In the heart of Silicon Valley, in front of the very elegant Fairmont Hotel, a bunch of fired up students and nurses stopped a limo trying to enter the hotel. They surrounded it and rocked it back and forth. It looked like they might tip it over completely. Union officials, the ones who initially called everyone here, now had to personally escort the limo out of the teeth of danger. The besiegers only relented when they were told their target, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was not inside the vehicle.
When limousines are protected by union officials in Silicon Valley, you know California is in a hot political moment.
Authentic, car-rocking protest, not seen since Vietnam War protests and anti-Proposition 187 demonstrations, has returned to California. In 1994, Prop. 187 -- a bill that barred undocumented immigrants from services such as public schools and medical care -- triggered mass protests by the Latino community that made national news. In the days before the vote, over 100,000 people took to the streets, marking the largest march in Southern California's history. Although the proposition went on to pass, and was later struck down by the courts, it would be credited for alienating Latino voters from Gov. Pete Wilson and the state Republican Party, leading to the GOP's successive loses in state polls.
After this show of organizing strength by undocumented immigrants and their advocates, unions and Democratic politicians started taking Latinos more seriously, spearheading citizenship drives and organizing workers in the service economy.
Today, it is California students who are shaping up as the force giving muscle to street-level organizing against the governor, perhaps ushering a new era of mass protest over local issues in the state. This time, instead of an anti-immigrant initiative, it's the governor's proposed cuts in education and public services that is fueling grassroots mobilization among affected constituencies -- "special interests" to Arnold.
Students are adding bulk and confrontational energy to protests by firefighters, teachers and nurses that have grown in size -- 15,000 people in late May in Sacramento; thousands in Los Angeles on the same day; hundreds in San Francisco the month before; 2,000 in San Jose, which is not known for mass mobilizations.
At the San Jose protest against Schwarzenegger on March 25, labor officials scrambled to control the surge of students, mainly from East San Jose high schools, some of which have been ranked as the worst-resourced in the state. The angry students came in the hundreds, by bus or skateboard, and unaccompanied by teachers or community organizers. Police, hotel security and even union officials had to form a protective barrier to protect the hotel and the governor inside. The organizers kept asking the students to "take three steps back," to which one young woman responded, "We've taken too many steps back!"
If union bureaucrats protecting the governor sounds strange, consider the student walkouts that led up to the protest. The Bay Area Clear Channel station WILD 94.9-FM, popular among high school students and condemned by media critics as another brain-draining corporate entity, took calls by students across the Bay talking about how bad their schools were and how youths needed to fight back. When "The Dog House," the station's popular morning talk show that usually focuses on crank calls and strippers, uses airtime to support student walkouts, something new is emerging.
Early in the governor's term, university students and community college student activists were at odds. The state decided to give students who qualified for the UC or state system priority status for class registration and counseling at community colleges if they went to those schools first, as a way to make up for budget cuts in the university system. Community college students, however, were already sitting in overcrowded classrooms.
But the once-divided community college and university student movements are now strategizing together. Their statewide actions just weeks ago at the governor's offices in San Francisco, Fresno and Los Angeles were testimony to their new united front. For the first time in state history, the students have created a cross-system (UC, state and community college) coalition called Action in Defense of Education (AIDE).
The high school students' chants in front of the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose showed the youthful energy that could electrify future protests. First in Spanish, then in English to accommodate non-Hispanic union members, they stood shoulder to shoulder, chanting to the governor, "Nobody likes you!" It's a line usually aimed at the school bully; in this case, it was aimed at California's governor.
According to the Washington Times, the notorious Salvadorian gang called the Mara Salvatrucha may be linked to Al Qaeda. When I saw the article, which has been picked up all over the country in both the English and Spanish media, alarms went off for me. In Latin America the MS is already being treated like a terrorist group, but to top it off they are now supposedly linked to Al Qaeda. I feel that this could only do two things for Salvadorian Americans – either make us feel ashamed of being Salvadorians, or feed our egos and make our communities more violent.
Apparently, Al Qaeda member Adna G. El Shukrijumah was spotted in Honduras meeting with members of the Mara Salvatrucha back in July. The theory is that Brazilians are not required to have a visa to fly into Mexico, so Al Qaeda could fly into Mexico from Brazil and then be smuggled in to the US by the Mara Salvatrucha. El Shukrijumah has been identified as one of the key players in the September 11 attacks.
I have been seeing many Salvatrucha mug shots in all kinds of media and almost all are faces of young men with faces covered in tattoos. In fact, the New York Times recently ran a front page article titled, "Tattoed Warriors. The gentleman featured was a Honduran native and a member of La Mara 18, the MS rival gang. The story went on to talk about the hostility between gang members in Honduras and El Salvador. It was consistent with the rest of the media depictions of Salvadorians. All that I ever hear from the TV, radio and newspapers are the violent stories of massacres and bloodshed by our people.
Although the MS is a Central American gang, the MS started in LA in the 80s. "Mara" comes from a Spanish word used to describe army ants and "Salvatrucha" is slang for Salvadorian. It is estimated that they have over 200,000 members throughout North America. They have been labeled as the most violent gang in the United States. The MS is known for decapitating bodies and for using home made bombs. Words such as brutal, vicious and fearless are used to describe them. The viciousness comes from the brutally that El Salvador went through during the civil war. The originators of the Mara Salvatrucha were members of the FMLN (Fudaborto Marti Liberaccion Nacional), they were people who were not foreign to death.
