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Sí, Se Puede!

Photos by J. Emilio Flores

The morning fog has not yet burned off, but more than 200 people have already gathered in the Westlake parking lot of the L.A. County Federation of Labor. Despite the early hour, they’re already clapping, practically jumping up and down with excitement, chanting what will be the first of many, many hundreds if not thousands of ebullient rounds of “Sí, se puede!” (roughly: “Yes, we can!”).

Over the next 11 days, those three words will be shouted out — sometimes by a dozen or less, sometimes by many thousands — on the steps of cathedrals, in union halls and Sunday-school meeting rooms, in a barren parking lot hard up against the Mexican border, on broad urban boulevards and the tidy avenues of a small Appalachian town, even after-hours in the barroom of a Nashville Applebee’s, and most of all, aboard those two buses idling right there on Lake Street. But no one is on the buses yet, and news crews and photographers are still wandering through the crowd. Antonio Villaraigosa seems to be everywhere, grinning, slapping backs and shaking hands, adjusting his already perfectly knotted tie. Men and women stand in line to register for the trip and receive plastic photo ID badges to wear around their necks.

On the bus

After a brisk breakfast of tamales and pan dulce, Villaraigosa, standing beside the American flag and in front of a huge yellow-and-white banner for the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, leads the crowd in another few chants before speaking. “Today is a historic day in the United States,” he declares in Spanish. “This is a just campaign. It’s an American and a patriotic campaign.”

United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta, tiny but still a powerful presence in a straw hat and a red UFW T-shirt, says a few words. Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) Local 11 and director of the Freedom Ride, speaks too — “We are fighting for what people in this nation have been fighting for since the very beginning,” she says, “for freedom” — and so does an AFL-CIO official and an activist priest from Santa Monica, but before the good father can get even a word out the TV news crews are hustling their cameras from their tripods and jogging away into the street. The buses have begun loading, it seems, and the cameramen jostle for position to film the Freedom Riders’ suitcases disappearing one by one through the open cargo doors.

Early morning prayers in San Antonio

The two-bus caravan rolls down Alvarado to the freeway and on to Palm Springs, and then much further onward, through the desert to Arizona, down to the Mexican border and along the Rio Grande through New Mexico and Texas, then up through Arkansas to Tennessee and across the South to Washington. There, in early October, it will meet up with 16 other buses from nine other cities from Seattle to Miami before heading together to New York. On board are Central American hotel housekeepers, Filipino longshoreman, African-American home-health-care aides, Mexican-American union organizers, activists and students, others from Colombia, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Taiwan, Sudan, even faraway Oakland. This is the launch of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, which takes its name and at least part of its inspiration from the freedom riders of 1961, who defiantly imposed integration on buses and whites-only bus-station waiting rooms and lunch counters throughout the Jim Crow South and were greeted for their trouble by angry mobs and brutal cops, with beatings, arrests, even a firebomb in Anniston, Alabama.

L.A.'s Guillermo Roacho carries the cross of an immigrant who died

This updated version of the rides — in search now of equality for the nation’s 28 million immigrants — is a peculiar thing, as American as the deserts, Wal-Marts and cotton fields that line the interstates on which it runs. There will be a lot of flag-waving in the 11 days that follow, and a lot of all-American talk of freedom, justice, humanity, opportunity — concepts so haggard from mis- and overuse that my hackles usually rise on hearing them. Somehow though, from some mouths some of the time, those words will come to mean something again. The new Freedom Ride is part maddening PR spectacle, orchestrated and always spinning, sullying its wheels in the murky shallows of American political life. But it’s also about genuine idealistic passion, hard-won optimism, startlingly deep faith in the foundations of the American dream — itself as much a shabby, bloated and blood-stained cliché as it is a vital, breathing and breath-giving creature — in the fundamental equality of humans and the dignity of human striving, in all that has been and remains worth fighting for in America.

 

This will, I quickly learn, involve a great deal of singing. Deep in the haze of the Inland Empire, Villaraigosa stands in the aisle, unraveling and retying his tie. “Do we have any songs to sing?” he asks.

