I have this hollow feeling in me. I participated in a demonstration eclipsing those of the 60s and 70s (at least for Denver), yet as a Chicano, my connection to the mexicanos who risked a lot to take to the streets is much that of supporter, rather than brother-in-arms.
May Day left me perplexed about many things:
1. Where will these wonderful millions of Spanish speakers next go? Will I be ready to go with them?
2. How will we Chicano ex-militants connect with them, since so many of us are less than literate in Spanish?
3. Will religious leaders of "Mexican" churches (of which there are many) turn out to be the only ones ready to lead, and where will they take it?
4. While it's true there were so many marchers that an ex-Secretary of Transportation needed to be called in, what is Federico Peña's role here and is that what is needed?
5. What would happen to the anti-Iraq war movement if the immigration forces were to take it up as a cause?
6. What might happen to any U.S. organized efforts if the mexicanos were to join them?
7. Coming from a people who traditionally participate in general strikes, how will their future actions change the political character of this country?
Answers to my questions can wait. The immigration movement may not. As evidence of its potential, below is a spectrum of reports from Frontera NorteSur (FNS), which I'd recommend you subscribe to if you want to get better information than U.S. media gives us and to get a broader sense of this future. (Subscription info at the end.)
Rudy Ch. Garcia
May Day 2006: Initial Assessments
Nobody really knows how many people participated in the May Day pro-immigrant legalization protest that shook North America and beyond. Very conservative media estimates speak about 1 million people just in the United States, while other media stories and pro-immigrant organizers estimate many millions more.
May Day was a spike in a new movement that remarkably, in only a couple months, turned the immigration reform debate in the US on its head, galvanized a new generation of youth activists, spread across borders, and even pumped new life into corporate anti-globalization movements that declined in the wake of September 11, 2001. For the first time in decades, the idea of a general strike was popularized in the United States.
Perhaps the best gauge of how deeply the protest cut into the political fabric is not measured by the mega-marches in Los Angeles or Chicago that each drew 500,000 people or more, but by the actions in almost anonymous settings throughout the United States, places usually not known for their political fervor.
In small towns like Tooele, Utah, and Rockdale, Texas, immigrant workers and students demonstrated for legalization. In the self-proclaimed chile (hot pepper) capital of the world of Hatch, New Mexico, a dozen students walked out of the village's small high school- much to the chagrin of a local Baptist minister.
Originally billed as a mass strike and consumer boycott against HR 4437, the Sensenbrenner immigration bill passed by the US House of Representatives last December, and in support of the legalization of undocumented workers, May Day 2006 unfolded in a variety of forms, assuming different characteristics depending on the locale, degree of organization and practical possibilities.
Some people went to work or school and attended rallies and marches later in the day. Others stayed home. Some shunned the shopping malls and gas stations. Organized at first by US activists, support for the action quickly spread to Mexico and Central America.
Initial assessments of May Day's impact in the US are mixed, ranging from critics who dismissed the action as a misguided adventure that will backfire to movement organizers who characterized the day a great, historic success. Some pro-immigrant forces, most notably the Roman Catholic Church and long-time, Washington, D.C.-based Latino civil rights groups urged people to go to work and school and then participate in mass rallies But by May Day, the call for a strike and boycott had acquired a life of its own, surpassing the ability of traditional organizations to control it.
Word of the protest spread from person-to-person, computer-to-computer and neighborhood-to-neighborhood. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, big companies like Malone's Cost Plus in Dallas announced they were allowing workers to take the day off and participate in the protest.
Shut-downs, whether with employer consent or not, affected strategic sectors of the US economy including California agriculture, Pacific Coast shipping and Florida construction. According to an economist with the Los Angeles Development Corporation, an estimated $200 million dollars in revenue could have been lost on May 1 in Los Angeles County alone. Rumors of mass immigration law enforcement raids that did not materialize also may have contributed to workplace shutdowns. Probably numbering in the thousands, an undetermined number of businesses nationwide closed their doors for the day in solidarity with the movement. In Albuquerque, NM, popular businesses like Taco Tote and El Mezquite market displayed signs announcing their closure.
