Stirring the Other L.A. 

How the media and immigrant advocates got 500,000 people to protest

Monday, Mar 27 2006

UH-OH. DID SOMEONE WAKE the sleeping gigante?

If you didn’t try to drive through downtown Los Angeles on Saturday or flip to Univision or Telemundo, you could have finished the day without realizing that history had just passed you by. The 500,000-strong immigration-rights march that surprised some provided undeniable proof that L.A. is finally two cities layered on top of each other — one operating in English and generally oblivious to its other half, the vibrant Spanish-speaking metropolis that is also known as the second-largest Mexican city in the world.

Early Saturday morning, it became clear this would be a demonstration unlike any the city had ever seen. On my way to the bus stop at Sunset Boulevard and Echo Park Avenue, I ran into my neighbor, walking side by side with his wife. Both were dressed in white and wearing baseball caps. We were all headed for the same place. A man of few words, my neighbor is an old-time Mexican gardener with white hair and rough, brown skin. In other words, an unlikely street protester.

click to enlarge Street lessons: The first wave of student walkouts prompted by la gran marcha. (AP photo/Nick Ut)
  • Street lessons: The first wave of student walkouts prompted by la gran marcha. (AP photo/Nick Ut)

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Van a la marcha?” I asked. They said yes. They seemed excited. They said it was their first time marching in anything.

“Even if you have papers,” his wife explained, “you have to do something. If you don’t, who will?”

We parted when they headed off to have a morning coffee somewhere, as if the largest mass protest in L.A. history would be part of a leisurely weekend outing. So started a phenomenal, stirring and historic day.

The massive protest against HR4437, the hardcore anti-illegal-immigration bill passed in December by the House of Representatives and now before the Senate, raised the prospect of a grassroots political awakening for undocumented workers who have few rights in this country — including no voting power.

The march also showed the reach and power of the Spanish-language media, which sounded a direct call to action for days leading up to Saturday.

At a time when anti-war marches are frequent, first approved by authorities and generally ignored by the media, Saturday’s marcha was a remarkable example of what is possible when the media mobilize like-minded people. It felt entirely organic. Grandmothers, elderly vaqueros, toddlers in strollers, people in wheelchairs, the blind. Skater kids, dudes with gang tattoos, emo-punks, gays, cha-cha chicks, transsexuals, Che Guevara adherents. Gardeners, nannies, construction workers, taco-truck guys, contractors, business owners. Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, Puerto Ricans. It seemed that no subsegment of the region’s Latino population was left unrepresented.

Noticeably absent, however, were counter-demonstrators, Minutemen, immigration officers or even much of the LAPD, save a smattering of officers posted on shady street corners or hunkered down at the command post set up on Spring Street between First and Second streets, right on the doorstep of the Los Angeles Times.

All week long, the Spanish media implored their audiences to march peacefully and respectfully. The media-relations officer answering calls at Parker Center late Saturday sounded almost proud to relay that not a single arrest was recorded, amazing considering the number of people at times packed shoulder to shoulder as the mass surged up Broadway.

By 9:30 that morning, the crowd massed at Eighth Street and Broadway was already pressing forward. More than four hours later, at 2 p.m., well after the speaker program at the southwestern patio corner of City Hall had ended, marchers were still coming up Broadway by the thousands, unaware that the event was officially over.

The streets radiating away from City Hall were literally crammed with people. They were milling around, staging impromptu mini-rallies, having picnics and berating the guy on top of a Fox News truck. Standing at the crest of the crowd on Broadway, where it hits Temple Street, looking south, I see the endless sea of people.

“We’re here to throw their shit back at them,” said Rogelio Lopez, a 35-year-old construction worker from Van Nuys by way of Oaxaca, whose boss told him to skip work Saturday to be at the march. “We come here to work, to participate in this country, and even so, they don’t want us.”

Lopez, like the hundreds of thousands of others who formed a human river on Broadway all the way down past the 10 freeway and into South-Central L.A., stands in the cross hairs of the bill backed chiefly by Wisconsin Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner Jr.

If it becomes law, Lopez would become a felon and a target for deportation. After nine years of working here, he would be forced to leave behind his two U.S.-born children. Anyone who helps him in any way, like driving him to work, would be acting criminally as well.

The severity of the proposed law is what drew out many on Saturday to their first act of political demonstrating.

“I would be separated from my two children. It’s unjust,” said first-time demonstrator Inez Cruz, 32, who pushed two of her babies in a double-stroller and walked alongside her 14-year-old, Mexican-born daughter.

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