Ricardo Favela grew up around the idyllic avocado groves of Fallbrook when Tom Metzger was spouting white supremacy through a bullhorn that carried far outside Southern California.
Metzger, Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan for the state of California, was Fallbrook’s most infamous resident. The California KKK, under his leadership, was unlike the white hoods and burning crosses of the South. Its violence and intimidation weren’t directed at Black people; they were directed at immigrant families like Favela’s.
Tales of Mexican immigrants being thrown off cliffs swirled among Favela and his friends. The stories were not just urban legend. A border patrol agent told a New York Times reporter that agents themselves had pushed immigrants off cliffs “so it would look like an accident.” Gangs of White youth, not necessarily associated with the KKK, went on “beaner raids” to find, beat and even kill Latino immigrants in North County and beyond, according to a 1990 report in the California Legislature.
Favela’s father, Eleuterio, once encountered a group of young white men who tried to surround him, as he was working on a ranch. Eleuterio was holding a water key – a long metal object. He let the men know he would defend himself and they quietly backed off. Every immigrant family from that era has a similar story, Favela told me.
Between 1988 and 1990 – as Favela was coming of age – 100 migrants were killed in San Diego County, according to Greg Grandin, a historian at Yale University.
“We were in self-defense mode,” said Favela. While he was a student at Fallbrook High, Favela joined United Pride – a group created by Latinos to protect themselves against violence from vigilantes, as well as law enforcement officials.
Metzger preached a doctrine of violent White power. But years after card-carrying members of the KKK had moved away or died, a different kind of White power persisted in Fallbrook – the political kind.
Recent Census data show the unincorporated town of Fallbrook is now exactly 50 percent Latino. But until recently the town didn’t have a single Latino representative on any of its government boards. In 2020, Favela was elected to the board of Fallbrook Union Elementary School District – a district with 65 percent Latino students. He was the first Latino ever elected, a district secretary, who researched the district archives, told him.
Favela, 44, was part of a slate of candidates in 2020 who brought the beginnings of Latino representation to Fallbrook. A 29-year-old was elected to the town’s high school district. A 27-year-old was elected to its health board. And a 23-year-old was elected to Fallbrook’s fire protection district.
“Our presence today is undeniable. We really can’t plan a future in Fallbrook without the Latino community,” said Favela. “So in terms of planning decisions, taking into account our presence is a must. There’s no Fallbrook without Latinos.”
Victory for Favela and the other candidates was made possible by two things.
In 2019, Fallbrook was one of the last areas in San Diego to reconfigure its elections to comply with the California Voting Rights Act, a law passed in 2001 to ensure fair representation. The Voting Rights Act eliminated the use of at-large elections in cases where they hurt the ability of certain groups to elect candidates of their choice.
Fallbrook, like many other San Diego areas, held such at-large elections. That meant candidates ran for office across the entire jurisdiction of Fallbrook, rather than within smaller sub-districts. And since the majority of the voting public was White, electing a Latino person was difficult.
In 2019, board members for Fallbrook Union Elementary finally moved to break the town into sub-districts, under threat of lawsuit. The fire, health and high school districts followed. Each district ended up with one majority Latino district. That change opened the clearest route to Latino representation. But other more amorphous forces had been in the works for years.
Metzger’s White power movement, its violence and general anti-immigrant sentiment in Fallbrook drove Latinos to organize. United Pride formed in the early 80’s and over the decades became a powerful political force.
“We kinda got fed up,” said Hector Muro, an early member, who graduated from Fallbrook High in 1985. “We were organized and had unity and took it upon ourselves to change that image of Latinos as these docile people that you can pretty much discard.”
The city’s White establishment met the smallest acts of Latino existence with pushback during that time, said Muro. As a child he remembers the first time a group of Latinos walked in the Christmas parade. In the next day’s newspaper, someone wrote that immigrants needed to go back to where they came from.
When Muro was in high school, he remembers, White students moved to form a chapter of the White Aryan Resistance – a neo-Nazi group formed by Metzger – at Fallbrook High.
“Basically, they were saying, ‘Well, they get to have their Hispanic club, so why can’t we have our own group,’” Muro said.
Fallbrook administrators let the White students start their chapter of the group, Muro said. But school clubs are required to accept any member who signs up. So, all the members of United Pride signed up to be part of WAR.
“We all asked for membership and they had to close it down,” said Muro. “We lost our fear.”
United Pride continued to grow its political power – even though the goal of political representation was far off at that time. Favela was a member when he graduated from Fallbrook High in 1995.
Meanwhile, Metzger’s movement hit setbacks. In 1990, a jury found Metzger and his son were responsible for inciting skinheads to beat to death a young Black man. They were ordered to pay more than $10 million to the man’s family.
After selling his house, Metzger was eventually forced to move away from Fallbrook in 2006, according to the Times of San Diego.
“I just think it’s amazing that some of these people made it their mission in life to push us out of Fallbrook, but instead we pushed them out,” said Favela.
The visceral White power of the 70’s and 80’s began to fade. Instead of organizing around self-defense, community members began to organize around community issues like parks and education. Favela and others protested a 1998 measure that effectively banned bilingual education. In the late 2000’s, he helped advocate for a park in a low-income, majority-Latino area of Fallbrook and was eventually appointed to the planning board.
Favela and two other community members actually drew the new sub-district maps in 2019 for Fallbrook Union Elementary School District. But the maps were controversial. Board members at that time approved an election schedule that delayed the creation of a majority-Latino district. The San Diego County Office of Education overturned that decision and approved Favela’s map instead.
Favela, Muro and others have continued to mentor a younger group of activists. Cindy Acosta serves on the North County Fire Protection District and Stephanie Ortiz serves on the Fallbrook Regional Health District. They were both surprised by how much Latino perspectives had been missing from their agencies.
Both, for instance, found much information from was not being translated into Spanish.
“I was very adamant to push for [relevant information to be translated] and very surprised that it wasn’t happening before,” said Acosta.
They have also both pushed for people who get hired in community-facing positions to be bilingual.
“Just perspective-wise, if you don’t have someone that is in tune with people who are bi-cultural and multi-cultural, then you’re gonna have gaps in the services you offer,” said Ortiz.
The question before Fallbrook residents now, is whether one Latino serving on their governing boards is enough.
While the town of Fallbrook is 50 percent Latino the Fallbrook governing boards represent larger areas that have a slightly more diluted Latino population. The Fallbrook Union Elementary jurisdiction, for instance, is 38 percent Latino, according to its redistricting page – but only one out of its five sub-districts are majority-Latino.
As new maps are drawn in the future, the goal will be to keep what power they have and increase it, if possible, said Ortiz: “People are aware that as a community we’re not going to let things slide anymore.”
Adriana Heldiz contributed to this report.
Correction: Ricardo Favela’s father once encountered a group of young White men who attempted to surround him, while he was working on a ranch. They were not carrying baseball bats.