Latino Civil Rights March

I attended the Latino Civil Rights March with hopes of finding myself in a sea of Latinos from all over the country. I imagined that I'd look over at a vast crowd, get a shiver down my back and know that I would always remember this day. But not only was I disappointed at the turn-out but also was let down by the leadership. I was, however, also inspired by the motivation of those who attended, especially of the young people who made up the back-bone of the march. At 9:15 in the morning, the sun warmed the morning chill of Meridian Park, the designated starting point of the march. From front to end, the park was filled almost exclusively with college students. A merengue by Juan Luis Guerra was blasting from the stage as a small group danced nearby. Just behind them another circle of 16 and 17 year-old students were engaged in call and response: "Chicano!" "Power" "Chicana!" Power!" while taking a group photo. The scene made me wonder if it was the beginning of a new student movement.As I talked with early morning gatherers, I found a strong sense of clarity-- and frustration-- about the current conditions for Latinos. Lupe Carlos from the Mexican American Students Association de Aztlan at University of Illinois in Chicago said she was at the march because "We know that Latinos aren't being represented. We're tired of the scapegoating . . . If we don't do something, it'll only get worse." "We want them to know, it's not just a black and white thing, it's a brown thing," interrupted her twin sister Anita.Gustavo Correa-Ortiz, 20, wore a Puerto Rican flag draped down his back as if he were a super hero. He had just finished a salsa dance. He said he came to the march because, "I have concern for other Latinos. I'm broken-hearted about [Proposition] 187, the beating taken on California borders (of immigrants by Riverside sheriffs), affirmative action. We need to show that we are here in unity." =09I met a man who had just stepped off a bus from Dallas after a grueling 25 hour ride. He heard about the march through the radio and joined the group of 300 from el Grupo de Apoyo Para Inmigrantes (Immigrant Defense Group). He gave much the same reason for attending as Ortiz, but was also concerned on other fronts: "The lack of options for Latinos in terms of work. They don't want us to speak Spanish on the job, low wages and the hunting of illegals in restaurants and work places. I know people who have been taken out of their homes."When I asked Correa-Ortiz what he thought about the march being dominated by students he said, "It means the Internet is working!" and doubled over laughing. "That's how I found out about it!"As marchers took over 16th Street, traveling south toward the Ellipse, flags from all over Latin America swept overhead. I remember the loud cheers that had followed calls from the microphone back at the park: "Mexicanos! Puerto Rique-os!, Dominicanos! Colombianos! Chicanos! Guatemaltecos! Salvadore-os! I realized that the march provided a much needed public ritual of pride in a palpable climate of intolerance. The multitude of flags, some I didn't even recognize, was stunning. It was like looking at ourselves for the first time through multiple mirrors, each propped at a slightly different angle, giving us a view from every side. All I could think was "Wow, I didn't really realize we were from so many different places." Equally remarkable was the myriad of banners that revealed such a politically diverse community: "Candidates Beware, Don't Take Hispanics for Granted, UAW Local 600, Detroit;" "La Raza Student Alliance, San Diego;" "UNITE-ILG, New York;" and a banner listing Latino Congressional Medal of Honor winners, by the GI Forum from Texas. A young Cuban woman, who was a Yale graduate student, commented: "It's pretty amazing. Look, there's a flag of Che Guevara next to a Cuban flag. This is the only place you'll see that." There was even room for the ideologically confused: There was a contingent of fraternity brothers who called themselves "The Conquistadores." Gay activists, including Latino ones, also had converged upon D.C. this weekend for their annual meetings, scheduled to coincide with the exhibition of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. LLEGO's presence in the march began to answer an important political question: Would gay Latinos have a place at this march? Would they be welcome, or have to force their way into the process? According to Mart'n Ornelas Quintero, executive director of LLEGO, after not receiving an invitation to attend the march, they invited themselves to a local meeting where they were heartily welcomed. Claudia Rodr'guez, a third year student at UCLA, who was holding up part of the banner, said that she was already planning on going to the LLEGO conference, when she heard that both events were happening on the same weekend. "It's perfect, especially since gay issues are usually separate." She had mixed feelings about whether or not they were welcomed, "It's not really a safe place, the people behind us literally ran when they saw our banner because they didn't want to be associated with us. And we've gotten looks, you know, but we haven't gotten harassed. I don't feel like I might get hurt because there's a lot of us here." The march itself, turned out to be the highlight of the day, since the rally at the Ellipse was smaller than I expected and I found the program fairly uninspiring. I arrived at the park and was able to easily walk around a crowd that looked much smaller than I had imagined. Organizers had projected 100,000 and before the march, the goal seemed feasible. I looked at the crowd and said to myself, "I've been to local marches that turn out this many people" After feeling demoralized about the turn-out, I was equally disappointed with the program. It got off to a strong start with a rousing welcome by D.C. representative Eleanor Holmes Norton and an explanation of the seven demands: human and constitutional rights, preservation of affirmative action, free education for all children, extended health care services, citizen