Oh yes we do. A round of “De Colores” follows, then something called “No Basta Rezar” (“It’s Not Enough To Pray”). The riders shout their way through a battery of chants, old standards like “El pueblo unido jámas será vencido,” (“The people united shall never be defeated”); “La raza obrera no tiene frontera” (“The working class has no borders”); the clear and constant favorite, the simple “Sí, se puede!”; and a couple new ones that don’t quite take off, like “One two three, from L.A. to D.C. Four five six, immigrants are in the mix.”

Edgar Bonilla (in sunglasses) and other L.A. bus riders cross the Shelby Street bridge in Nashville

We pull over to drop off a couple of local TV news crews at a McDonald’s somewhere near Pomona, and in the brief silence that follows, I introduce myself to my seatmate, Edgar Bonilla, a 32-year-old hotel cook from El Salvador with high cheekbones, a broad face and bright, attentive eyes. His clothes are scrupulously pressed, his posture perfect, and there is an intense and almost military fastidiousness to his bearing left over from the years he spent as a soldier in the late 1980s. Edgar tells me his story, or at least its broadest outlines. He was conscripted into the army when he was 16, and fought until 1989. He left El Salvador, he says, because he feared for his life in the aftermath of the war, and because, with the country destroyed by years of fighting, “The poverty there was too much. There was nothing to eat.” It took him a month to make the journey north, including a seven-hour march across the border through the desert.

When he got here, Edgar says, “I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know anybody.” He found work in Los Angeles in a Korean restaurant. “They paid me what they wanted to and when they wanted to” — usually about $40 a day. Often he worked for 12 hours and was paid for eight, and sometimes was not paid at all for weeks. He had no other options, and stayed on for seven years. “I’m a hard worker,” he says, but “they closed all the doors on me because I had no papers. And how can you complain?”

Eventually Edgar fell in love with a Mexican-American woman, a citizen. They married and had two children. He became a legal resident, found a better job at a unionized hotel in Century City and soon became active in the union. “I’ve cooked for the president of the United States,” he says. “We’re the ones who put food on their tables. We have the right to be treated equally. For me, and millions of immigrants who are here in this country, we want one thing, an opportunity for a better future, to be able to support our families with dignity.”

 

It’s almost noon when we arrive in Palm Springs, and the temperature is well over 90. About 100 people line up in a park to greet us, while a priest sings and plays guitar. A reporter from The New York Times introduces himself. He will only be on the bus until El Paso. “I don’t think my editors really want stories all the way across unless it really catches fire,” he says, adding, “It would take a firebombing,” before wandering off to find a bathroom.

School buses begin to pull up alongside the park, unloading about 200 students from Coachella Valley High School. Many of their parents work in the fields at farms south of here, in the casinos and hotels, in service jobs in Rancho Mirage and La Quinta. Villaraigosa and Durazo speak, and Dolores Huerta talks about the labor history of the area, beginning in 1965 with a strike by Filipino grape pickers who demanded that their wages be raised from 75 cents an hour to $1.25. Graciella Ramirez, who has worked for four years in the laundry room at the Spa Casino in downtown Palm Springs and still can’t afford health insurance for her children, talks about the latest labor showdown, the struggle to get better wages and benefits out of union-busting Indian tribes to whom labor laws do not apply.

“No human being is illegal in the eyes of God,” says the singing priest. We will hear the same words many times in the coming days, and the same statistics recited here, that, with little notice and less fanfare, immigrants contribute an estimated $10 billion to the economy each year and pay more than $133 million annually in taxes.

Marching around the block in the stifling heat, activists and students carry signs reading “Legalization now” and “I cut your grass. I make your bed. I wash your dishes. I pick your fruits. I refuse to be invisible.” They troop past antique shops, “fine art” galleries and real estate agencies. Latino busboys look on from restaurant patios. The marchers whoop and applaud when a couple of kids drop a painted banner from a second-floor mini-mall terrace: “We pick $425 million worth of Coachella Valley crops every year. We clean 15,600 toilets and make 20,000 hotel beds every day.” White shop owners step outside to watch the crowd pass by, looking confused and vaguely disapproving. ‰

 

We leave Villaraigosa and Huerta in Palm Springs and speed out into the desert past fields of giant white windmills, endless miles of patchy chaparral, billboards for casinos and subdivisions of identical luxury homes. In the gaps between chants and songs, Petrona Fuentes, a 61-year-old Guatemalan woman with short, curly hair and warm eyes in a tired face who has worked for the last 16 years as a housekeeper at a Studio City hotel, tells me, hesitantly, the broad outlines of her story. Only later will the rest come out, but for now she talks in general terms about her reasons for coming to the U.S. in 1981, on her own with an 11-year-old daughter. “My country was going through a really tough crisis,” she says. “There was a lot of crime. We had no way to survive.” They crossed the border hidden in the trunk of a car. She got her residency in the 1986 amnesty, and has since been able to return to Guatemala, but talks about the suffering of families broken by the border, of children who can’t return to see their parents, and parents whose children grow up far away without them. “With all my soul I want to help.”

