THE STREETS AROUND MACARTHUR PARK are not merely mean but ugly, yet few Los Angeles moments exalt as much as ascending the Red Line escalator up to Alvarado Street. A rectangle of blue sky widens near the entrance to frame clouds, trees and a few gulls wheeling above the park across the street. Suddenly, briefly, there is hope — even a little beauty. On May 1 this place was the center of the world.

“We’re gonna shut the city down!” a young African-American woman wearing an ACORN activist T-shirt said as she merged with dozens of other protesters from their subway train. By 3 o’clock, Langer’s Deli was closed and most of the cars that were still moving on Alvarado near Seventh Street belonged to cruisers going up and down the street with passengers waving Mexican flags. The organizers of the MacArthur Park demonstration had kicked the chocks off the march an hour early because of the buildup of people in the Westlake District — entire sidewalks full of people spilled like human waves into the street, and as groups ran across intersections, they resembled the “immigrant crossing” silhouettes seen on caution signs north of the border.

“We are not criminals, we just came to work!” one young mother said as she and her son marched down Wilshire. She’d come from Chihuahua, Mexico, 16 years ago, and she and her boy had begun the day at the downtown rally and were determined to reach La Brea. “We’re going all the way,” she said.

As the parade headed west, the LAPD’s uniforms progressed from “soft” patrol wear to full riot gear. Nearly all retail businesses along Wilshire were closed and some had plywood covering their windows. The HMS Bounty’s front door was locked, but the bar could be reached through the adjacent Gaylord Hotel. Inside, a few people recalled the 1992 riots as they watched the chanting throngs drift past the one-way mirrored windows.

“God, it’s getting worse!” one man said. “Can I borrow your bulletproof vest? What I want to know is why these people don’t overthrow the leaders of their own countries and just leave us alone? Everyone would be much better off.”

Outside, a black man stood on the sidewalk not far from the Big 5 sporting-goods store, holding a handmade United Farm Workers flag and a placard reading, “Support 4 Our Brotha’s and Sista’s. United We Stand.” Obi was an artist and, like most people, had participated in both the downtown rally and the Wilshire march.

“For myself,” Obi said, “I’m Nigerian-American and believe one person’s fight is all people’s fight. Just because you have a lot of people who come to this country who’ll get pretty much fucked over for cheap labor — don’t blame them.”

The march became so claustrophobic that a small, de facto parallel march took shape along Sixth Street as demonstrators tried to catch up to the head of the parade. Many more marchers began breaking off from the demonstration to take the subway at Western. Not all were heading home — many were trying to leapfrog to Hollywood, from where they took buses to Wilshire and La Brea, where the march terminated at a stage erected near the big intersection.

White-shirted demonstrators flowed in and out of the area for blocks away as dazed locals drove by. For many, it must have been the ultimate nightmare — groups of Mexicans sitting and chatting on their manicured Hancock Park lawns.

Incredibly, despite the packed masses of people, a vendor named Rashid had managed to set up a table about 100 feet from the stage, where he was selling tiny Mexican flags for $3 and buttons for a buck.

“Kind of like the de la Hoya fight,” he said when asked how business was going.

Mayor Villaraigosa, Cardinal Mahony, Tony Muhammad and others addressed the massed throng, although the most excitement seemed to be created by the appearance of Los Tigres del Norte, who took the stage at twilight to perform a playful a cappella set.

Looking east, down Wilshire, from the stage, one realized the enormity of the march — the crowd stretched to the horizon.

“They go all the way to the freeway,” said Mary Gutierrez, the press officer of the L.A. County Federation of Labor, which had co-sponsored the event.

People felt giddy onstage from knowing so many expectant eyes were focused on it; the crowds were the kind that only seem to appear in moments of pure democracy or sheer demagoguery. It was easy to forget the L.A. talk-show DJs who were attacking the Day Without Immigrants (they were in favor of extending it — permanently), the vinegary rant of Lou Dobbs and even the CNN news anchor who began her broadcast by asking a former Reagan-administration immigration officer why police don’t simply arrest all the illegals who would march May 1.

After Los Tigres left the stage, Maria Elena Durazo, the interim head of the County Fed, who’d emceed the event, exhorted the crowd one last time before her voice began cracking and then completely broke. After drinking from a water bottle, she managed the old farm-worker call, “Se puede? Sí, se puede!,” and the crowd roared the words back. The rally was suddenly over and the marchers began their long walk eastward, to the new center of the world.?

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