UH-OH. DID SOMEONE WAKE the sleeping gigante?
If you didn’t try to drive through downtown Los Angeles on Saturday or flip to Univision or Telemundo, you could have finished the day without realizing that history had just passed you by. The 500,000-strong immigration-rights march that surprised some provided undeniable proof that L.A. is finally two cities layered on top of each other — one operating in English and generally oblivious to its other half, the vibrant Spanish-speaking metropolis that is also known as the second-largest Mexican city in the world.
Early Saturday morning, it became clear this would be a demonstration unlike any the city had ever seen. On my way to the bus stop at Sunset Boulevard and Echo Park Avenue, I ran into my neighbor, walking side by side with his wife. Both were dressed in white and wearing baseball caps. We were all headed for the same place. A man of few words, my neighbor is an old-time Mexican gardener with white hair and rough, brown skin. In other words, an unlikely street protester.
“Van a la marcha?” I asked. They said yes. They seemed excited. They said it was their first time marching in anything.
“Even if you have papers,” his wife explained, “you have to do something. If you don’t, who will?”
We parted when they headed off to have a morning coffee somewhere, as if the largest mass protest in L.A. history would be part of a leisurely weekend outing. So started a phenomenal, stirring and historic day.
The massive protest against HR4437, the hardcore anti-illegal-immigration bill passed in December by the House of Representatives and now before the Senate, raised the prospect of a grassroots political awakening for undocumented workers who have few rights in this country — including no voting power.
The march also showed the reach and power of the Spanish-language media, which sounded a direct call to action for days leading up to Saturday.
At a time when anti-war marches are frequent, first approved by authorities and generally ignored by the media, Saturday’s marcha was a remarkable example of what is possible when the media mobilize like-minded people. It felt entirely organic. Grandmothers, elderly vaqueros, toddlers in strollers, people in wheelchairs, the blind. Skater kids, dudes with gang tattoos, emo-punks, gays, cha-cha chicks, transsexuals, Che Guevara adherents. Gardeners, nannies, construction workers, taco-truck guys, contractors, business owners. Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, Salvadorans, Hondurans, Puerto Ricans. It seemed that no subsegment of the region’s Latino population was left unrepresented.
Noticeably absent, however, were counter-demonstrators, Minutemen, immigration officers or even much of the LAPD, save a smattering of officers posted on shady street corners or hunkered down at the command post set up on Spring Street between First and Second streets, right on the doorstep of the Los Angeles Times.
All week long, the Spanish media implored their audiences to march peacefully and respectfully. The media-relations officer answering calls at Parker Center late Saturday sounded almost proud to relay that not a single arrest was recorded, amazing considering the number of people at times packed shoulder to shoulder as the mass surged up Broadway.
By 9:30 that morning, the crowd massed at Eighth Street and Broadway was already pressing forward. More than four hours later, at 2 p.m., well after the speaker program at the southwestern patio corner of City Hall had ended, marchers were still coming up Broadway by the thousands, unaware that the event was officially over.
The streets radiating away from City Hall were literally crammed with people. They were milling around, staging impromptu mini-rallies, having picnics and berating the guy on top of a Fox News truck. Standing at the crest of the crowd on Broadway, where it hits Temple Street, looking south, I see the endless sea of people.
“We’re here to throw their shit back at them,” said Rogelio Lopez, a 35-year-old construction worker from Van Nuys by way of Oaxaca, whose boss told him to skip work Saturday to be at the march. “We come here to work, to participate in this country, and even so, they don’t want us.”
Lopez, like the hundreds of thousands of others who formed a human river on Broadway all the way down past the 10 freeway and into South-Central L.A., stands in the cross hairs of the bill backed chiefly by Wisconsin Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner Jr.
If it becomes law, Lopez would become a felon and a target for deportation. After nine years of working here, he would be forced to leave behind his two U.S.-born children. Anyone who helps him in any way, like driving him to work, would be acting criminally as well.
The severity of the proposed law is what drew out many on Saturday to their first act of political demonstrating.
“I would be separated from my two children. It’s unjust,” said first-time demonstrator Inez Cruz, 32, who pushed two of her babies in a double-stroller and walked alongside her 14-year-old, Mexican-born daughter.
So what was it all like? In a word, overwhelming.
For a few hours afterward, demonstrators lined the bridges and ledges that overlook the 101 freeway through downtown. The passing vehicles honked and waved as people flapped flags and banners: NO ON H.R. 4437, STOP THE NAZIS, and the somehow melancholy question posed in an immigrant’s English in curly script upon a fluttering white sheet, AFTER I BUILT YOUR HOME AND GROWED YOUR FOOD, WHY, DO YOU TREAT ME LIKE A CRIMINAL?
“This is going to affect so many people, and it’s just not right,” said Ingrid Rosales, 18, who was standing with her sister Cyndy above the 101, both holding a large Nicaraguan flag. They said they were marching for their parents and relatives.
