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Immigration Rites

NO ONE EXPECTED A MILLION PEOPLE to show up in Los Angeles for the last “big” immigrant-rights rally a couple weekends ago, at the closing of the National Latino Congreso. A few thousand maybe, but a few hundred? Or less?

Or, as we saw, hardly anyone at all.

On the dusty expanse of the Cornfields near Chinatown on September 9, just a smattering of people stood and listened to speakers and bands. Everyone in attendance seemed somehow directly connected to advocacy organizations, churches or friendly media outlets. “I think the momentum was lost a little bit; a lot of it was very spontaneous,” said Aquilina Soriano, executive director of the Pilipino Workers’ Center in Los Angeles, in a concession, if not an understatement, that many other organizers have been repeating for weeks.

But, Soriano added, “Before there was the marches, they didn’t talk about any kind of amnesty or legalization program. It was only after March 25 — that’s when they started talking about it.”

True enough and, yes, a worthy success. But the signs of defeat are everywhere. Not even Eddie “El Piolín” Sotelo, the morning DJ credited with triumphantly generating the 500,000-plus turnout on March 25 in downtown L.A., could muster more than a few thousand people at the same spot for a march over the Labor Day weekend. The marchers called for a moratorium on immigration raids and the breaking up of families. Days later, back in Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill, as promised, that authorizes 700 miles of double fences along the U.S.-Mexico border, a virtual death wish for migrants who have already proven themselves determined to risk their lives to reach jobs in the U.S.

Given the setbacks, is it now safe to declare the immigrant-rights movement officially deceased?

“Translating from the numbers who were in the rallies into voting power, that takes preparation to do it right, it takes organizing into the right kinds of events,” explained Maria Elena Durazo, executive director of the L.A. County Federation of Labor. “I’m not making excuses, I’m just trying to say there’s a lot more behind this.” The surge in the number of Latino voters after California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in the 1990s did not magically materialize right after voters passed the measure, Durazo said. “It wasn’t within two months, I guarantee you.”

Indeed. But in the spring marches, leaders like Durazo were leading fierce chants of “Hoy marchamos, mañana votamos” (“Today we march, tomorrow we vote”). With only seven weeks left before the November election, and even less time left for new registrations, advocates have all but failed to fulfill the call. The Associated Press, reporting from several cities that were sites of massive marches in the spring, said the demonstrations did not produce significant increases in voter registration among Latinos and new citizens. Instead, it started appearing as though “the giant” had gone back to sleep.

“What the marches did was just at least neutralize [Congress],” offered Alvaro Huerta, communications director for CHIRLA (the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles). “Right now we don’t really have a counterproposal.”

Whatever reasoning or excuse is settled upon for the flat-out fizzling, the reality is the immigrant-rights movement has morphed. It’s moved away — whether by default or design remains unclear — from a mobilization-based, show-of-force type of movement to a fragmented, multipronged effort that is measuring success by incremental victories and setbacks. This inevitably means the movement now contains boards of directors, internal squabbles, corporate sponsorships of big events, goodie bags and lobbying trips.

In other words, it’s starting to look like the environmental movement, the gay-rights movement and the labor movement.

You got this sense at a late-August general-membership meeting of CHIRLA, in a stuffy, windowless conference room on Third Street near MacArthur Park. A few dozen Spanish-dominant immigrants and their children sat through a three-hour meeting filled with field reports from organizers working on various projects. During a breakout session, immigrants wrote down their border-crossing experiences on a sheet of paper, and later, a selection was shared with the whole group. Many tears were shed. Earlier, in a leadership-training workshop, members named their historical leadership role models before concluding that they themselves were leaders in the movement, every man, woman and child.

“What are we going to do? Wait for a Gandhi? Wait for a Martin Luther King? There’s no time. The anti-immigrant forces are already preparing a new HR 4437,” said one member, referring to the draconian anti-immigrant House bill that sparked the spring marches.

“And we have to do it with love,” an elderly woman interjected. “When we do it with love, it will come out better, and we’re going to win!”

