A Day of Power
IN THE CHURNING CENTER of Monday’s immigration-rights march up Broadway, under a pale and merciless midday sun, a chorus of women made revolution with their hips. The May Day marchers were shaking it hard, jubilantly, to a euphoric beat made by guys pounding upon drums, their lips pursed in revelatory fury.
“What do you mean why am I so happy?” asked Guadalupe Paredes, 29, her face shiny and her hair wet with sweat. “We are a united pueblo! I feel so good because I can feel the heat of everyone around me!” Paredes, a U.S. citizen, said she was marching for her friends and relatives who work here but don’t have papers yet. She was as verbose and passionate as natives of Mexico City tend to be: “I clean houses, very honorably,” she said. In a moment of rapture, she added, “If they fire me, I don’t care!”
Paredes kept dancing and screaming above the noise all around her. The drumming. The chanting. The people pounding on news boxes. The random rises of woo-hoos. The helicopters hovering above downtown’s high-rise canyons. The audible sensation of thousands of pairs of feet pounding on pavement.
It was another day of big-ass protests all over Los Angeles and the country, and another reminder that this is an immigration-rights movement that has already succeeded in changing the nation, no matter what, if any, immigration reform eventually emerges from Washington. Small businesses stayed shut, truckers at the port stayed home, and tens of thousands of Los Angeles students didn’t show up for class. Ultimately, the economic toll of the boycott could be deemed negligible. But the symbolism was limitless. They called Monday “A Day Without Immigrants,” the “Great American Boycott” and May Day. Above all, it was a big party.
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A sense of giddy accomplishment and destiny floated in the air above the city’s two major marches — first in downtown and then through Koreatown and Mid-Wilshire — that drew nearly a million people. It was upbeat, even late in the day, after the marine layer rolled back in, and after hundreds of thousands of people marched for four hard-won miles from MacArthur Park to Wilshire Boulevard and La Brea Avenue. More Koreans, African-Americans, Arab-Americans, Jews and whites joined the march through the Wilshire Corridor. Marches also took place in San Francisco, Fresno and Santa Ana, and in San Ysidro and Tijuana, where activists on the Mexican side succeeded in blocking the busiest international border crossing in the world for two hours.
The English-language media, led by the juggernaut Los Angeles Times, sent out armies of reporters to cover the marches, atonement in a way for being caught unprepared for the big March 25 rally in downtown L.A. that startled the country awake. Photo bloggers crowded the Internet with personalized reports from cities far and wide. Commentators on Fox News seemed at a loss, rehashing old talking points that felt more and more like rhetorical relics with each fresh image from yet another U.S. city crowded by a sea of humans in white.
Here and there, the media response crossed the line into high absurdity.
Local newscasts in English and Spanish fulfilled their duty of conducting on-the-spot interviews with the most incoherent people possible, often in their second language. When Fox 11 news anchor Steve Edwards asked Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform to address his anti-immigration stance and the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty — the one that talks about “give me your tired, your poor .?.?.” and so on — Mehlman concluded, “You can’t make public policy based on a poem written by a 16-year-old girl.”
Suddenly, despite Mehlman and those who would like to see illegal immigrants disappear, the brown faces which before this spring rarely entered the collective American consciousness stood front and center in the evolving adventure that is the USA, all the while pushing baby strollers, waving U.S. flags and having a blast.
It was a day that developed organically.
A split in the coalition behind the movement meant that illegal-immigrant workers and their friends received mixed messages in the days leading up to May 1. Some leaders, such as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Cardinal Roger Mahony, told people to go to work and school and march in the afternoon, while the more grassroots and ideologically aligned organizers told people to engage in full-scale non-cooperation: no school, no work, no buying, no selling. The mainstream side promoted the afternoon march on Wilshire, and the grassroots side pushed the earlier, much shorter one-mile march from Broadway and Olympic Boulevard to City Hall.
Complicating matters, Spanish-language media also split on the message sent to millions of viewers, listeners and readers, unlike the united message largely responsible for huge turnout for the March 25 demonstration. Responding to this, one man in Monday’s march on Broadway, retired journalist Arturo Sanchez, carried a well-received homemade sign accusing the mammoth Univision network of “confusing the people.”
In the end, it was the merchants, businesses large and small, that led the boycott. Major companies announced closures of meatpacking plants and garment factories. Wholesale fruit sellers on Seventh Street downtown announced a united decision to close their markets. “We’ve always felt in our community that there wasn’t support from people like us, the businessmen,” said Pedro Astorga, a merchant and representative of the Seventh Street Market Merchants Association. “Now they know there is support. We’re unified. Even among people who are not of our raza, they are supporting us .?.?. ‘Go ahead, one day lost is one day lost. Go ahead.’?”
Yet it was still unclear how successful the boycott would be.
The day before May Day, downtown hosted the annual AT&T Fiesta Broadway, a corporate marketing fair masked as a street party and Cinco de Mayo celebration. There were booths giving away free samples of random junk, like balloons and boxed cereal, and a team of beaming bilingual kids on bright red Segways promoting a Bank of America remittance program. “Do you send money to Mexico?” their signs read in Spanish.
Several people I spoke with at Fiesta Broadway, their hands weighed down by loaded plastic bags covered with corporate logos, their heads covered by corporate-sponsored visors, said they would return to the same street the next day for the march. By Sunday night, after repeated reports that businesses were preparing to shut down the next day, supermarkets in Silver Lake, Hollywood and Koreatown attracted last-minute shoppers who wanted to participate in the boycott by preparing their meals at home on Monday.