A post-May Day poll quoted on Univision found that 65 percent of Latino participants did not work on Mayday, while 95 percent reported not buying anything on the boycott day. Most visibly, the huge US rallies and marches, drawing from several thousand to the hundreds of thousands of people, displayed the potential might of what many call "the sleeping giant" of Latino political power. At a large Albuquerque rally that drew several thousand people, signs included: "We are Indigenous People of the Southwest, Not Immigrants," "Mr. Bush: Respect our 1848 Treaty Mexico USA," "Build Schools, Not Borders," "We Pick, We Cook, Serve Your Food," "Justice for Immigrants," and
simply "Viva La Raza."
A long-time US resident from Ecuador who worked for 10 years in Alaskan mines, David Rodriguez said May Day had been a long time coming. “I’ve lived in the US for 30 years and you never used to see these kinds of demonstrations 30 years ago,” Rodriguez said. “There weren’t demonstrations of this kind, or organization. Certainly, this is a power that still needs to be organized more….we still got a little ways to go.”
May Day wasn't exclusively a Latino issue, though. In Chicago, large numbers of Chinese, Polish, Irish and other immigrants joined the protest, while in Denver, members of the American Indian Movement took part in a mass rally that drew perhaps 75,000 people. The indigenous activists aimed their criticisms at politicians like Colorado Rep. Tam Tancredo, protesting what they charged was a Washington power monopoly on deciding the destinies of millions of people. "This is a rally about the future of the Americas," said Colorado AIM leader Glen Morris.
Controversy erupted over the boycott, once again underscoring class differences and conflicting economic interests in the pro-legalization movement. Credited for boosting turn-outs at earlier events in March and April, Spanish-language commercial media, which is obviously dependent on advertising revenues, emerged as the leading voice against boycotts. The Spanish-language television monopoly Univision even followed up May Day with a news story that featured a spokesperson from Los Angeles' Carecen immigrant rights advocacy organization who criticized the boycott tactic as ineffective.
No counter point of view was presented in the report, even though boycotts, a curious omission, since in the case of the United Farm Workers Union's grape and lettuce boycotts of past decades or the Florida farmworkers’ boycott of Taco Bell more recently, tangible results have been yielded.
Mexico's Day of Solidarity
Spreading on the Internet, the message for solidarity with US immigrants on May Day produced mass marches and rallies, international bridge shut-downs and scattered boycotts of US businesses and franchises in Mexico. As in the United States, the actions were not coordinated by a single organization south of the border, and involved unions, students, former braceros, indigenous groups, and others. A few days before May Day, the Mexican Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution backing the US immigrant protest.
May Day solidarity actions were strongest in the northern border region. In Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, 200 protestors got a head start on others when they closed a Wal-Mart store for 10 minutes on April 30. The next day, in bridge blockades ranging from 15 minutes to several hours, different groups closed international crossings in Tijuana-San Diego, Tecate, Mexicali-Calexico, Ciudad Juarez-El Paso, Nuevo Laredo-Laredo, Reynosa-Hidalgo, and Matamoros-Brownsville. Downtown El Paso, which is largely dependent on shoppers from neighboring Ciudad Juarez, was reported largely deserted with 75 percent of its stores closed. Students, ex-braceros, merchants and others participated in the actions. In Mexicali, former braceros marched to the city's "La Pagoda" building to symbolize Mexican-Chinese unity.
In the interior, May Day had a more scattered impact. Despite the boycott call, brisk business was reported at Wal-Mart and other US-brand establishments in Mexico City. Some shoppers said they couldn't afford to lose a shopping day on traditional work holiday, while others claimed they did not know about the boycott.
Messages of solidarity were voiced at several mass May Day rallies and traditional parades in the capital city, including one protest outside the US Embassy led by Zapatista Subcomandante Marco. Linking the migrant struggle with other causes, Marcos declared the real struggle was for a new society in which people would not have to live their homes in search of work.
In Toluca near Mexico City, meanwhile, Mazahua indigenous women marched into a McDonald’s restaurant and offered free tortillas and traditional Mexican food to customers. In one of Mexico's newer migrant expelling regions, the Yucatan Peninsula, an estimated 200,000 indigenous Mayans reportedly supported the boycott. Masses in honor of migrants were held in some Yucatan municipalities, and a group of protestors burned cartons of US products outside the US Consulate in Merida. Over on the Pacific Coast, residents of San Marcos, Guerrero, dressed up in white and staged a march in support of their 25,000 relatives neighbors who work in El Norte.
