BALDWIN PARK, CALIF. — For a dozen years, a 20-foot monument has stood quietly at the rail stop in this predominantly Latino city. Ray Leyba had never bothered to read it - even though he lives next door. It wasn't until the monument became the focus of a group raging against illegal immigration that he walked across the street and looked at one inscription:
"This land was Mexican once, was Indian always and is, and will be again."
Mr. Leyba was surprised, but his response pales in comparison to the recent fury launched at the slab of concrete by Save Our State (SOS). Though not based in Baldwin Park, the group has spearheaded two recent protests, calling those words seditious and likening the town to "occupied territory," according to SOS founder Joseph Turner.
To many others, the artwork and the city itself have become pawns in a larger nationwide debate about immigration - from "minutemen" patrolling the US-Mexican border to protests in cities against day-labor sites and driver licenses for undocumented immigrants.
The tension in this normally quiet town nestled in the San Gabriel Valley is one more indication of how polarizing the immigration issue in America has become. And, as is often the case in these fights that symbolize deeper divisions in society, it has caught local officials by surprise.
"We have never had this type of environment ever fostered in our community," says Manuel Lozano, the mayor of Baldwin Park, which has had to hire a press consultant to field calls and spent $30,000 in overtime for its police force for a protest this weekend that drew more than 500 counter protesters. "It has awoken us to ... see that racism is still alive and thriving."
SOS claims that another of the many phrases that comprise the work - "it was better before they came" - is aimed at whites who displaced Mexicans in the region in the 1800s.
But Judith Baca, the work's creator and a well-known muralist and artist-activist in Los Angeles, says the piece was created to memorialize Baldwin Park's heritage. The phrase was actually uttered by a white politician who was lamenting the influx of Mexican immigrants in the area after World War II, Ms. Baca says. She wanted the quote to be ambiguous on the monument for the purpose of generating public dialogue since the term "they" captures the essence of any one group feeling threatened by an emerging ruling power.
In some ways, the work is doing exactly what the artist intended.
On most days, passengers waiting at the transit station pay little heed to the monument. But over the past two months Baldwin Park has held at least three town hall meetings to discuss the piece, entitled "Danza Indigenas," which has suddenly taken on new importance for the city. The city has no plans to alter the work, and the police are monitoring the site against vandalism attempts.
Immigration debates are common in California. Protests erupted across the state in the 1990s because of Proposition 187, a proposal to cut off some health and social services for undocumented immigrants and their children.
More recently Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) praised the work of the minutemen who launched a patrol along the Mexican-American border this spring; a splinter group is planning their own patrol in California this fall.
Many times anti-immigrant groups will do anything to move debate further, analysts say, even if that means creating a furor around a monument that has otherwise generated little interest in a town of about 80,000.
"[SOS is] not there to solve the problems of Baldwin Park," says Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton. "They are using Baldwin Park as a backdrop ... to make a political point they hope [will feed into] an emerging debate statewide."
Mr. Turner of SOS says taxpayer money should not be used to fund messages that he considers anti-American. He says he found out about Danza Indigenas because a resident wrote to Turner after seeing SOS protesting billboards for a Spanish-language television station referring to L.A. as "Los Angeles, Mexico."
Turner says he has no plans to stop his aggressive street-level activism.
Mayor Lozano says he would just like the protesters, whom he sees as "outsiders," to leave his town. He says anti-immigration has never been expressed here, where Mexicans began arriving in force during the 1970s. Today Baldwin Park is nearly 80 percent Latino - the reason he and many others claim that SOS has chosen the city to stage their most recent anti-immigration efforts.
Baca and many others, however, worry about the lasting effects the protests could have on legitimate discussion in the form of artistic censorship. She says it concerns her that "a voice like the SOS or the minutemen is given such credence within this moment in American history."
She says the nation is so polarized that the public art world is seeing ever more evidence of vitriolic dialogue. "The arts have been very important places to communicate with one another in a less contentious way."
That's true for Leyba, who came to the US from Mexico some 20 years ago. He thinks the piece is educational and doesn't want it taken down. But he has concerns about some of the words "that might be offensive. The white people might have a point."