By Roberto Lovato
New America Media
NEW YORKAwilda Macias and other evangelical futbol mamas didn’t march behind banners labeled “Leftist Christians.” They sang and chanted “los montes se mueven con el espiritu santo” (mountains move with the holy spirit) as they danced to a merengue beat behind the big banner of Long Island’s Church of the Prophecy on April 10. These women don’t fit into any standard political categories. What has become evident is that we lack the language and frame of reference to describe and understand the new movimiento that’s upon us.
Friends who know these parents told me that eighth grader Anthony Soltero, who became the first martyr of the movimiento, didn’t die because he was a “radical” student. Soltero shot himself after an assistant principal at De Anza Middle School in Ontario, Calif., told him that he was going to prison for three years for walking out and joining student protests. He died demanding sane immigration policy and better schools.
And “politically progressive” didn’t translate too well into Spanish on the cell phone text messages, posts on MySpace and free Spanish-language print and radio ads that provided technical support to the conveners of the more than 136 marches scheduled for April 10.
Most politicos, academics, talking heads and journalists don’t get it, and it’s not just because they lack the Spanish-language skills. It’s because they’re trying to force this movimiento into the Procrustean bed of “civil rights” “progressive” or other traditional U.S. labels. It’s because they fail to see the birth of a mass-based mega movement that will counterbalance the exclusive political focus on electoral politics that marchers and others feel have betrayed them for too long.
My former colleagues at the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) in Los Angeles told me that they and other Los Angeles organizations that convened the gran marcha of March 25 were rallying today round the slogan “Ahora Actuamos y Mañana Votamos” (Today we act, tomorrow we vote). More than a few of the Salvadorans and Guatemalans marching in Los Angeles are veterans of mass mobilizations and movements in their homelands, as are many of the Dominicans, Colombians, Mexicans, Ecuadorans and others marching near the Roman-colonnaded buildings around City Hall in Nueva York. “Ahora Actuamos y Mañana Votamos” describes well the zeitgeist moving the millions of marchers who herald the latino-americanizacion of U.S. politics.
Instead of looking to U.S. history for frames of reference, we should be looking to contemporary Latin America, where a powerful and enduring combination of electoral and mass-based politics is destroying U.S. policies and electing to highest office agnostic, socialist single moms in Chile and indigenous leaders in Bolivia.
Though New York marcha leader and friend Miguel Ramirez identifies with the African-American struggle in the United States, his political roots are in the human rights and electoral movements of revolutionary El Salvador. Politicians and potential allies will achieve greater success if they remember that Miguel and most of those marching in the streets of this country were Americanos Latino-americanos long before those burning Mexican flags and other anti-immigrant, anti-Latino politicos and “regular Americans” began forcing many of us to redefine what it is to be “American.”
This was true in 1994, when we organized in churches, high schools and hometown associations that were, until recent rumblings, the largest Latino protests in U.S. history. At that time, my colleagues and I were opposing Proposition 187, the California initiative denying health care and education to the children of undocumented immigrants. When I was the head of CARECEN it was, along with Mexican organizations of the East side of Los Angeles, at the center of the opposition to then-governor Pete Wilson’s proposition. I saw how the mass-based and then electoral momentum of that movimiento whisked organizer Fabian Nuñez and marcher Antonio Villaraigosa into some of the most powerful political positions in the state speaker of the California State Assembly and mayor of Los Angeles, respectively.
Since 1994, it’s been interesting to watch as post-187 anti-immigrant propositions like the numerous laws denying drivers licenses to the undocumented in many states have, along with non-stop Homeland Security raids, Minutemen harassment and numerous other attacks, given birth to the latinoamericanizacion of U.S. politics. Like the California proposition, the Sensenbrenner bill was but the spark igniting one of the most important movements of our time as the map of the United States resembles more and more the giant and varied shades of insurgent brown in California and Latin America.
While it is true that, like Prop. 187, the Sensenbrenner bill will have electoral effects short-term white voter backlash and short and long-term Latino disaffection with the Republican Party those dreaming of a better country should remember that the mass politicization of the Latino, especially immigrant Latino, community is about much more than Sensenbrenner or even legalization. Polls and common sense tell us that millions of marchers and other Latinos are concerned with wages and working conditions, health care, education, the environment, national security, global trade and other issues.
Samuel Cevallos, a 53-year-old Ecuadoran-American marcher and businessman from Jersey City, cares about immigration but sees beyond it. “I used to be undocumented,” he said. “I came here (to the march) because many of my friends can’t. They don’t go to the hospital because they’re scared; they can’t drive to work because they can’t get a license; they can’t complain if they are mistreated at work.” Looking from the crowd around City Hall as if he were part of an invading army about to sack the Roman Forum, Cevallos, a Republican evangelico voter added, “If George Bush cannot take care of our people, we will.” He spoke in Spanish, a language that will change the meaning of words like “left”, “right,” “progressive” and “American.”
Roberto Lovato is a New York-based writer.