May Day also was an occasion for the American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico and the Mexican franchise holders to stake out their positions. While generally agreeing with the need for immigration reform, the business groups argued, not surprisingly, against the consumer boycott tactic. The NAFTA-linked business sector leaders emphasized how US businesses and franchises employed Mexicans and used Mexican ingredients in their products.
Central America Joins in Too
Even more dependent on migrant money from the US than Mexicans, Central Americans massively supported the May Day actions. Marchers raised the migrant banner in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Like others, Salvadoran Benito Martinez said that “almost everybody” from his family is now living and working in the US.
The pro-migrant movement generated support across the political spectrum from left to right, showing how mass emigration has transformed and influenced the post-Cold War Central American political scene. Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos and Sandinista Front leader Daniel Ortega both spoke out in support of the US immigrant movement, while Rene Figueroa, an interior ministry official from the conservative National Republican Alliance government in El Salvador, gave his verbal support. El Salvador's largest
leftist party, the former guerrilla Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, dedicated its 2006 May Day march to US migrants.
Like their Mexican counterparts, business associations in Central America slammed the boycott. Jose Raul Gonzalez, the vice-president of Central America's Pepsi bottler, said, "Consumers do not know that this 'gringo' product is as Guatemalan as they are; the only thing gringo is the brand." Gonzalez and other business spokespersons did not disclose how much money Pepsi and other multinational companies earn for the rights of using their name and
In both Mexico and Central America, many of the pro-immigrant May Day protests also brought up the NAFTA and CAFTA trade agreements, low salaries, high energy costs, and other economic grievances. "CAFTA, as well as the neo-liberal measures imposed by the US and the International Monetary Fund are directly responsible for the unemployment and migrations," declared Honduran opposition leader Carlos Reyes. "Therefore, the US has the obligation not to deport (migrants) but to welcome them, and not to criminalize their migratory status."
May Day's Possible Impacts
US Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist dismissed the May Day protests as not carrying any potential weight in the immigration reform legislation debate, but others are confident the echoes of May Day will be heard when the US Senate takes up the stalled legislation this month. Anti-legalization forces are wagering that a backlash to seeing Mexican flags waving in the streets will help forestall any reforms smacking of amnesty.
A CNN poll released this week reported that sympathy for immigrants had dropped from 70 percent of respondents in April to 57 percent in May. Pro-legalization organizations, on the other hand, are betting their newly-displayed strength will produce positive results. How the negotiations between a Senate bill and the Sensenbrenner HR 4437 House legislation pan out in the days ahead is the big question. Still in doubt is whether any legislation at will be approved by both houses of Congress and signed by President Bush in an election year.
Eligibility for green cards, guestworkers and border security provisions will be among the key sticking points. Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a former US Border Patrol chief, said it’s almost certain that the massive border wall and undocumented immigrant criminalization aspects of the Sensenbrenner bill are dead. If Reyes is correct, the new pro-immigrant movement can claim a great, first victory.
Analysts will be carefully watching the electoral repercussions of the pro-immigrant movement in the 2006 and 2008 elections. Many of today’s protestors are US citizens-and current or potential voters- who turned out to support their relatives and friends. A common slogan in protests across the nation was: "Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote." And with a new generation politicized, May Day's winds of change could well expand beyond the arena of electoral politics.
Jorge Mujica, a leader of Chicago's March 10 Coalition, assessed the mass movement as the beginning of a new international worker movement not just limited to legalization, but one advocating for “better working conditions” as well. On an international scale, May Day 2006 showcased "the first big revolutionary movement of the 21st Century,” Mujica contended.
Arguably, May Day was the third big wave of cross-border movements in recent years. The anti-World Trade Organization protests of the late 1990s and the anti-Iraq war demonstrations of early 2003 could be considered precursors to today's movement because of the way they rapidly leaped across borders in support of the same cause. In another important sense, May Day 2006 is the latest example of the reemergence of civil society as a vital actor on national political stages, a development also witnessed in the French student strikes, the Nepalese pro-democracy movement and the large demonstrations in Puerto Rico that could culminate in a general strike in the coming days in protest of a government fiscal melt-down.
Reprinted with permission of Kent Paterson, editor, Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news; Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico
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