April 30, 2006

Si Se Puede

Si Se Puede (Yes We Can) brings back memories of my summer working for the United Farm Workers as a volunteer on the Lettuce Boycott. I was excited to be able to participate in an historic moment. Poor working people were organizing for decent wages and working conditions with pride in who they were, where they came from and where they were going. Si Se Puede meant Yes we can have a union. Yes we can earn a living wage. Yes we can have safe working conditions. Yes we can be Mexican, or Filipino, or whoever we are and proud of it!

When immigrants and their supporters march again on May 1st, it will be the continuation of quite an extraordinary movement. Organizing in opposition to HR 4437, immigrants turned out in record numbers. The Sensenbrenner Bill would have cracked down on illegal immigrants, increasing penalties for them and for anybody who helped them and threatening mass deportations, Over 100,000 marched on March 10 in Chicago, according to police estimates. The official estimate for the March 25 march in Los Angeles was 500,000 but organizers say well over a million people were there. Meanwhile students were staging walkouts from schools across the country. On April 10th, thousands of people demonstrated in each of dozens of cities. 50,000 people rallied in Salt Lake City, 150,000 in San Diego, 500,000 in Dallas. The breadth of the movement across the country was unprecedented in their ability to turn out huge crowds in so many different places at once. In many places it was the largest demonstration to be held there at any time, for any cause. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now (www.democracynow.org) is fond of saying that together these “constitute the largest demonstrations in the history of this country, not just on immigration but on any issue”.

One of the purposes of the marches is to make immigrants visible. All too often they blend into the background doing the hard, dirty work that America depends on them to do. When they marched in such numbers, they were noticed and when they missed work or school their absence was felt. Their point is that immigrants are a vital part of this country, as they always have been.

After some of the earlier marches, participants were criticized for carrying Mexican flags. This kind of criticism strikes me as being willful misinterpretation by people more interested in finding a reason to denigrate the movement than to understand it. I see the use of Mexican symbols and flags as an indication of pride in who they are. Nobody says that the Irish should forgo the wearing of the green on St. Patrick's Day in favor of red, white and blue. Mexicans in the US are often discriminated against. Why not counter that with strong positive images of proud Mexicans? Remember this is an immigrants movement. They can contribute not only their labor but their culture to the American melting pot. This is no different from anybody else who has come before. Nonetheless, US flags were all over the place April 10.

The marches were largely organized in the Latino community, using Spanish language broadcasters and person to person organizing to get people to turn out. After the first few marches, other immigrant groups increased their participation as well. Students played an important role with their school walkouts and youth rallies. Now an attempt is being made to bring in other sympathetic people to march with immigrants on May 1, including some labor unions. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

May 1st is being billed as “A day without immigrants”. Some organizers are calling for people to not work, not go to school, not shop, not watch TV or use the internet. The idea is to create a gap in the economic fabric of this country that will demonstrate just how many immigrants there are and how much they contribute to the economy. Others are a little more cautious. People shouldn’t lose there jobs, they point out. They also are afraid that people will take offense at a boycott, just as some did with the flags. The media has been playing up the split but it seems to me that it is more a matter of emphasis and language than any real difference in policy.

The immediate goal is to stop the Sensenbrenner Bill and to pass an amnesty law. The Senate was ready to pass an amnesty bill after the LA march but mysterious procedural disagreements stopped it, perhaps in order to allow the enthusiasm to die down a little. The worst parts of Sensenbrenner appear to be dead but there will doubtless be attempts by its supporters to bring as much of it into the compromise package as possible. It will be interesting to see how much amnesty and how much crackdown end up in the package.

In the long term, this is a civil rights movement that looks to end the pervasive prejudice and discrimination against immigrants, especially in the post 9/11 world. These are people that believe in the American dream and want to be a part of it. When they say Si Se Puede, they mean Yes we can contribute to this country. Yes we can have pride in this country and Yes we can be proud of our own heritage as well.

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