News & Politics

The Sleeping Giant Reawakens

Shockwaves from the massive demonstrations in support of humane immigration reform will be dramatic.
In the 1950s, when anthropologists referred to Mexican Americans as the "sleeping giant" and the media stereotype of choice was a man sleeping under a cactus, the thought that Latinos in the United States might organize to demand equal opportunity seemed far-fetched.

One noted social scientist wrote: "The masses of Mexican Americans in the large cities of the Southwest are politically inert. The very model of Mexican leadership has been the 'quiet fighter' who does not create any public difficulties."

It was not until Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and California farm workers burst into the national consciousness in 1966 that pundits began to detect a major tremor in the political landscape. In 1968 in Los Angeles, Chicano high school students demonstrated for educational reform, a movement captured in the new HBO film, "Walkout." In 1970, Chicanos and Chicanas organized major rallies against the U.S. war in Southeast Asia.

What we now call the Chicano Movement was a grassroots mobilization composed of diverse organizations and agendas. It gave a generation of Mexican Americans a new identity premised upon cultural pride, a thirst for justice, and an insistence that U.S. democracy deliver on its promises.

The recent demonstrations in support of humane immigration reform that does not exploit hard-working families dwarf the demonstrations of the Chicano Movement era--4,000 in Dallas, 5,000 in San Francisco, 20,000 in Phoenix, 50,000 in Detroit, 50,000 in Denver, 300,000 in Chicago, and more than 500,000 in Los Angeles. In Atlanta, an estimated 80,000 Latinos protested by not going to work.

On Atlanta streets, marchers carried signs that read "Nosotros también tenemos un sueño" (We too have a dream). Dr. King and Cesar Chavez would have been proud. Whereas the movement of the Vietnam War era was limited to young Mexican Americans in the Southwest, today's movement includes people of every age with a variety of connections to the immigrant experience and with origins in many different Spanish-speaking countries.

Marching side by side with the thousands of legal immigrants who arrived in the decade of the 1990s (more than any previous decade in U.S. history) were those whose parents or grandparents came to this country years ago. Newly arrived Salvadorans, fifth-generation Chicanas with family members who fought in World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq, and everyone in between said in one voice, "We will not be criminalized; we will not be intimidated."

The shockwaves of these massive demonstrations will be dramatic. Like the aftermath of California's Proposition 187 in 1994 that would have removed the social safety net for undocumented workers, we can expect that the new mobilizations will produce a huge spike in Latino voter registration. As it did in the 1960s, the "sleeping giant" has once again risen from its slumber.

Comedian Carlos Mencia finds it amusing to drop epithets like "beaner" and "wetback." In the politically correct 1990s, we might have chastised him for being too ignorant to realize what a far greater comedian named Richard Pryor learned on his first trip to Africa. "I didn't see any n*****s there," Pryor said.

This week, immigrants, their children, the grandchildren and great grandchildren of immigrants, and those with Spanish surnames who trace their roots to the Southwest before there was a United States took to the streets to demand dignity and respect. Someone tell Carlos Mencia, the Minutemen, and Senators Sensenbrenner and Frist that there was not a single beaner or wetback among them.
Jorge Mariscal is director of the Chicano/Latino Arts and Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego.
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