How A Day Without a Mexican Inspired a May Day Movement

May Day 2006
May Day 2006

It’s May Day, L.A. Do you know what that means?

No, but seriously. Do you?

Although I remembered the Maypole from bizarre, pagan-lite grade school rituals involving pastels and streamers (I thought it was like a second Easter or something), I didn’t really get the modern context until I was out of college yet still not a full-time worker or union member or anything like that. It was May Day 2006 when I witnessed massive crowds — largely Chicano groups, unions, activists and community members — pouring through the streets of downtown L.A. It was the largest protest in California history and one that couldn’t be ignored, even if it’s only half remembered now.

May Day is International Workers’ Day, or the real Labor Day according to socialists, unions, workers, communists, anarchists and basically anyone who respects the working classes as the foundations of a moral and fertile society. It began as a day to remember the atrocities of the Haymarket affair, where anarchists and other leftists were crucified in Chicago for a riot they didn’t create at a protest to condemn police killings. That was in the 1800s but feels pretty germane, no?

But there’s a reason you probably haven’t learned much about Labor Day in the American primary and secondary education system: It’s been largely scrubbed out of general education, just like other critiques of capitalism. It’s no accident. Especially as the potential for the WGA strike looms over L.A., along with issues of labor exploitation — from the rampant mistreatment of the freelancers and members of the gig and "sharing” economy to the abuses at the hands of “job creators” — L.A. lives and dies by its workers. We’re a megalopolis that has thrived when labor has thrived and failed when it hasn’t.

We’re basically all workers, so this is a day for every one of us.

So back to 2006. A few months prior to May Day 2006, a bill hit Congress (HR 4437) that promised to crack down on undocumented people and offer stricter criminal sentences, to make it a felony to enable undocumented people in any way and to build a wall on the Mexican border. Again, it all feels almost too on-the-nose.

Obviously, this was alarming to the Chicano community. A resistance — an actual grassroots movement, one that predated feckless hashtags, mind you — was mounting against the legislation on a national scale.

They called it the Great American Boycott, where everyone (especially Latin Americans) was encouraged to check out of capitalist culture for a day. The boycott grew into what became known as “Day Without an Immigrant," a play on and evolution of the 2004 film A Day Without a Mexican, a film that satirically and seriously asked the question, “What if all the Mexicans disappeared overnight?” 

The film’s creators — husband-and-wife multidisciplinary artists Sergio Arau and Yareli Arizmendi — are still part of the Southland’s community of vocal activists. And they think it’s important to recognize immigrants.

“The immigrant spirit is pure gold,” Arau tells me. “People — immigrants — who are willing to risk all they knew before, to make life for them and theirs better, are people ready to work beyond hard, learn the rules and make themselves indispensable to their new community. In this, the Golden State, the immigrant spirit constantly refreshes and re-polishes what we, California, aspire to become.”

But the story of America isn’t only the story of Latino immigrants, of course. “Immigrant mistreatment has existed always,” Arau insists. “Ask the Germans, the Irish, the Italians, the Poles, the Russians. Latin Americans are the last group to step into the shoes of the immigrant category.” In that sense, America is color-blind: Wherever the underclass is from is irrelevant as long as they’re the meat fed into the machine.

Yareli recently explained that "A Day Without a Mexican the film grew out of a personal need that we later found out was shared by thousands. It gave words to express the feelings that existed but had no form, no structure.”

The basic gist of the film is that society can’t function without its working class, especially its documented and undocumented Chicanos. This may seem like a farcical, far-fetched scenario, but is also represents what a realistic, successful strike would look like for most of a given city: Empty kitchens. Empty job sites. Empty offices. Empty schools. Empty hospitals. Empty roads. A city straight out of some hackneyed zombie movie.

So the low-budget movie inspired what this movement became focused on, which was A Day Without an Immigrant, a public demonstration to see what happens when you take immigrants out of the economy temporarily. “The phrase 'A Day Without a …' became a way to express what would life look like without me, without you, without them, a way to make what is taken for granted and forced into invisibility, visible. If we are remembered for one thing, let it be for making the invisible visible," Arizmendi says.

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The movement’s first big victory was a series of peaceful protests around the country, including in L.A. on March 26, 2006, when a half million people reportedly showed up. A protest this large was unprecedented in California’s history.

A little over a month later, several hundred thousand more Angelenos again left work and took to the streets of downtown, the San Fernando Valley and Long Beach, and throughout other areas of Southern California.

This included massive walkouts from schools; children and teens showed up for the day and all walked out in a synchronized fashion. It was a statement of contempt of the do-nothing status quo of public education in poorer neighborhoods of color and the indifferent. Immigrants were being recognized. This couldn’t be easily ignored or dismissed.

Then, lawmakers appeared to listen. Neither the troubling bill nor its watered-down replacement became law. But since Bush 2.0’s xenophobic tenure, things have only gotten worse for immigrants. Obama deported a record number of “illegals” during his two terms and generally failed to push a more progressive and inclusive immigration reform plan. And now we have noted slumlord Donald Trump, who could outpace all of his predecessors as far as deportations and other human rights violations, and he still entertains wild, terrifying ideas about immigration prevention and policing and surrounds himself with actual Nazi worshippers like Steve Bannon and Seb Gorka.

But it’s not just immigrants. In the past decade, both labor and immigration groups have been targets of this century’s neoliberal and conservative hardliners, who make no bones about their allegiance to corporate sugar daddies. It’s open season on labor, immigrants and marginalized people of all stripes. But it kind of always has been in America, at least since I can remember.

For some, the idea of striking — maybe giving up a day’s wage — may seem counterintuitive. But it’s a small price to pay for a long-term goal that is more valuable than anyone’s daily wage. The world’s problems won’t be solved in a single afternoon, after all. It’s an ongoing process, not a series of one-off events or casual brunch protests. This is something wholly more substantive.

Many workers, however, may be caught in a situation where it’s too precarious to strike. There are other ways to demonstrate. Boycotting all consumer goods, staying inside, generally being invisible are all decent strategies to letting your presence be felt through your absence.

So where are we now, May Day 2017?

Movimiento Cosecha, a nonviolent group fighting and organizing on behalf of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America, is one of the groups leading the charge. Starting May 1, Movimiento Cosecha is promoting a series of strikes that will culminate in a week without immigrants, including massive boycotts and “mass noncooperation.”

Activists and other Angelenos are quietly hopeful there will be a strong turnout this year. There is a possibility the timing of everything might be priming us for a similar scaled work stoppage. When democratic mechanisms of government fail (read: right now, top to bottom), this is one of the only nonviolent methods to get anyone’s attention: by having them miss and need you when you’re gone.

That’s part of why we strike. Yet strikes aren’t just a demonstration. These are actual economic disruptions, causing shareholders billions of dollars in debt and making their bottom line hurt. This is capitalism forced to suck on the barrel of its own gun.

Have Donald Trump and his bumbling band of crypto-fascists re-awoken the sleeping giant of actual, bottom-up resistance?

I guess we’ll see today.


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