonville suit reported that in
the late 1980s there were 130 California cities with an at-large
election system, a Latino population of at least 10 percent and no
Latinos holding City Council seats. Only 20 of California's 444
cities in the late 1980s used district elections in local elections.
On October 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake devastated much of
Watsonville. In December,1990 there was a devastating freeze, and
then some Jolly Green Giant food-packing operations moved to Mexico.
Governor Wilson, campaigning for Prop 187 in Salinas, asserted on
October 29, 1994 that the "Salad Bowl of the World." depends on legal
immigrant workers. Most farm organizations, such as the Western
Growers Association, the California Farm Bureau and the Salinas
Valley Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association, took no position on 187.
A majority of voters in California's major agricultural counties
supported Prop 187.
Vicki Ruiz. 1987. Cannery Women, Cannery Lives. Kenneth Reich,
"Watsonville Loss on Election Issue could be Victory for State
Latinos," Los Angeles Times, May 1, 1989; Susan Ferriss, "Prop. 187:
a clash of rhetoric, reality: Farm country divided over undocumented
workers," The San Francisco Examiner, October 30, 1994.