LOS ANGELES - During the Passover crush at Elat Market down on Pico, cashiers in yarmulkes rang up matzohs and Manischewitz with signature grumpiness. Yiddish-speaking shoppers pawed over Hebrew labels. For the stockers and sweepers, the Muzak was Mexican.
The Golden State comes in colors, and brown is a prevailing hue. Nearly 40 percent of its inhabitants are Latino, almost as many as “non-Hispanic white.” The rest range from Bantu black to exotic shades of pale. Part melting pot, part mixing bowl, California thrives on diversity.
Californians fight to protect hard-won victories from Donald Trump's corporate giveaways, such as emission controls, clean coastlines and pristine wilderness. And more, they demand sanctuary status for fellow humans escaping hunger or violence at home.
Smart politicians keep Trumpian Republicans on the defensive, from hardnosed prosecutors like Kamala Harris and Adam Schiff to Nancy Pelosi, speaker of an increasingly mad House, who lost her studied cool when William Barr whitewashed the Mueller Report.
“The attorney general of the United States of America was not telling the truth to Congress,” Pelosi said last week. “That's a crime.” She blamed a corrupt triumvirate — Trump, Mitch McConnell, Barr — for answering only to moneyed special interests, imperiling the nation.
Then she dropped a neutron bomb in a New York Times interview. Unless a landslide sweeps away Trump in 2020, he could declare voter fraud and simply stay put for months in the Oval office with legal flimflam. Who would evict him? He commands U.S. armed forces.
California's population of 39.6 million makes up 12 percent of America. Its $3-trillion economy ranks it fifth in the world, behind only the United States, China, Japan and Germany. If the state can't talk some sense into a backsliding mother country, why not Calexit?
Secession is unlikely, of course, and the state has plenty of its own problems. Yet on the crucial issue of immigration, along with environment and natural resources, Americans elsewhere might look hard at California in pursuit of a more perfect union.
America is hardly “full,” as Trump asserts. On the contrary, an economy with full employment badly needs willing hands to work fields, staff hospitals, repair roads — and stack up kosher pickles at Elat Market. Some “aliens” create businesses that help the economy boom.
Trump's cruel ethnic libels resonate with an ignorant, fearful base. But people aren't defined by country of origin. Some are bad; most aren't. Migrants tend to work hard, respect laws and pay taxes. And as California knows, we need them at least as much as they need us.
Find Sergio Arau's tragicomic 2004 film, “A Day Without a Mexican.” Suddenly, the plot goes, all Mexicans vanish from California, and a mysterious pink fog seals off the state. Traffic snarls, utilities collapse, stores shut, restaurants close, factories and fields are paralyzed.
Anti-immigration proponents skew the real picture. Over the past decade, more Mexicans have gone south than have come north. Poor crossers who brave the desert seldom carry water let alone drugs. No wall would stop the gangs that feed America's habit.
The crisis today is about Central Americans, refugees fleeing climate-induced crop failure or brutal governments that Washington has long supported. Hateful rhetoric spurs families to head north in hopes of asylum before even more stringent controls are put in place.
Trump's approach makes this worse. He slashes aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador when technical assistance, backed by enforced human-rights protections, would allow desperate families to stay home where they would rather be.
Harsh treatment, including family separations and holding cages, amounts to a callous ploy that uses humans as political pawns. With vindictive glee, Trump recently said asylum-seekers trapped in limbo would be dumped in California to await hearings in backed-up immigration courts.
If Democrats don't support his policy, he said, “we'll bring them to sanctuary city areas and let that particular area take care of it.” If California welcomes the idea of more people coming to the state, he said, “we can give them an unlimited supply.”
Last week, he said desperate applicants would be charged a fee, prompting an angry response from Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat: “Seeking asylum is a right under U.S. and international law - not a privilege to pay for.”
Slamming the door won't work. In Tucson, I visited a Benedictine monastery sold to private developers where Immigration and Customs Enforcement buses drop off asylum-seekers who manage to find relatives in America to sponsor them.
Officers take their belts and shoelaces, prison-style, and dump them on the doorstep. Volunteers feed them, provide bedding and organize transport to new homes. I dropped off a 15-year-old named Wilson and his younger sister at the bus station for a three-day ride to stay with an uncle in Virginia he doesn't know.
Speaking no English, with only donated kids' backpacks, a change of clothes and a few sandwiches, they were off to a new life, frightened and bewildered. I asked Wilson his thoughts, and he shrugged. “What are my choices?” he replied.
For decades now, I've heard the same response across the world from conflict refugees and forced migrants. Few want to leave families, friends and the cultures they know. Most dream of saving enough to get back home again — eventually.
Into the 1960s, the Bracero program allowed Mexicans to do seasonal work, pay taxes for benefits they'd never see, go home, and return when new crops needed picking. Now many who manage to sneak across the border stay put, clandestine, for fear of not getting back again.
Immigration is only part of it. For instance, despite new traffic that chokes LA freeways, the air is crystal clear, a sharp change from poisonous smog you could almost cut with a knife. California pioneered strict controls that became national law. Trump wants to undo that.
For a wide range of reasons, “Donald Trump” is mostly a laugh line in California, if not a trigger for invective. But not entirely. In the Southland, in the Bay Area and elsewhere in the state, I found plenty of people happy with a fact-free authoritarian.
In Los Angeles, I took a Lyft car to the airport. The driver, a black woman in her 50s, had a hearty laugh and rainbow-colored hair. She was bright and well-spoken. We talked a while about France, where she had lived for a while.
She barely broke even as a driver because of soaring gas prices. She made extra money taking care of homes for traveling rich people, she said, but life was tough. Then I switched to politics, ready for the usual diatribe about Republicans and the demagogy they condoned.
“Well, for one thing,” she said, eyeing the jammed 405, “you could take about five million of these people and make them disappear. We sure don't need any more illegals.” With a sly smile, she added, “Don't tell anyone, but I'm for Trump, 100 percent.”
As it turned out, she was from the Bahamas. She overstayed her visa and then laid low as an “undocumented alien” until she managed to wangle papers that allowed her to stay. Go figure.
The woman based her views on right-wing websites, radio and social media exchanges with friends. The New York Times? “All lies,” she said. The Los Angeles Times? “I dropped that years ago.”
Ignorance lets people like her believe Trump's absurd border fantasies. “Where there's no fencing or walls,” he said in one rant, smugglers “just come in, and they have women tied up. They have tape over their mouths - electrical tape…They have three, four, five of them in vans, or three of them in backseats of cars. And they just drive right in.”
Most Californians know better. The question is whether enough voters will follow their lead. We got to LAX in plenty of time. I ate some fish tacos with chile serrano salsa and caught my Southwest flight over the Colorado River back to the rest of America.