I fall asleep and wake up in a roadrunner landscape of red-stone mountains, saguaro cacti sprouting improbably out of the dust like green, cancered limbs. Maria Elena Durazo stands at the front of the bus. “Okay,” she says, leaning into the microphone, “Let’s practice our chants.”

 

Sixty or so sí-se-puedes later, after a rally on the lawn of Phoenix’s copper-roofed building, we eat dinner in a fluorescent-lit union hall on the outskirts of town — if that concept applies to a city that seems to be all outskirt. The meal celebrates not just our arrival, but a recent union victory by Phoenix roofers. Mainly undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans, they were frequently not paid for their work and were denied water breaks while laboring under the Arizona sun. “If they got hurt, they were just dropped off at the hospital,” explains John Martini, head of the roofers union. They would be warned, “Don’t tell the hospital you work for us.”

Outside in the parking lot, Edgar smokes a cigarette with Jesus Rodriguez, a tall 36-year-old Salvadoran and a steward at the Biltmore Hotel; “After the rich people leave,” Edgar explains for him, “he cleans up their mess.” The two know each other from a computer class they once took together. They apologize (in Spanish) for their poor English, and explain that between working and helping out with HERE campaigns — negotiating contracts, lending a hand in union drives at other hotels, campaigning for politicians favored by the union — they rarely have time to study. But they’re grateful to be free to do this sort of work. During the war in El Salvador, Jesus says, labor organizers — and often their families — were routinely killed by the government. “It hasn’t changed much,” Edgar adds. “During the war they had an excuse. They could say they were revolutionaries. Now there’s no excuse.”

Jesus’ story, like Edgar’s, like Petrona Fuentes’ and those of nearly everyone on these buses, contains nearly epic elements of tragedy, sacrifice, faith and courage that you might not expect to find out here in a parking lot among the strip malls and car washes of Wal-Mart America. Jesus left El Salvador in 1990. In school he had been an actor, part of a political theater group. The director of his school was murdered, and “all the students who participated became targets.” He estimates that about 20 of his friends and relatives were killed by the government. “I was afraid I would be next,” he says. Leaving a 3-year-old daughter behind, Jesus headed north with about $30 in his pocket. He ran out of money crossing the border into Mexico, and had to work for five months in Tabasco to make it up to Tijuana. After crossing into the States, he worked fixing cars for a while, and was paid only room and board. He later found work in factories and sweatshops, as a gardener and a painter. In 2000, he was hired at the Biltmore. He sends money to his daughter, but except for photos, he hasn’t been able to see her since he left. She is now 17. “My dream,” he says, “is to go and see her.”

Jesus heads back inside, and Edgar tells me about marching at night in the mountains, smoking cigarettes through the barrel of his rifle so their glow couldn’t be seen in the dark, about friends blown to pieces by land mines just a few feet in front of him. Conversations with Edgar rarely stray for long from the war he fought as a teenager, or from the different sorts of battles he is fighting now, and there’s clearly a deep connection, for him at least, between the two. War, he says, is “a trauma you never escape. It changes your mind forever. You don’t get over it — seeing all the blood, the bodies everywhere, even having to kill.” He takes another drag of his cigarette, taps his foot as if to punctuate his thought, skips a decade to the present: “I came here. I have a wife and family now. I have a job. This is a country of many opportunities, but not for us. That’s why I’m fighting.”

