A festival of the oppressed. That is the phrase that came to mind as I walked with one million people on March 25th. On that day, Mexicana/o and Latina/o working class immigrants, their families, and their supporters took over the streets of downtown Los Angeles, the second largest city in the country, a city whose Spanish name proclaims its Mexican roots. As I marched down Hill Street with my sons Ramon and Maceo, I realized that this was history. Five city streets were packed, from curb-to-curb and as far as the eye could see with people, signs, flags, and banners. Music seemed to be a part of every contingent, and dazzling troupes of Azteca Danzantes carried the sacred fire and whirled the sacred dances for the entire five miles of the march. A blind man marched with us, as well as people in wheelchairs, old and young, men and women, all marching and shouting together in a festival of freedom.
For one brief and glorious moment, the streets belonged to us — not to the craven developers and rich Euro-Americans who are gentrifying the poor and homeless out of all affordable living space, nor to the crass politicians who pretend that providing drivers licenses to immigrants threatens our national security, not even to the shit-mouthed talk radio dummies with their gutless refrain about controlling “our” borders and protecting “our” culture. On this one day, for the entire day — the streets belong to domestic workers, garment workers, busboys, janitors, day laborers, and farm workers — people with dark skins and a Spanish language.
What the world witnessed on March 25th (and before than in a huge march in Chicago) and in countless walk-outs and marches since that time has been a people in revolt, in a rebellion against decades of racism, scapegoating, super-exploitation, and the constant threat of jack-boot Migra raids and ethnic cleansing (deportation). The revolt is significant because it represents the largest (more than 3 million people) working-class movement against the right wing since the Bush regime stole office. What is really sweet is that this movement targets the most racist, misogynist, and pro-imperialist sectors of the Republican Right Wing — neo-fascist politicos like Sensenbrenner, Tancredo, and Frist. While the demands of this movement are for immigrant legalization, its aspiration is for freedom.
This movement is overwhelmingly working class, inspired to action by HR4437, the most repressive anti-immigrant legislation in US history. This law would make it a felony to be undocumented, criminalizing nearly 12 million people. The bill would also deny any sort of hearing before deportation. It would even make it a crime to help a person remain or attempt to remain in the US, if you know that person has no documents. The bill would militarize the US-Mexico border with a 700-mile wall similar to the wall the Israelis are building in Palestine to “control” the occupied territories. Truth be told, none of the immigration bills in the Senate are very good either. All of the bills would add to the militarization of the border and include a guest worker program that would make participants virtual indentured servants to their employers. The so-called legalization provisions would exclude at least 3 million people from participation and make it extremely difficult for the rest to actually achieve it.
March 25th was also a product of support from Los Angeles Archbishop Mahoney, and popular Spanish-language radio personalities like Piolin and El Cucuy, as well as hip-hop radio’s Big Boy (an African American). All of them used their popularity to get out the word about March 25th. It spread like wildfire, being passed along — person-to-person — in cantinas and cafes, on factory floors and in workplaces, in barber shops and nail parlors, on street corners and at Sunday Mass. Everywhere that Mexicana/os and Latina/os live, work, and play the word was out: join La Gran Marcha on 25 de Marzo. As a guerilla prelude to the big event, thousands of Los Angeles high school students walked out of their schools on March 24th, jamming the streets of Southeast Los Angeles, joined by low-riding vatos, madres pushing baby carriages, and Mexicano troqueros providing musical accompaniment with their big rig horns as people marched down the streets of what used to be the “white flight” cities of Bell, Southgate, and Huntington Park. Mexican flags were carried out as proud symbols of resistance to the racism that inspires the anti-immigrant hysteria, joined by people waving the US flag in a challenge to the government to live up to all of its fine words about democracy and social equality.
The immigrant rights movement is a living combination of working-class struggle combined with the democratic aspirations of national liberation. One of the most striking signs carried by hundreds of people on March 25th demanded immediate and unconditional residency for all immigrants, while audaciously reminded everyone that “This is our homeland,” referring to California and the other territories stolen by the US in 1848. This movement reflects, as a living and creative nucleus, the “strategic alliance” to which the Left pays great verbal homage, but does too little work to build. It is a movement of working people for the basic right to live free from the terrible fear of arrest and repatriation. But, insofar as it has inspired support from all sectors of the Mexicana/o and Latina/o communities — middle class, intellectuals, and even the wealthy owners of the Spanish-language media — it is a movement of a people.
The great challenge before all Left and progressive people is to support this movement in every way that we can. This means first of all supporting the two basic demands of this movement: (1) a law that provides genuine legalization of all immigrants; (2) no law that criminalizes or represses them. Critical alliances need to be made now if we are to stop any version of HR4437 from being passed, and to build a social movement that can throw the Republican right wing out of office and put the Bush Administration on the defensive and drive their like from office. May 1 — being called The Great American Boycott — is our next great test. On that day, immigrant marches will be held throughout the country, and we are being asked to make no purchases and conduct no business on that day. Workers and students are being encouraged to stay out of work and school and stores, or to join the late afternoon marches if they cannot.
May Day will be a day when the powers-that-be will learn that immigrant workers and their supporters can shut down much of the economy and day-to-day operations of this country. Union activists should pressure their leaders to support union members who stay home from work. Peace activists should encourage their neighborhood, regional, and national organizations to do full-press mobilizations of support — making a real-life link between the war abroad and the war at home.
Care must be taken that the voices of the other immigrant communities — East Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islander, African and Caribbean — who have taken part in this mighty upsurge are heard and not shunted to the side. Particular attention should be paid to our Middle Eastern and Muslim sisters and brothers, who have been horribly scapegoated and repressed since the events of 9/11.
Last and far from lest, the immigrant rights movement should extend a special hand to the African American community, and shatter any efforts to divide these two great struggles. Certainly the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina underscore the importance of building this alliance.
It is impossible to predict the exact outcome of this great immigrant rights movement. It could ultimately be compromised and forced to accept bad legislation. Or it could stop all bad legislation in its tracks, but be unable to win a positive bill. If it continues to grow and scare a section of the Republican Party with the specter of forever losing the Latin@ vote, it could even win some positive legislation that would include a path to legalization. But whatever happens, those of us on the Left must do all that we can to support it, while pointing out that immigration is simply a result of US capitalism’s plunder of countries like Mexico, and that if capital can move freely across borders, so should workers. Truly, no human being is “illegal.”
April 26, 2006
Bill Gallegos has roots in the Chicana/o struggle in Southern California going back to the late 1960s. Today he works around environmental justice and other issues critical to communities of color. Bill is a member of the Los Angeles district of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad.Download this piece as a PDF