I hit up the Ralphs in Koreatown to get yogurt, chips, bananas and fig bars. The lady at my checkout said she was working the next day. “If I go on strike,” she sighed, “I’ll be on strike for good, and then who will support me and my muchachos?” Beating midnight by eight minutes, I added gas to my tank at Vermont Avenue and Beverly Boulevard. My cooler was ready. May Day was on.
There were no major rumblings in the morning.
At 9 a.m., the day still gloomy and gray, most of the storefronts and wholesale-food warehouses in downtown’s Garment and Toy districts were shut. Despite warnings of traffic mayhem, the streets were clear. Several Spanish-language radio stations were without on-air DJs.
THE FIRST MARCH OF THE DAY was in predominantly Mexican-American and proudly middle-class Southeast L.A. County, from Santa Rosa de Lima Church in Maywood to Salt Lake Park in Huntington Park. It was orderly, uniform and peaceful. The three-block-long march represented a turnaround in the local climate toward Latino immigrants.
Just three years ago, Maywood drew scorn from the Spanish-language media and immigrant advocates for police checkpoints that targeted people driving without licenses. That year, 2003, was the height of the nasty fight in the state Legislature over driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. Now, after an immigrant-rights slate swept into City Hall in November, Maywood is drawing international attention — and reverse scorn — for dubbing itself a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants.
“All I want is the right to pay taxes,” said Guillermo Taro, a Peruvian immigrant who stood on Atlantic Avenue across from the church where the march originated. Taro runs a contracting business that employs three painters. He has no driver’s license but moves around for work in his truck. He sends hundreds of dollars a month to his wife and four children in Peru. “I am an educated person in my country. I have a degree. You can investigate.”
All along Atlantic Boulevard, strip-mall parking lots lay empty. Liquor stores, water stores, driving schools, restaurants, beauty-supply shops, all closed. Wildly different estimates were thrown about on the number of marchers, ranging from 3,000 to 15,000. Either way, the Southeast, said Maywood Mayor Pro Tem Felipe Aguirre, showed it wants to move to the center of the political discussion in Southern California.
Downtown was next. The march began hours ahead of time, as thousands of people gathered on the south lawn of City Hall around noon while people marched up Broadway. There was less order, more police and more noise than on March 25. When the march moved past the McDonald’s across from the shuttered Grand Central Market, people chanted “Culeroooo! Culeroooo!” (roughly: “Asshole! Asshole!”) at men who ducked into the joint to have lunch.
Jeering obscenely at people from the safety of a large crowd, particularly at sporting events, is a proud tradition in the United States. In some respects, then, the Monday events gave more evidence that this movement couldn’t get any more American.
May Day marchers learned the lesson of the early protests. With opponents latching on to the argument that the presence of foreign flags in the rallies signaled immigrants were not ready to assimilate but were intent on “reconquista,” there were miles of U.S. flags flapping everywhere.
The sight left behind the strong impression that the Stars and Stripes have been all but reclaimed by the nation’s new immigrants from intolerant “patriots.” And even on a day when marchers were instructed to refrain from buying or selling, street commerce — also known as raw capitalism — was thriving in full force. People sold flags, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, headbands, bottled water, soda pop and raspados.
Industrious vendors made brisk business selling original immigration-march T-shirts. The shirts carried messages like “March 25, I was there,” “Proud Child of Immigrants,” “Haciendo Historia,” “No Human Is Illegal,” “Productive Immigrant in the U.S.” and one laid it out simply: the date, May 1, 2006, the familiar CHP “CAUTION” sign with the silhouette of an immigrant family rushing across a freeway, and the call, “Si Se Puede!”
“I took the day off so we could profit from our kids,” said Daniel Lopez, 37, of Pacoima, holding his T-shirts on the Wilshire bridge over MacArthur Park. “It’s significant because it’s the date, we’re telling them to watch out, we’re coming across and they can’t stop us, and ‘si se puede,’ yes we can.”
Lopez added, “We’re feeding our children. We’re not trying to break the bank.”
Businesses all over Koreatown were shut, signaling a growing support for the movement among the Korean community, organizers and news reports said. From MacArthur Park, a traditional gathering space for people from the impoverished working-class neighborhoods populated largely by recent Central American immigrants, the march moved west, uncharted territory so far for the immigrant-rights movement.
The distance became a biblical metaphor. People had to stop and sit along the sidewalks. They shared bottled water with their beleaguered pets. Grannies covered their heads with signs. Tatted-up cholos apparently wounded in gang warfare and using canes to walk kept on walking. The march at some points grew thin.
Official crowd estimates of 250,000 marchers downtown and 400,000 at the afternoon rally seemed unreasonably low. By 6:30 p.m., fully three hours after the march from MacArthur Park started and toward the end of the rally where Villaraigosa waved a huge American flag, throngs of new marchers were still coming down Wilshire Boulevard. Waves of people led by large banners, Aztec dancers, Korean drummers, baby-stroller brigades. Still coming.
The air of the ridiculous was never too far removed from the whole affair. Spanish-speaking clowns in full makeup and oversize shoes marched the whole way. Eager parents asked strapping blond firefighters to hold their babies and pose for pictures. The firefighters gladly obliged.
When it was all over, immigrants in white, exhausted, sunburned, still somehow happy, jammed the well-kept sidewalks of Windsor Square and Hancock Park, passing the mansions where many likely work in the kitchens and gardens.
It was dusk, and it looked like people all over the city were marching to dinner.
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