After dinner, Yuliana Huicochea, an 18-year-old girl with long, highlighted hair, takes the podium inside the union hall. Two years ago, she says, while in Buffalo for a solar-technology competition (her solar-powered motorboat took eighth place out of 24, she adds, not without some pride), she and three classmates were detained by the INS at a Niagara Falls tourist information booth. They were held for nine hours. She’s a freshman at Phoenix College now, and hopes to stay here and go to law school one day, but at the end of November an immigration judge will likely decide to deport her to a home country she hasn’t seen since she was 4 years old, and where she no longer has any family. “We’re humans,” she tells me after her speech. “All of us are humans, and some of us are getting treatment that is inhuman because we don’t have the right piece of paper.”

 

A light rain is falling when we leave for Tucson. Carolina Bank-Muñoz, the educational coordinator for the bus and an all-too-constant presence on the microphone, reminds the riders to stash all IDs except their badges — even prescription drug bottles, anything official with their name on it — in the locked luggage compartments.

Durazo announces that a bill has been introduced in the Senate that would grant amnesty to 500,000 undocumented farm workers. “It’s a realization by members of the United States Senate that hardworking people have a right not to live in the shadows of the economy,” she says, to loud applause and fervent sí-se-puedes.

Hilda Delgado, the media liaison, stands in the aisle to remind the riders to stay on message when talking to the press. “Remember the four points,” she says, and by now I know them too — legalization, reunification of families, workplace rights and civil liberties for all. She gives the mike back to Carolina, who proposes that we learn a song for the “solidarity action” that we may have to take later in the day if the Border Patrol stops the bus at an occasional checkpoint just north of Nogales. Carolina introduces Shirley Smith, an African-American home-health-care worker, who as a teenager in Houston in 1959 had to be escorted to school by the National Guard.

“Who knows the song ‘We Shall Overcome’?” Shirley asks. Only a few hands go up. She explains the song’s history. “These are the songs that our ancestors would sing to let people know that their day will come. Hopefully one day it will. Now let’s see how good you are with singing.” She leads them, 40 variously accented voices singing hesitantly along as she bellows it out with a deep and throaty voice that will only get more gravelly as the days go by, and in city after city, she sings the same words again and again.

Dan Gregor, a young volunteer attorney in khaki shorts and sunglasses, stands at the front of the bus and goes over the solidarity plan, telling the riders to remain absolutely silent unless given the signal to sing, to obey the Border Patrol agents’ instructions but not to say a word to them. “This is why we’ve practiced so much,” he says. “This is where it becomes real.”

There are people on the bus for whom a Border Patrol stop could mean deportation and months of detention, separation from their families and the loss of everything they’ve worked years to build. The tension is palpable as we drive onward, despite Carolina’s attempts to dilute it with chants, songs, endless group activities.

I ask Edgar if he’s nervous. “No,” he says, firmly. “I don’t know nervous.”

He stares out at the desert through the rain-streaked windows. He turns to me and adds, “The last time I was nervous I was disconnecting a land mine. After that, never.”

 

As we file out of the high, vaulted, stucco interior of Tucson’s Cathedral of St. Augustine, local activists hand each rider a wooden cross, painted white, each one symbolizing one of the 3,000 immigrants who have died in the desert from thirst and exposure over the last few years while trying to cross into the United States, pushed into more and more remote areas by border policies like the INS’s Operation Gatekeeper, which concentrates policing efforts on populated areas. Most of the crosses bear a name printed in black Magic Marker, an age and the date the body was discovered. Some, though, bear the single word Desconocido (Unknown) and the date the corpse was found. The riders march out into the rain with the crosses in their hands, many with tears in their eyes.

I’ve seen crosses like these at other political events, representing other deaths, those of Iraqi children or East Timorese, and they’ve become almost invisible to me, a standard element of the vocabulary of protest, like the nearly exhausted rhetoric of freedom, justice, peace. But just as those words have real and concrete meanings to these people, so do these crosses. They stand in for all that’s been sacrificed and lost, the nightmare that rides in tandem with their brightest dreams. Edgar holds his cross in front of him there on the cathedral steps. There’s a new glow to his face, something more defined and certain about his bearing, as if through this white cross his trials have been recognized and somehow sanctified. He will carry it with him to every march and rally for the next 10 days, a tiny American flag in his other hand.

“It could have been me,” he explains.

