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Sí, Se Puede! 

L.A.’s new Freedom Riders take their quest for immigrant equality on the road

Thursday, Oct 23 2003
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Photos by J. Emilio Flores

The morning fog has not yet burned off, but more than 200 people have already gathered in the Westlake parking lot of the L.A. County Federation of Labor. Despite the early hour, they’re already clapping, practically jumping up and down with excitement, chanting what will be the first of many, many hundreds if not thousands of ebullient rounds of “Sí, se puede!” (roughly: “Yes, we can!”).

Over the next 11 days, those three words will be shouted out — sometimes by a dozen or less, sometimes by many thousands — on the steps of cathedrals, in union halls and Sunday-school meeting rooms, in a barren parking lot hard up against the Mexican border, on broad urban boulevards and the tidy avenues of a small Appalachian town, even after-hours in the barroom of a Nashville Applebee’s, and most of all, aboard those two buses idling right there on Lake Street. But no one is on the buses yet, and news crews and photographers are still wandering through the crowd. Antonio Villaraigosa seems to be everywhere, grinning, slapping backs and shaking hands, adjusting his already perfectly knotted tie. Men and women stand in line to register for the trip and receive plastic photo ID badges to wear around their necks.

On the bus

After a brisk breakfast of tamales and pan dulce, Villaraigosa, standing beside the American flag and in front of a huge yellow-and-white banner for the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, leads the crowd in another few chants before speaking. “Today is a historic day in the United States,” he declares in Spanish. “This is a just campaign. It’s an American and a patriotic campaign.”

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United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta, tiny but still a powerful presence in a straw hat and a red UFW T-shirt, says a few words. Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) Local 11 and director of the Freedom Ride, speaks too — “We are fighting for what people in this nation have been fighting for since the very beginning,” she says, “for freedom” — and so does an AFL-CIO official and an activist priest from Santa Monica, but before the good father can get even a word out the TV news crews are hustling their cameras from their tripods and jogging away into the street. The buses have begun loading, it seems, and the cameramen jostle for position to film the Freedom Riders’ suitcases disappearing one by one through the open cargo doors.

Early morning prayers in San Antonio

The two-bus caravan rolls down Alvarado to the freeway and on to Palm Springs, and then much further onward, through the desert to Arizona, down to the Mexican border and along the Rio Grande through New Mexico and Texas, then up through Arkansas to Tennessee and across the South to Washington. There, in early October, it will meet up with 16 other buses from nine other cities from Seattle to Miami before heading together to New York. On board are Central American hotel housekeepers, Filipino longshoreman, African-American home-health-care aides, Mexican-American union organizers, activists and students, others from Colombia, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Taiwan, Sudan, even faraway Oakland. This is the launch of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, which takes its name and at least part of its inspiration from the freedom riders of 1961, who defiantly imposed integration on buses and whites-only bus-station waiting rooms and lunch counters throughout the Jim Crow South and were greeted for their trouble by angry mobs and brutal cops, with beatings, arrests, even a firebomb in Anniston, Alabama.

L.A.'s Guillermo Roacho carries the cross of an immigrant who died

This updated version of the rides — in search now of equality for the nation’s 28 million immigrants — is a peculiar thing, as American as the deserts, Wal-Marts and cotton fields that line the interstates on which it runs. There will be a lot of flag-waving in the 11 days that follow, and a lot of all-American talk of freedom, justice, humanity, opportunity — concepts so haggard from mis- and overuse that my hackles usually rise on hearing them. Somehow though, from some mouths some of the time, those words will come to mean something again. The new Freedom Ride is part maddening PR spectacle, orchestrated and always spinning, sullying its wheels in the murky shallows of American political life. But it’s also about genuine idealistic passion, hard-won optimism, startlingly deep faith in the foundations of the American dream — itself as much a shabby, bloated and blood-stained cliché as it is a vital, breathing and breath-giving creature — in the fundamental equality of humans and the dignity of human striving, in all that has been and remains worth fighting for in America.

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