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True Colors 

Wednesday, May 3 2006
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At the March 25 Gran Marcha — an ecstatic coming-out party — I felt more like a lucky observer than an active participant, being one of the seemingly few non-Latinos there. But Monday’s dual marches up Broadway and down Wilshire had a different look, with new faces, immigrant and non-immigrant, participating this time. It seemed as if the Latinos’ successful demonstration of verve and power in March had coaxed Los Angeles’ myriad ethnic contingents out of their hideouts: They wanted to join a winning team. Over the course of the day, the hypothesis the mainstream media had established — that the immigration marches are a Latino affair and that other immigrant communities feel threatened by this show of strength and numbers — seemed to dissolve in a sea of white shirts and bright flags.

On the Metro Red Line, empty at 8 a.m. but teeming at 11:30, I witnessed the first of many surprising moments. A large group of boycotters — Latino, South Asian, black, white — gathered near the stairs for a group photo, big smiles all alike. Nearby, a black and Latino lesbian couple, ditching school most likely, wore identical Che Guevara shirts and sat close together, waiting for the train. White was the attire of the day, a color that easily takes on spiritual overtones, as when the train sped by, bleeding all the shirts inside into one stream of white, and making it seem like the train was on its way to heaven. It reminded me of another, visually similar procession: men and women, wrapped in white cloth, loading onto buses and trains on their way to Mecca and Medina.

On the Metro, passengers smiled at each other knowingly, as if to say, “Thanks for being here.” The lesbian couple boarded the train, and a conservatively dressed man, suspecting something, interrogated them: “Shouldn’t you be in school? Where do you live? How old are you?” They smiled politely and shook their heads, taking the Fifth.

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Marchers ran up the stairs at Pershing Square, unable to wait for the escalator, spurred by screams of general joy coming from the surface. On Broadway, a black DJ from the hip-hop and R&B station Hot 92 Jamz shouted into a loudspeaker: “Do you want to be heard?!”

I ran into “Tiffany” (not her real name), a pretty, young black girl who had come with two Latina friends. “I’m here because my family is here, my boyfriend and his family. Latinos are the closest to me and my race. We should all be equal because we’re in the same struggle.” I asked her about other cities, where some African-American protests against the marches were planned, and whether she was disturbed by Mexican flags. “I’m American, but I’d be holding the Hispanic flag too. It’s no problem to be proud of where you come from.”

Leading one marching contingent, wielding a huge American flag with both hands, was Chris, an African-American young man from Los Angeles. At 6 feet 4 inches, he stood like a great shepherd for those surrounding him. “I’m here because blacks and Latinos have both been suppressed in this society. The same thing we were going through 40 or 50 years ago, they are going through now.” Would he use a loaded word? “Yes, it’s their own civil rights struggle.”

There were many more white people this time, even a man with a Mexican flag pinned to his baseball cap, and older ladies from the Topanga Peace Alliance came to see what all the fun was about.

Others at the march preferred to watch from the sidelines on Broadway: families with strollers, businessmen descended from their towers, and non-Latino immigrants. I asked an Indian couple, who came to the U.S. with worker visas, what they thought of the marchers: “We support these guys,” the man said, with a warm smile. “It was America’s mistake to let immigration get out of hand,” his companion added. “They should accept the consequences.”

The African-American voices at the podium in front of City Hall, at times competing with the sounds of a runaway mariachi band, spoke with certainty about the bonds between American minorities. A representative from the Nation of Islam struck a religious tone: “In the name of the Almighty, don’t forget your history!” he thundered. “Remember the Native Americans. God is watching. Viva Mexico!” A speaker from the Bethel AME Church, just one of the many churches supporting the May Day parade, used oratory from the pulpit: “We stand in solidarity with our Latino family, to say thank you to Congressman Sensenbrenner . . .,” he paused, before lending the rally the tragic currency of a disaster suffered most acutely by blacks, “. . . because a power greater than Katrina has been unleashed here in Los Angeles!” Acknowledging this overture, the crowd roared, unleashing their own spontaneous “Sí se puede!”

All around, marchers showed a gleeful obliviousness to the brown-black and brown-white tensions drummed up elsewhere. A reporter from the L.A. Times, noticing a teenager wrapped up in the colors of Mexico, asked, almost accusingly: “What are you saying with that flag?” The boy drew the reporter close, placed a friendly hand on his shoulder and whispered something in his ear, defusing what could have been a volatile confrontation.

The most awe-inspiring scene of the day took place over the 101 freeway, where, on three adjacent overpasses, a white-clad stream of revelers flowed across, against an uninterrupted soundtrack of din provided by gridlocked trucks and celebrating SUVs underneath. At one point, the marchers draped an enormous American flag over the bridge, nearly reaching down to the lanes. They were all headed toward Union Station to join the second rally, at MacArthur Park, in what seemed like an inevitable progress toward an urban promised land. It was easy to get lost in it, even if you weren’t Latino.

On the crowded escalators rising up to Macarthur Park, I met a contingent from Occidental College whose parents are Nigerian, Filipino, Indian, Pakistani, Latin American, and Native American. They seemed like MTV contestants hand-selected for diversity. When I approached them, they called out to their friends to “come get your interview on.” A mixed-race boy spoke of the difficulties his father faced when he first came to the States — and said, “Xenophobia affects everybody, even this guy here.” He pointed to his Mexican friend: “I could get imprisoned for helping him out.”

It was 4 p.m. and kids were just getting out of school, flocking to the gathering from every nook and cranny of the city, invigorating the Macarthur Park march down Wilshire with energy and a kind of start-of-the-summer delirium. The sun blazed, the boulevard rose and fell, and the buildings acted like a thrilling echo chamber, amplifying the spontaneous waves of cheering whenever they broke out. It confirmed that Wilshire is by far the best street for marching, less claustrophobic and less isolated than downtown. Passing a Mexican neighborhood into Koreatown, watching the languages of storefronts change, you feel you’re witnessing a living mural enacting the recent history of the U.S.

“It’s impossible to erase this many people,” said Rie, a female Japanese student watching from the sidewalk, whose awkward English revealed more than the polished kind. We joined a contingent I remembered from L.A.’s 2003 anti-war marches: The Bus Riders Union, which calls itself a “multiracial think-tank/act-tank.” Unmistakable in their bright-yellow shirts, this youthful poly-racial smorgasbord of Koreans, blacks, Latinos, Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Arabs and whites is the most uplifting, creative, infectiously excited group to march with. A drum line used boisterous rhythms to back up cheerleaders, who sang devastating taunts and raps: “Sensenbrenner! Sew your OWN clothes/ Pick your OWN fruit/ Clean your OWN house!” Each person would take turns leading the group in clever bits of street theater incorporating aspects of their culture with chants delivered in Spanish, Korean and English.

The setting sun hovered over Wilshire, a prize for those willing to walk four miles into the horizon. A crowd of more than 30 people lifted up a huge circular quilt made up of flags from the 40 countries with the most immigrants to the U.S. — I saw both my parents’ flags in it — then walked around in a circle, as though around a Maypole, the way people are supposed to do on May Day. Under the quilt, children of indiscernible races ran through a kaleidoscope of colors, awash in an immigrant patriotism everyone hoped would last more than a day.

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