 

We head south toward the border through flat yellow plains bristling with cacti, past craggy hills tamed and reduced by strip mines to terraced berms of earth. Carolina asks the riders how the events so far have made them feel. They stand in their seats and talk about how moved they’ve been by the warmth of the welcomes they’ve received so far, by the stories they’ve heard, by the sense of obligation other people’s hopes impose on them. A white cross leaning against the window beside her, Petrona Fuentes stands and tells the story of her emigration from Guatemala, the part she left out when speaking alone to me. In March of 1981, she was driving with a few co-workers when their car was stopped by five men in a pickup truck with machine guns. “They pulled us from our car,” she says. “They covered our faces and tied our feet and hands.” Her voice breaks. Tears fall from her eyes, and she pauses. Jesus puts a hand on her shoulder. She goes on. She was able to scratch the face of her attacker, and didn’t stop scratching. “He didn’t know what to do, so he let me go.” Her friends were not as brave, and not as lucky. “So that is my sad story,” she concludes. “That’s why I am here.”

 

The border itself is almost disappointing. Given the role it plays in these people’s pasts, in their imaginations, and in the very real restrictions on their lives today, it should be thousands of feet tall, seamless and bright, a shining, mirrored wall fronting a dark and bottomless abyss. But the real thing is embarrassingly banal, squalid even, a 15-foot-tall length of rusting green corrugated metal. We stop for a dismal rally in a Nogales parking lot a few yards from the fence. Cement-block houses painted turquoise and pink climb the hills on the Mexican side. Less than 40 people are here to greet us. A few kids in Aztec costumes dance barefoot on the asphalt. Two men watch listlessly from a hotel balcony on the other side of the fence, then get bored and go inside.

On the drive out, everyone is quiet, tense. Carolina announces a practice round for the solidarity action. She marches up and down the aisle, demanding to see ID. On the back side of the riders’ badges is the printed message: “I am a participant in the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a peaceful campaign by citizens and immigrants in support of equal rights for all workers. I wish to exercise my right to remain silent.” Everyone sits in silence as Carolina plays Border Patrol agent. They hold up their badges, the back side facing out. A few police cars trail the bus on the freeway heading north, but they soon break away and pass us. We scan the road ahead for flares, traffic cones, flashing lights. There’s nothing but wet asphalt, cars and chaparral. Maybe it’s the rain, or maybe, as Shirley suggests, it’s the angels, but there’s no Border Patrol checkpoint today.

The next morning, the buses tear across a vast plain, rocks and cacti and the occasional cluster of prefab homes all glowing golden in the early light. Sitting in the front row of seats, Maria Elena Durazo explains the background of the Freedom Ride. She would be easy to miss from a distance, a small woman with a longish bob and wire-framed glasses over green-brown eyes. When she’s relaxed she looks more like an overtired grade-school teacher than a firebrand organizer who can take any stage at a moment’s notice and in seconds communicate enough passion and determination to make even the sleepiest audience members leap to their feet. The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, she says, was first conceived at a HERE convention in July of 2001 as a way to break down divisions between black and immigrant workers within the hotel and restaurant industry, “to move both immigrants and African-Americans forward, to unite those struggles.” Planning for the ride had barely begun by September 11, when all talk of immigration policy reform instantly evaporated, a new wave of anti-immigrant hysteria descended, the economy tumbled and, Durazo says, “A third of our industry lost their jobs overnight.”

The issues, though, were only rendered bolder in the aftermath of the attacks. The families of the many undocumented workers who lost their lives in the World Trade Center didn’t enjoy any of the assistance extended to the families of bankers and brokers: “The moment the government stepped in, they were excluded.” And thousands who were laid off that fall “couldn’t collect their unemployment because of their immigration status, even though they’d been paying taxes.”

“We became even more determined,” Durazo says, and as the months went by and traditionally more progressive political forces went into retreat, letting the Bush administration get its way in virtually every arena of social policy, the need to go on the offensive, to build a movement powerful enough to fight back, became starker. The vision for the Freedom Ride expanded: Its goals were not just to bring attention to the plight of immigrant workers and to put immigration reform back on the national agenda, but to create lasting alliances between African-Americans, immigrants and organized labor. “The problem is our community is not turning out. The numbers are there. If we could turn out the voters, we could easily change the results of numerous congressional elections.”

There are no concrete plans for a next step, Durazo says. “I don’t know what shape this is going to take. We don’t have the illusion that we’re going to win this overnight. [But] something’s going to come of it, and I’m counting on it to be big enough to have an impact in November of 2004.”