Although young Salvadorian Americans may not have lived through the war, we have inherited the atrocities. A quarter of the entire Salvadorian population fled El Salvador as a direct result of war. Growing up, we are raised on the brutal images that our parents saw during the war. My dad tells me many stories of seeing people's legs blown off, to seeing people get there faces sliced in half with machetes. In El Salvador my house was on the top of a cliff, and my dad said that there were so many dead bodies stacked on top of the cliff that there was literally a river of blood flowing down.
Growing up in San Jose, I didnt hang out with too many Latinos because, although they spoke Spanish, they were Mexican and they made fun of the way that I spoke Spanish. Salvadorian Spanish sounds very different then the way Mexicans speak it. On Spanish radio youll never hear Salvadorian music and on Spanish television youll never see positive messages about our people. Although we are the second largest Latino population after Mexicans in the United States, with over a million residents, we still dont have much of an identity. If I was still an adolescent and I had seen these depictions of my people – as gangsters and terrorists or both – I think that I may have used it as a tool to find an identity, because its not like anyone else was helping me do it.
Salvadorian youth may fall into the depictions that the media is giving us. Either they will feel ashamed of saying that they are Salvadorians or they may start gang-banging simply because they are seeing Salvadorians gang-banging terrorists on TV. Words such as "vicious," "brutal" and "violent" may be something that young Salvadorians will glorify. These depictions are giving them an identity, and having a bad identity might be better then having no identity at all.
One afternoon, when our nation's security color code went to orange, a commercial popped up on my TV screen for homeland security training and jobs. It was from a group called the National Institute of Technology (NIT), and it really grabbed me.
I have a high school degree. I am 22 years old. I have worked at least 10 different jobs in Silicon Valley over the last few years. Most recently, I worked at a medical-pharmaceutical company, running cardboard into the machine that makes boxes, labeling the boxes, making sure each box had the right bar code and then packaging them with human blood and chemicals.
Three months ago, the same morning my grandmother died, I was let go. I have been unemployed for some time.
In the NIT commercial, people in uniforms talked about all the new jobs in homeland security. I thought that maybe I could make money, build a career and help out our nation in a time of need -- all without leaving loved ones. I called and made an appointment with the recruiter the next day.
The interview site in San Jose was packed mostly with male applicants of color from around the Bay Area. The recruiter explained that the school costs about $8,000 for a seven-month program that prepares you to be a "Homeland Security Specialist." They had classes ranging from "Tactical Communications" to "Domestic and International Terrorism" to "Emergency Planning and Security Measures."
The literature stated that the Homeland Security Specialist diploma program "helps prepare graduates for careers in the security industry as corporate and government security and safety personnel." I asked the recruiter if I could get a government job and maybe even become a spy. She said, "Yeah, this would be a good place to start."
I found out that the school used to focus on computers, but now it's all about security. The computer field has shrunk so much that homeland security is where the jobs are. Now, with an Orange Alert in place, is the perfect time to get training. The recruiter also emphasized that there were only two spots open.
I left with two packets -- one describing the program's courses and the other about how to get help with tuition. On the cover of the financial aid packet was a picture of this dude holding a wad of cash in his fist. The paperwork also included listings of the types of jobs that are popping up in the homeland security industry. Jobs like "law enforcement," "border patrol," "Homeland Security Officers" and "Critical Infrastructure Assurance Officer," not to mention "Coast Guard civilian jobs" and "Customs Service."
The pay ranged from $12,776 to $142,498 a year, with all jobs aimed at keeping America safe. The packet also listed private sector jobs.
But I noticed that a lot of the jobs were just downloaded from the Internet -- stuff I could have gotten on my own. Worse, the recruiter made it clear that the school can't guarantee a job after the Homeland Security Specialist degree.
After poring over the paperwork and a sleepless night, I came to the conclusion that this was not for me. The cost alone was enough to deter. When I went back to the office and told the interviewer, she was disappointed. She insisted that it would all be good with the financial aid. But I need cash, I need a job now, I told her -- not seven months from now.
Showing me a generic degree, she said, "Now doesn't this look nicer than your high school diploma?" Actually, I thought, if you changed the color and some of the words it looked exactly like my high school diploma. And since there are people with Ph.D.s out there who are unemployed and desperate, getting any of these new homeland security jobs is very competitive, if not impossible, for someone like me.
I asked her what kind of homeland security jobs she could hook me up with now. She brought in an employment specialist who told me that jobs are out there, and how to go about finding them. She said that they would give me information for a security job at Target if I enrolled.
I declined. Driving home, I concluded that the only thing I would gain from the program would be the ability to say I went to school. In the meanwhile, I sometimes sell my blood for money. As for an under-appreciated security job for $8 dollars an hour at Target, I think I can try to get that on my own.
PNS contributor Edward Nieto, 22, is a third-generation Mexican-American who writes for Silicon Valley De-Bug, the voice of young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley and a PNS project.