It was a brassy challenge to the doubters, naysayers and outright haters who have been dogging the movement since the beginning. While the immigrant-rights agenda has danced artfully and successfully around the political land mines attached to its efforts — foreign flags at marches, the “cutting in line” argument, perceived racial tensions —skeptics persist.

IN L.A., THE IMMIGRANT-RIGHTS movement did not, as some openly and secretly wished, bust open a rift between the city’s established blacks and new Latinos. Black newspapers across the city covered the marches comprehensively, including columns and op-eds that discussed immigrants’ contributions to the economy and recalled the civil-rights movement. Fringe protests notwithstanding (think Ted Hayes, the dreadlocked, homeless black Republican), African-American leaders have consistently been present at rallies, roundtables and hearings, in addition to local Asian and Asian-American leaders. In Alabama, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the standard-bearer of black civil rights in the Deep South, has taken up the legal fight for migrant workers cheated out of payment during the Katrina reconstruction. At the CHIRLA meeting in August, the members present, all recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America, cited Martin Luther King Jr., “el líder de los afroamericanos,” as their primary role model.

This is not to say tensions do not exist, but, as some leaders have asked rhetorically, are we to focus on divisions or improve upon unity? “Let’s be brutally honest about the impact,” said civil-rights attorney Connie Rice, during a roundtable on ethnic politics at the start of the National Latino Congreso, “but let’s also keep in mind that we have the power to write the script so that everyone gets in the story.”

Yet these sorts of statements are not new. In fact, not much of anything that’s been said during the fledgling immigrant-rights movement is particularly striking or transgressive. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who mentioned the immigrant-rights struggle during a talk on the environment at the NLC, used the sort of maddening, middle-of-the-road rhetoric common among Clintonian Democrats when recalling “these people,” the immigrants he said he greeted with deep pride at City Hall on March 25.

“They come here to work, they come here for a better life, they come here to participate in the American Dream,” Villaraigosa said. “And while we all recognize that every country has the right to secure its borders and enforce its laws, to hold people accountable for breaking the law, a great and generous America also should and must provide a pathway for citizenship for these people.”

In the end, isn’t it our artists who are our seers?

Over the weekend, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, the gender-bending, border-busting performance artist, came to town to present a new work exploring the connections between “war on terror” and the “war on immigrants.” At one point, Gómez-Peña led a call-and-response incantation with the audience. He shouted out the name of a major city and an aspect of its corresponding cultural reality. “Repeat after me: London! Is! Pakistan! . . . New York! Is! Puerto Rico!” and so on. And when he called “Los Angeles! Is! Central America!” I found myself making the call plaintively up to the ceiling.

Los Angeles is Central America. All you had to do was see MacArthur Park on Sunday, when the Central American community gathered for its annual fiestas patrias festival. Stalls were set up selling Honduran, Salvadoran, and, of all things, Filipino cuisine (“as eaten in Spain!”). Others hawked suburban-subdivision parcels in Guatemala at $5,800 a pop. Reggaeton, cumbia and ’80s electro-pop blasted from speakers placed all over. The Central American diaspora, in all its multishaded glory — fair, brown and black — strutted about Wilshire Boulevard bearing flags and headbands of their home countries, dressed as cowboys, cheerleaders, hip-hop heads, in pairs, as families and, of course, selling stuff without permits.

There were far, far more people in attendance than at any of the recent immigrant-rights rallies.

“You just didn’t hear a lot about it,” explained Sylvia Escobar, a 24-year-old house cleaner who immigrated from El Salvador four years ago.

“Wasn’t it just for women?” asked her friend Guadalupe, a 28-year-old Mexican immigrant, also a house cleaner.

Both women, both undocumented, said they attended the big marches in L.A. in March and May. This time around, they just didn’t bother. Why? They replied with shrugs.

“We’re just waiting,” Escobar said.

Waiting seemed to please them just fine.

After all, regardless of what Congress does this year, which likely won’t be much, everyone knows you can just buy your authentically inauthentic California ID, the carrying card of a true Americano, a short walk away down at Wilshire Boulevard and Alvarado Street. It’s good ole supply and demand, as American as chop suey and veggie burritos. And a reminder that the only aliens in this new brown nation, as it turns out, are on Capitol Hill.

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