Later in the day, the challenges make themselves evident enough: Barely 20 people meet us for lunch at a youth center in Las Cruces, and only a few more than that at an evening rally in an El Paso park. Between those two events, we stop at an impoverished colonía in southern New Mexico called Chaparral, inhabited almost entirely by undocumented immigrants who live on land contaminated by waste dumps, in constant fear of INS patrols. We eat a dinner of machaca and beans at a farm workers center in El Paso, just yards from the Rio Grande, the smokestacks of the maquiladoras visible across the river in Ciudad Juárez. Hunched men in mud-spattered clothes, their faces bronzed and creased by the sun, file into the building as we eat. It’s barely 6 in the evening, but they’re eager to shower and spread a blanket on the floor — they’ll begin waking at midnight to catch rides out to the chile fields. As soon as it’s light enough to distinguish the crops from the plants, they’ll begin picking, and stay at it until early afternoon for $15 or $16 a day.

 

The abundance of tales like that makes it hard to feel too sorry for myself, but I’ve pretty much had it when we gather beside the buses at 5:15 a.m. in the parking lot of an El Paso Best Western. No one’s slept for more than four or five hours in days. We’ve been pulling into hotels at 10 or 11 each night, getting on the buses at 5 or 6. We’ve gone to three or more rallies each day, most of them too-perfectly illustrating labor’s lack of creativity when it comes to spectacle: deadening processions of speakers, the same reheated rhetoric. And the crowds seem to be shrinking progressively as we head further east. Rest stops are few and far between, and almost every minute on the bus is filled with pep rally–like prattle. Carolina is rarely off the mike for more than a few minutes, perkily cajoling the riders into another song (something called “This Little Light of Mine” is the latest addition to the lineup) or another chant or one of many maddeningly patronizing group activities — drawing the story of your emigration with Magic Markers, analyzing how the last rally made you feel, making origami birds — schoolmarmishly chiding those who don’t take part for their lack of enthusiasm and respect.

So I’m thankful for the silence, however anxious it may be, as we head out toward San Antonio, a 10-hour drive to the northeast. There’s another Border Patrol checkpoint about 70 miles outside of El Paso. This one is permanent — there’s no doubt that they’ll be there, little doubt that we’ll be stopped and that some of the riders may at the end of the day be locked away, facing eternal separation from their friends, families and the lives they’ve made here. After an hour’s drive, we pass a sign reading “Be prepared to stop,” then another one equipped with a yellow light that says, “All traffic must exit when flashing.” It’s flashing. The silence is absolute.

My gratitude evaporates as the highway narrows to a single lane. The air brakes hiss, and we slow to a stop beneath a shelter of rust-colored steel. The west Texas desert stretches off on all sides but on our left, where, between the bus and the highway, six uniformed Border Patrol agents emerge from a small, squat building of beige and green corrugated metal, pulling on black leather gloves as they walk.

Dan Gregor hustles to his feet to intercept them. “I just wanted to let you know,” he begins, but they push past him into the aisle.

“If you’re not a citizen of the United States, please show what documents you have,” says the first officer, a thickset man in mirrored sunglasses whose name tag reads “Flores.” Instead, everyone holds up their badges, with the statement on the back side facing out, and breaks the silence by bursting into “We Shall Overcome.”

Officer Flores addresses Durazo. “Ma’am, are you a United States citizen?” She holds up her badge and keeps singing. Flores gets off the bus, leaving another agent, a tall young man named Calderon, Marine Corps tattoos inked up and down his skinny ‰ forearms, to walk the aisle alone. He asks everyone the same question. No one answers. Calderon stands in the middle of the bus, swallowing hard, his eyes flitting from face to face. Edgar holds his badge in the air, gazing blankly out the window and singing, “Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.”

The sun rises higher out the windows, and foothills begin to take shape in the distance. Officer Calderon moves to the front of the bus and asks a Univision reporter where the bus is headed. “This is the Freedom Ride,” the reporter answers.

Calderon shrugs. “We get hundreds of buses every day.”

