For generations they have lived in this dusty San Joaqin Valley town of 8,900, drawn by the promise of steady work on the area's vast corporate farms. Laying out the long irrigation pipelines and pruning the trees under the valley's unremitting sun, they have helped make this among the world's richest agricultural regions - only to return home to Wasco, to peeling paint, stray dogs, and hostile police, a voiceless people.

This was the year things were supposed to change for Wasco's Mexican American community, which makes up close to half of the town's population. Urged on by militant organizers from Los Angeles, 135 miles to the south, two local Mexican-Americans became the first community members to attempt running for the city council. But they were disqualified weeks before the March 7 municipal vote for violating, on minor technicalities, the state election code.

"It's blatant discrimination against us," charged an angry Marshall Rangel-Equilera, a usually soft-spoken 43-year-old school custodian whose candidacy was declared invalid because he submitted his nominating petitions 10 minutes after the filing deadline. "They try to stop you with their little rules. The Anglos know we're becoming the majority in the Southwest. They're afraid of the sleeping giant that might be waking up."

He is right, in that Mexican-Americans already are by far the largest minority in the Southwest and growing fast. It is a prelude to the future for the entire country, which will see hispanics more numerous than blacks in this country by the next decade.

But far more than Anglo hostility is preventing the Mexican-American from rising out of his political slumber. Ingrown habits of political passivity, produced by centuries of oppression and violence in this country and in Mexico, have produced a population that many Mexican-American leaders believe is almost impossible to organize.

For instance, upon hearing about Rangel-Equilera's tardy election petitions, one veteran Mexican-American organizer shook his head knowingly. It's that damn manan thing again, that Indian sense of fatalism," he said dejectedly, raising his eyes toward the ceiling. "They don't worry about today because God will take care of us tomorrow. It gets us all the time."

Perhaps no one was more frustrated by the failure to qualify of Rangel-Equilera and his co-candidate, Rudi Polares, than Miguel Garcia, a 35-year-old-militant lawyer from the East Los Angeles barrio who engineered their campaign. "Man, those people are so primitive down there, they don't know about the law or any staff like that," Garcia said as he steered his van through the brightly painted streets. "Next time, someone's going to have to stay with them all the time so the people there won't get so tripped up."

What keeps activists such as Garcia going, despite the frustrations, is a certain feeling of destiny - a sense that, with their burgeoning numbers, Mexican-Americans someday will take their proper place in the corridors of power, both across the Southwest and in national politics.

They point with pride to the few Mexican-American politicans who have succeeded, such as New Mexico Gov. Jerry Apodaca.

"We know our numbers are increasing," Garcia said, looking out at the crowded brooklyn Avenue shopping district, a jumble of advertisements in a mixture of Spanish and English. "By 1990 we'll be the majority of the state. We were in his land first - and we know it is our destiny to control it."

Yet, while they dream big dreams, Mexian-American militants so far have been notably unable to transfer their brave rhetoric into political reality. From Texas to California, Mexican-Americans are underrepresented from the lowest levels of government to the statehouse - often holding as little as one-fifth of their proportion of the population in key local elected positions.

This lack of representative clout is felt as well on Capitol Hill. The congressional Hispanic Caucus, which is attempting to speak for Spanish-speaking citizens nationwide, says there are only four Mexican-Americans in Congress. In comparison, Jewish-Americans, a smaller ethnic minority, hold 27 congressional seats and even the tiny Arab-American community can boast six members of Congress.

But it is by looking at the dramatic political gains made by black Americans that Mexican-American leaders measure their own progress and find it wanting. "The black community is far better organized than we are," admits Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "When they speak to a congressional committee, they do it with one strong voice, like the NAACP or the Urban League. What we need is a unified political front like the blacks have had for 15 years. We're at least 15 years behind them."

Behind this political impotence, many Mexican-American leaders believe, is a reluctance among their people to get involved in the electoral process. In many recent elections for instance, Mexican-Americans have gone to the polls at rates sometimes half that of the local Anglo population and a third less than the black community.

This reluctance among Mexican-Americans to register and vote is so deep-rooted that Art Torres, a California assemblyman, couldn't even get his mother to vote when he first ran for office in 1974.

"You have to understand," Torres explained, "it's just very hard for people of that generation to get involved. It's always seemed like something a little foreign."

