LOS ANGELES, March 26, 2006-- What happened yesterday? The Los
Angeles Times estimates 500,000 people turned
out; Univision estimates 2,000,000. You can read about it anywhere--a
Gran Marcha against the Sensenbrenner immigration reform bill. The
pictures are spectacular. Doves were released, a horn blared, a marching
Those of us who couldn't get close to the speakers' platform
joined semi-organized mini-marches of several thousand people, led by the SEIU,
LA-ANSWER, and UNO. Waves of people standing in the streets broke into
spontaneous chants of "¡Aqui estamos y no nos vamos!" And
always there was, "¡Sí, Se Puede!" Outpacing the masses or going the
other direction, against the tide, meant squeezing along building walls and
non-stop "con permiso."
After the March, thousands of people stood
in line after line along the overpasses along the 101, waving flags and
celebrating. The resounding honks of car horns rising up from below us was
Except for a fracas between police and a few marchers at the
end of the event, which resulted in no arrests, the police were nearly invisible
and the protestors were resolute and calm. Firefighters were cheered wherever
they appeared, and I've never seen so many U.S. flags at a protest, raised
side-by-side with Mexican, Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran flags, or small
U.S. flags topping the flagpoles of foreign flags. Occasionally, a U.S.
flag was held upside-down, the international signal for a ship in distress.
other protest anomalies were apparent: the sea of white shirts signaling
"peace," and the families - grandparents, youth, toddlers, and the ubiquitous
I asked what the the shirts, the flags, and the families
meant. Let me try to explain what I learned.
Reframing the National
A March that was billed as "anti-Sensenbrenner" became,
in the hands of the people, a march for legalization. In one sense, the
underlying theme is not dissimilar to the argument for legalizing pot:
acknowledge in the light of day what is tacitly condoned.
For ten thousand
years and more, the people who live in what is now Mexico passed freely into
what is now called the United States. Then the Europeans arrived, and the
Sixteen decades ago, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo declared
that ranchers and ranch hands, any Mexican or Native American in the new U.S.
territory who wanted to keep their land and livelihood, were citizens of the
United States (and would be grouped racially with European immigrants). To
avoid land confiscation and with the gold rush of 1849, as many as 100,000
Mexicans opted for citizenship. Since then, the U.S. has manipulated the
natural movement of peoples for its economic gain. In the 1920s, farm
workers were brought in from Mexico, only to be deported in the 1930s.
With 1942 Bracero program, the U.S. government and U.S. business actively
encouraged the immigration of cheap labor from Mexico, welcoming workers even as
they deported them during the late 1950s "Operation Wetback."
The Bracero program ended in 1964. In 1984, undocumented people were
offered amnesty and citizenship.
Twenty years later, NAFTA and
CAFTA have propelled people off now unprofitable farms and into U.S.-owned
foreign sweatshops at $5.50 per day. The only alternative is making the
trip to the north and working for $50 per day. Sensenbrenner (HR 4437) and
its companion bills under discussion in the Senate would end that option in
a few weeks, with a vote and a penstroke.
Sensenbrenner, border crossers would be deemed felons. Putting aside law
enforcement for the moment, the vigilante minutemen are anticipating a field
day, when they can initiate a citizen's arrest against anyone they
"know" to be here in violation of felony laws. Undoubtedly, the
minutemen watched the Gran Marcha on their TVs while they cleaned their guns and
counted their ammunition.
The marchers wore white shirts to shout
"no free-for-alls against immigrants," no white-instigated race
war. In a word, the shirts were a call for peace, for a stable, legal
working relationship with the United States. "No guerra, no racismo,
no deportación," the marchers chanted.
The white T-shirts, crew shirts,
blouses, and dress shirts with embroidered cuffs called for a truce based on
legalization for people here and for a guest worker program; for legal
recognition of what is and has been, in opposition to Sensenbrenner's and
the minutemen's paramilitary effort to reshape history. Today, Mexicans,
Central Americans, South Americans, other immigrant communities, and their
children turned the debate into a question of how best to incorporate
undocumented but often welcomed immigrants into U.S. society. It's a
question that has waited decades for an answer.
Single Citizenship, Dual
Especially in southern Mexico and Central America, emigrants
may be leaving homes without electricity or indoor plumbing, or with dirt
floors, for the relative luxury of life as a janitor, plumber's helper, or
farmworker. Whole families save to send their most likely breadwinner away
to the United States. Dropped off on the other side of the border,
the new arrival hooks up with a friend or relative and enters the largely
underground economy. If the expense of living here doesn't overwhelm him,
he sends a few dollars home to help their wife and children, or maybe a younger
brother, sister, or cousin, to cross.