ACROSS THE BLOGOSPHERE and the news pages, the size of the protest was characterized as “astonishing.” But the numbers should have surprised no one who has even a rudimentary understanding of the power of the Spanish-language media in L.A. and in most other heavily Latino cities in the U.S., where similar marches took place all month. Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Milwuakee, New York City, Chicago, Reno, Trenton, Washington, D.C., Denver. Even places like Charlotte, North Carolina; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Columbus, Ohio. Following the lead of student walkouts in Los Angeles, high schoolers took to the streets this week all over the Southwest.
Organizers from immigrant-advocacy nonprofits in L.A. said they knew back when the House passed the bill that a massive mobilization would be necessary in March this year leading up to the Senate debate.
The big rally held in Chicago on March 10, which drew, by some estimates, more than 300,000 people, provided motivation for Los Angeles organizers to attempt to match or surpass that figure, said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA.
“Chicago was huge,” Salas said. “It was inspirational, I would say. .?.?. Really, the launching pad to this was when the Spanish-language radio got involved.”
After discussions earlier this month with the organizers, the local Spanish-language radio personalities, led by Eddie “el Piolín” Sotelo of 101.9 KSCA-FM, all began promoting the rally on their programs. They answered callers’ questions about the bill and about the march’s logistics.
They also warned their audiences that the world would be watching, so they’d better march peacefully, pick up their trash and avoid confrontations.
“I told them that it was important to wear a white shirt, which means peace, that we should be out there with our families with flags of the United States because we live in this country and we love this country,” Piolín said Monday.
With the American national anthem playing in the background, a promo airing during Antonio Gonzalez’s En el Medio program on KMXE-AM 830 told listeners: “We are all committed to the Grand March of the People!” It was still airing on Monday morning.
Spanish media giant Univision, which owns the largest network audiences in Los Angeles in any language, also kept running its rally promo. In it, the network’s on-air anchors and personalities stand smiling, each adding a phrase to a building sentence: “Participate with pride. With dignity. With order. With maturity. .?.?. Do it for your people. For your children. For your community. For what is coming.”
It ends with them joining arm in arm, saying in unison, “Unite. Unite. Unite.”
Unite they did. Demonstrators cheered when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said, “We come together to say that we are workers, not criminals, that we work hard, we pay our taxes, we live by the rules, and want this great America to take us into account.” They roared when Piolín, a former illegal immigrant himself, announced from the podium outside City Hall that the march was the “start of a new era.”
Many of the signs carried during the march referred to the awakening of a “sleeping giant.” Indeed, the march was so large because it drew first-time demonstrators from all over Southern California, the Central Valley, Northern California, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and even, organizers said, from Arkansas, where Piolín’s program airs in syndication.
“This is consistent with the role of Latino media in times of crisis and issues threatening our community,” said Felix Gutierrez, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. “These are media that stand for something and stand with their audience on the issues of their time. .?.?. The general-audience media have lost touch with people’s passions because they try to be everything to everybody.”
BUT WAS IT REALLY SOME KIND of miraculous turning point for immigrant rights? Not if they can’t translate their mobilizing power into voting power, said veteran Republican strategist Dan Schnur.
“I think the weekend events were a very important political step forward, but the much more important step will come when the organizers decide to sit down at the table and negotiate policy reform that they want rather than just protesting that which they oppose,” Schnur said on Monday from Sacramento.
“It’s very ironic that the day after 500,000 people gather to protest legislation that they oppose, 3,000 came together to rally in support of something that they want,” he added, referring to the César Chavez march and memorial Mass on Sunday in support of a less punitive immigration reform bill proposed by senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy.
In interviews, Latino elected officials, advocates and labor leaders dismissed the “sleeping giant” concept outright, saying the march was on a continuum of increasing activism and political awareness for immigrants and U.S.-born Latinos.
“There’s nothing sleeping about these people,” said Maria Elena Durazo, the new interim executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. “These demonstrations are going to continue, and I can guarantee you that within that million there are hundreds of voters out there.”
Maybe the immigrants and their supporters won’t even need to take their anger to the voting booth to have their demands met. Stripping away the flat-out draconian elements of the House bill, the Senate this week began considering a bill crafted in the Judiciary Committee that would effectively pave the way for the more than 11 million estimated illegal immigrants in the country to gain citizenship.
On Monday, as high school students across Southern California took to the streets once more, the other L.A., that English-speaking one, seemed to still have trouble wrapping its brain around the magnitude and significance of Saturday’s “Gran Marcha.”
Honking, perhaps out of custom, motorists drove past brown-skinned youth marching down Sunset, around City Hall and even on the freeways. On the 101 through Hollywood, fresh graffiti on a concrete piling spelled out the fundamental message of the weekend activity: STOP RACISM AGAINST MEXICANS.
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The sense of bewilderment was apparent on Fox News even hours after the march. How does the nativist media machine react when the working masses who are never supposed to speak up finally get up and do just that?
Very, very carefully.
“Very impressive rallies today,” Fox News anchor John Kasich, a former Republican partisan in Congress, concluded on Heartland.
His courageous correspondent out in the field, accosted all morning by “fringe elements” at the rally in frightening Los Angeles, nodded seriously.