Torres and other Mexican-American activists believe this failure to go to the polls grows out of a history of harassment and abuse against their people by the very institutions of government the elections are meant to control. "We've been scared so long, of the police, of the whole Anglo system," said Margaret La Rue, a Wasco farmworker and leader of the activist La Gente Unida group in that rural town. "We didn't get involved because we didn't want to cause problems for our families and because politics always seemed to mean trouble for us."

Today in towns like Wasco this suspicion of authority comes from a widespread fear of the police, who many Mexican-Americans claim hit them without cause, and hatred for the local school, which are consistently accused of discriminating against young Spanish-surnamed students. But the roots of political noninvolvement go further back, across the bloody aftermath of the Mexican revolution in the early part of this century and the mass deportations of Mexican workers from this country in the 1930s.

"Man, you know, for a long time Chicanos never really knew if they were going to be deported one day or the next," said Matt Garcia, chairman of the 21-member Chicano Caucus of the Texas legislature. "It's had one hell of a lingering effect."

Recoiling against thishistory of fear and oppression, the Mexican-American community has turned to itself, seeking in cultural solidarity what it seemed unlikely to gain in politics. Today, across the Southwest, in the barrios and in clusters of little wooden houses on the edge of vast agricultural ranches, it is possible for a Mexican-American to feel himself apart from the general American society around him.

"We are another country," insisted Miguel Garcia, as radios blared Spanish on Brooklyn Avenue in East Los Angeles and long lines of people poured out of nearby church. "We have our own culture, our own language. We feel different from the rest of America."

In their ethnically homogeneous barrios of the Southwest, many Mexican-Americans have felt no need to risk their Mexican identity by getting involved in the American political system. "You can get into a good fight about this in any bar in south Phoenix," said Alfredo Gutierrez, majority leader of the Arizona Senate. "I went to segregated schools where in many ways we were reluctant to enter the majority culture. We felt we were between them. It didn't matter to a whole lot of people what happened in the majority society. We had to learn we didn't lose our souls by learning English and getting into society."

In the early 1970s some Mexican-American activists, weary of the pluralistic politics of the Democratic Party, attempted to translate some of this separatist fervor into political action with the Texas-based La Raza Unida party. But after some stunning successes, particularly in the heavily Mexican-American communities of the Rio Grande Valley, La Raza Unida has been reduced to controlling one some rural Texas community, Crystal City. "We got our teeth knocked in," said one former La Raza Unida organizer from Texas.

"The people just got discouraged. It was like Charlie Brown, man, how can we lose when we try so hard?"

The failure to build any sustaining political organization has meant that in small towns like Wasco, as well as in big cities like Los Angeles, Mexican-Americans continue to exist in a sort of twilight citizenship -- contributing to the economy, paying taxes, owing houses but having virtually no say in the political life of their community. In Los Angeles, for instance, where more than a million Mexican-Americans reside, not one community member has sat on the city council in the past 15 years.

Even in San Antonio, the Texas city most observers see as having the best-organized Mexican-American community in the Southwest, whites continue to dominate the political process. Although Mexican-Americans outnumber Anglos by better than 4 to 3, the whites still constitute a substantial 56 percent of the registered voters.

Better organized and financed, the white community earlier this month was able to defeat, by a ratio of more than 3 to 2, a $98.4 million public works bond issue, most of which would have been spent in Mexican-American neighborhoods. It was supported vigorously by the citys' five Mexican-American council members and by the powerful Communities Organized for Public Service.

The results discouraged many Mexican-American leaders in Texas, particularly City Councilman Henry Cisneros, an all-but-announced candidate for mayor.

"It doesn't help us one bit that our people won't register and don't vote," Cisneros said, sadness underlying his natural buoyancy. "It shows us we really do have a long, long way to go before our numbers start adding up into power."

About 1,500 miles away, here in the desolate little town of Wasco, another aspiring Mexican-American politician contemplated political defeat. But for Marshall Rangel-Equilera, there was pride mixed with remores, a feeling that just by running he had broken a chain of quiescence that is generations old.

"You have to understand what a big step we've taken here, even if we lost this time," he said as he watched a group of Mexican-American youths smoking cigarettes in front of a rundown wood-frame house. "I've lived here all my life and never did I think anything like running for office was even possible. Maybe someday a Mexican will come out here who knows things about politics, and then watch out. It will be like the gunfight at the OK Corral."

Staff writers Lou Cannon and Bill Curry contributed to this article.NEXT: The future.