The international myth of
the American dream, for most undocumented foreign nationals who come here, means
economic survival and cultural integrity, and little more. "Trabajar
por un sueno no es crimen," read one sign.
In communities of undocumented
people there is hope in the microeconomic opportunities here, even though,
in the macroeconomic picture, the U.S. sucks their native countries dry and does
the same to the migrants themselves once they cross to "El Otro Lado."
Another protestor held up a sign, "If trying to survive is a crime, we're
On the steps of city hall, the destination of the
marchers, a banner fluttered: "Please Include Us in Your Dreams," it
Politically correct or not, this intimate plea is what it meant that the
migrants carried so many US flags. It was a plea for inclusion and legalization,
and against scapegoating, round ups, mass detention and mass deportation.
United Should Never Be Divided"
Immigrants have spent their family's
"fortune" on the hope of a better life for their children, and for the
chance to improve their family's' lives back home. Obligations to aging
parents and young offspring require that sons, daughters, and young parents
cross the border, even if it might mean death. It is many young people's
dream to come to the U.S., but the dream of Mesoamerican youth is unlike the
dreams of U.S. youth to go off to college or adventure in the city. If a Guatemalan
or Salvadoran or Honduran young person succeeds in the U.S., they are family heroes.
The same spirit of family obligation is what propelled young Chicanos to abandon
school on Friday in defense of their parents and grandparents.
The Gran Marcha
was billed as a "family event." Strollers were everywhere.
Three generations gripped each others' hands as they wended their way through
the crowds. The shout that a child was lost brought the immense human wave to a
halt and cheers when the child was found. A path opened up from mother to
child. In Mexico, Central American, and South American communities, a
family event means more than "quality time" with the kids or an
Perhaps the most devastating impact of
Sensenbrenner for its victims would be families ripped apart.
In cultures that
survive because of family love, support, and obligations, Sensenbrenner and all
the proposals before the Senate threatens not only immigrants' livelihood, but
their safety net and the cultural hub of their lives. Under
"immigration reform," families would be destroyed. Breadwinners,
mothers and fathers, would spend months in prison before deportation.
family members would be abandoned in the U.S., struggling on one minimum-wage
income or less. Children would be left without parents, turned over to the
notorious Department of Human Services to find more distant family members or
foster parents while their natural parents served out jail sentences and then
tried to reunite with their children from across the border. Or, as
happened in previous mass deportations, the children--mostly U.S.
citizens--would be deported with their families.
The peace the migrants called
for is the peace of families intact, with love and with squabbles, in a country
that tacitly invited them, and peace with legal standing. It is the small
peace of going to school, of work and taxes, of family meals with grandparents,
children, and grandchildren uninterrupted by police banging at the door.
The Sleeping Giant
A year's work for hundreds of Los Angeles activists against the minutemen
paid off yesterday. They held the door open from Baldwin Park and Garden
Grove to Laguna Beach, Lake Forest, and Glendale, and the community had time to
recognize the threat and to organize. Amidst the flags and the strollers were
signs that read, "The 50 States Need 'Slaves' To Work" and signs that
compared Sensenbrenner to Hitler, familiar themes to pro-migrant
activists. And at the end of it all, the danzantes danced.
As one sign told Sensenbrenner, the Congress, and the minutemen, "You
bug so much you woke up the Sleeping Giant."
On the Streets
Today, I overheard the manager of my local Sav-On talking with a stock
clerk. The white guy in the dress shirt said, "Did you see the March
yesterday? The news said 500,000 people were out." The
African-American woman he spoke to said, "Yeah, it was something, wasn't
it?" The manager added, "I didn't know there were so many of
them. What do those people expect?" and continued, "I mean, I
know they deserve better and all, but what happens if they pass that law?
Is there going to be a riot?" His trepidation was unmistakable before
he drifted away.
After a moment, I turned to her as she restocked items on the shelf and
mentioned that I was at the March, and that the Spanish media reported one and a
half to two million participants. She said, "I'm not surprised.
The way those people have been brought in here, and now they get treated like
this. And they really are doing the jobs nobody wants." She
continued straightening items on the shelf as she went on, "My daughter,
she's a manager. That's what we want for our children. We don't want
those kind of jobs." I suggested that the Jewish persecution began
much like this, and she agreed: "Yeah, that's right. I don't blame
them for standing up. I wouldn't blame them if they took the streets. We