Dan stands outside in a huddle with seven men in green Border Patrol uniforms. On the bus the riders keep singing. I glance from seat to seat and face to face but cannot tell from their expressions who has the most reason to be frightened, who is worried for themselves, who for their friends, or who is, as Edgar will later claim to be, not afraid at all. They stare out the window, or at the seat backs in front of them, and sing. Hilda Delgado, the press liaison, dials media outlet after media outlet on her cell phone, explaining the situation to CNN, the Associated Press, La Opinión, tears streaming down her cheeks as she talks. Half an hour passes. The riders voices are unwavering, “. . . we are not afraid today . . .”

A drug-sniffing dog shits in the dirt to the right of the bus, its green-uniformed master waiting beside it. Dan gets on and off the bus with occasional updates on the negotiations. They all amount to the same thing: The officers are waiting for their boss to arrive, and then for his boss to call, and for his boss to call his boss, all the way to Washington. The riders keep singing. An hour and a half has passed when Dan whispers to me that he thinks “the likelihood of mass arrests is better than 70 percent.” He tells the riders only that he doesn’t know what will happen. They sing their way through endlessly improvised variations of “This Little Light of Mine.”

After another 30 minutes, 11 patrolmen walk out toward the buses. Officer Flores boards ours, again asks us to state our citizenship. “U.S.,” I tell him, but I passed the skin-color test already, and he ignores me. When the riders fail to answer him, he instructs them to get off the bus. They line up in the sun, still singing, “. . . deep in my heart, I do believe . . . ,” holding their badges before them. Another agent leads them in groups of five into the building across the way.

Inside they are packed into small cells and taken out one by one to be questioned individually. The agents tell them they will be arrested if they refuse to state their citizenship. No one speaks a word. Back in the cells they keep singing. They chant and stamp their feet until they’re told they’ll be arrested for damaging government property, and from then on they chant and clap. Outside, the legal team calls every sympathetic politician, community leader and religious leader they know. Alone at the front of the bus, I resist the temptation to vandalize the microphone. Officers begin to lead groups of riders back onto the buses, with no word yet on their fates. Stuffed into seats and crammed into the aisles, they keep on singing, but their voices are beginning to tire, and not everyone is able to hold back the tears.

It’s not until 10:45, three and a half hours after the buses first stopped, that the officer in charge, the bizarrely named Michael Jackson, a paunchy white man with a gray mustache, tells Dan Gregor that we are free to go. He offers not a word of explanation.

We drive to the first exit and pull over in a dusty lot. The riders line up in silence alongside the buses to be sure the INS hasn’t kept anyone behind. Only when everyone is accounted for does Durazo announce, “Everyone got out safe. We’re here and we’re going to go on the rest of the route to New York City,” before being drowned out by cheers and applause. After hours of keeping the anxiety bottled, the mirth quickly gives way to tears of relief. Durazo breaks down crying, hugs her staff, hugs the riders, hugs me. Thick-armed longshoremen and diesel mechanics wipe tears from their eyes. Women of 60 hold each other tight. Edgar and Jesus are beaming, Petrona smiling and weeping freely. Shirley’s cheeks are streaked with tears. Jorge Valles, a college student from San Fernando, who has been the most high-spirited and energetic rider in the group, bouncing like a meth-crazed flea at the head of every march, collapses bawling in the arms of Donte Woods, a young African-American community organizer from South Los Angeles.

Before we get back on the bus, the riders pull themselves together and clap out one last joyful chant: “Sí, se pudo!” (“Yes, we could!”)

About a third of the way through the almost endless cross-Texas drive to San Antonio, the desert around us broken by weird, flat-topped pyramids of rock, I see Edgar laugh for the first time since we left Los Angeles. I can’t help but think that with more people like these people, this country, ever intent on discarding all its gifts and trampling its virtues, might be saved, if only for a little while.

 

The Border Patrol stop will turn out to be something of a PR coup for the Freedom Ride. The Univision cameraman kept rolling throughout, and his footage will be bounced to stations all around the country. A news crew will show up at Edgar’s home to interview his wife as we drive north and east. Texas will last almost forever. Hilda will read the clips aloud from the front of the bus. The ride will go on, town after town, rally after rally, speech after speech.