police review boards, a $7 -an-hour minimum wage, and an extended amnesty program for citizenship. The program then dragged on for four hours of endless speeches, almost all made by men. Few were national elected officials and the highest profile celebrity was Geraldo Rivera. There were, nevertheless, important moments in the program that included speeches by Rep. Nydia Vazquez (D-NY), AFL-CIO national vice-president Linda Chavez-Thompson, Spanish language network Telemundo President Enrique Gratas who pledged his network's support and an appearance by the Baez family from New York, who lost their 12-year-old son to police brutality. The short supply of women speakers fostered some conflict. Forty-five minutes into the rally, a young woman standing in the front of the crowd began shouting "Where are the women's voices?" Young people too, were notably left off the program until the very end. On the other hand, gay activist Ornelas, did address the crowd from the podium. At the end of the rally, only several hundred remained; there had been no Dolores Huerta, no Edward James Olmos, no art on the stage, almost no music and no food booths (No food?! At a Latino event?! ). Not everybody agreed with my pessimism, though. I asked Ricky de Luna, 26, a Pontiac service consultant and father of two from Chicago, if the march had been worthwhile. "Hell yeah!" was his response. He heard about the march through Lowrider magazine and drove all night with his brother-in-law. "This is giving me an extra push to go back to school, become a lawyer and get involved in politics. . . . To tell you the truth, I didn't vote last time, but this time I will. It's my kids' future. "The issue of an uninspiring program is one of lack of creativity, but the issue of attendance seems like a lack of organization and a lack of ability to get consensus on the march. Clearly, the march was a powerful symbol of convergence of an extraordinarily ethnically and politically diverse community. It created an outlet for the conscious and motivated to express their opposition to the repressive policies directed at Latinos, especially for young people who made up the majority of the marchers. And thanks to the positive coverage of the march by Spanish and English language press, Latinos all over the country also took part in that sense of pride and hope. Indeed, the whole country witnessed a show of unity and strength. But frankly, at a time of severe crisis for the Latino community, an attendance of 30,000 is not enough for a national march of a population of 30 million, that was in the planning stages for three years. This march did not reflect the organizational infrastructure throughout the country of Latino social service organizations, advocacy groups and arts non-profits. Coordinadora 96 is the national network of immigrant rights groups forged to fight anti-immigrant policies. Their primary method of recruitment for the march, appears to have been getting media coverage, which was not widespread until two weeks before the march. So in large part, attendance of the march was dependent upon individuals motivated enough to go to the march after hearing about it on TV or radio. CALIFORNIA ANALYSIS[Note to editors: this section can be removed to maintain a national focus.]California presents an acute case of non-existent organizational consensus. Because of poor outreach, many Latino groups simply didn't know about the march. But the larger problem in California was One Stop's inability to get agreement from key immigrant rights organizations. They all endorsed the march, but none sent their constituencies. California's representation came largely from Southern California, from One Stop's organizing project, Proposicion Uno, who turned out an estimated 1,500.The situation in the San Francisco Bay Area is most telling. In one of the country's capitals of activism, there was no local coordinator, let alone a local committee. A week and a half before the march, a graduate student volunteered to recruit and coordinate transportation. Projections before the march totaled 25 attendees.The lack of California organizational support for the march is rooted in a split that took place with several Latino groups and Los Angeles based One Stop Immigration, the advocacy group that spearheaded the march. Groups split with One Stop when on several occasions its leaders usurped the authority of the coalition they had built to organize against Proposition 187. As a consequence, none of these key California groups joined the national Coordinadora when the work on the march started two years ago. Indeed, in addition to the loss of trust that took place, the lack of participation signaled tacit disagreement with the strategy of having a march in Washington as the best way to spend scarce resources to exercise political power at a time of crisis. Now with new leadership at the helm of the other immigrant rights groups, there is some level of collaboration with One Stop. These new leaders say that they simply didn't have the resources to send contingents to the march.Organizers deserve credit for articulating that the march was only a prelude to the work that would really make a difference. Their hope is that those who attended the march would work on citizenship, voter registration and get-out-the vote, in order to gain that tangible electoral empowerment for elections in 1996, 1998 and 2000. They also plan to launch a national convention and a meeting with the president. Organizing this march began the process of building a national infrastructure of Latino grassroots groups. As the post-march work gets underway, it's critical for Coordinadora leadership to build a broad consensus so that as many Latino organizations as possible will participate in the collaborative work that is so sorely needed. Mending organizational ties with groups in California, where immigrants are most under siege, is a critical part of building a real and effective national Latino grassroots network that can be one of the march's most important legacies.

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