Every few stops, anti-immigrant counterprotesters will make a showing. I will interview as many as I can bear, hoping that at least one will say something unpredictably intelligent. All will disappoint (a sample from Jim Thomas of Nashville: “An Arab can make himself look Hispanic easily enough and sneak across the border . . .” ) and most will too perfectly meet the stereotypes — strange bowl cuts and crust on the teeth, saliva leaking from the corners of the mouth, variously ignorant, addled, cretinous. The marginality of those who show, though, won’t mean much — a good part of the nation is with them, if only through their silence.

There will be a sad rally in Memphis, just outside the motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed 35 years ago, which has since been subsumed by the eerily kitschy National Civil Rights Museum. The riders will wander past a replica of the scorched Greyhound bus that was firebombed after taking the original freedom riders to Anniston, Alabama, and peek into a re-creation of Dr. King’s room as it was on the day of his death, bed unmade, dirty glasses on the dresser. There will be a lot of rhetoric about bridging the gaps between communities, but throughout the South, the African-American and labor presence will be minimal. The crowds will be mainly Latino, small but spirited, thrilled to at last have someone taking up their cause in public. Reverend James Lawson, who helped organize the 1961 freedom rides, will take the stage in Nashville and caution, “We are launching perhaps a 10-year campaign. This is only the first step.”

We will drive on through the green hills of Tennessee and march through the streets of the small Appalachian city of Morristown, where Mexican immigrants have been settling in growing numbers to earn $6 an hour in chicken slaughterhouses and less than that in the tobacco fields. Hillbilly hecklers chanting “White revolution is the only solution” will angrily accuse the Mexicans of stealing all the good jobs.

Heading east, Hilda will coach the riders yet again on media talking points. The organizers’ insistence on orchestrating every last moment will begin to wear the riders down, and Carolina will continue to wear out the microphone, even after Jesus jokingly buys her a giant lollipop at a truck stop, “so she can’t talk and I can sleep.” Someone will pop an Elvis Crespo CD in the bus’ stereo somewhere west of Roanoke, Virginia, and the riders will laugh and raucously dance merengue in the aisle.

Journey’s end: Riders rally at the steps of congress.

The 18 buses will all converge in Washington. The riders, 900-strong now, will meet and embrace, once again crying with joy. The next morning they’ll break into groups and hit the congressional office buildings. I will accompany Edgar and Jesus and a handful of others to lobby Congressman Xavier Becerra, and even this prepackaged political ritual — all practiced smiles, canned anecdotes and vague promises — will become briefly and painfully human when a 50-year-old Mexican day laborer from Los Angeles, who had not planned to speak, stands to tell Becerra his story, but is overcome by emotion and breaks down in tears. He has not seen his children for 20 years, he says, and is unable to say much more. Edgar puts a hand on his shoulder. Becerra gives him a hug.

“I think the message got through,” Jesus will tell me afterward.

Before leaving for New York the next morning, the riders will stage a brief rebellion when, after a week and a half of putting up with it, the organizers’ mania for control becomes too much to bear and Hilda’s demand that a La Opinión reporter ride one bus rather than another prompts them to march off the bus in defiance, fists in the air, chanting, once again, “Sí, se puede!” — this time without any help over the microphone. The insurrection will take an hour to sort itself out, which, happily, means that we will miss most of an almost interminable labor rally in a New Jersey park right on New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty just offshore, her back, pointedly, to us.

But we will not miss the tour’s grand finale, a four-hour-plus rally in the cold drizzle in Flushing Meadow–Corona Park in Queens, attended by tens of thousands (over 100,000, the organizers will boast), featuring almost as many speeches and a scattering of great musicians to redeem it all, Wyclef Jean and the Mexican band Bronco among them.

As the guys from Bronco prance about the stage in magnificently colored satin suits, and despite the chill and the wet and a week and a half’s well-earned exhaustion, the freedom riders dance. Among them stands a Los Angeles hotel worker who on the bus tearfully told of being raped by the coyote she paid to take her across the border from Mexico, and of the price in shame and pain she paid for the freedom to live in this country, cleaning other people’s rooms. She stands still among the dancers, the grass beneath her feet turning slowly to mud, wearing a black hat, a black shawl wrapped around her shoulders, her hands in front of her clutching a white cross, a little American flag and a ceramic eagle she picked up in a truck-stop gift shop somewhere along the way. She stands there smiling placidly until another rider grabs her hand, her smile breaks suddenly into something larger, and she too joins the dance.


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