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Grassroots Immigrant Marchers Defy the Odds

New America Media, Commentary, Raj Jayadev Posted: May 02, 2009

Editor's Note: The May Day immigrant rights march might have been small in size compared to the one in 2006, but for the first time since these annual marches have been happening, the face of a U.S. president was on signs carried by the marchers, clearly indicating that they believe he can bring about immigration reform. Raj Jayadev is director of Silicon Valley De-Bug.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Although visibly smaller than in previous years, the immigrant rights march in San Jose will go down as a win, not for its size, but for what it beat - the rain, the swine flu, the economy, the lack of an enemy President, the law of diminishing return, and the impossible precedent of 2006.

Paste alt hereThousands of protesters marched in San Jose.

If anything, this march was the most important of the four annual actions in that it was the first one that was fighting for something comprehensive immigration reform that has a shot. The 2006 march was an act of defense, immigrants taking the streets to proclaim their existence and refusal to let their undocumented family members be targeted as criminals under a pending federal legislation, HR 4437. The 2007 and 2008 marches were reunions of sorts, marches to honor and remember the history that was made in 2006, the largest mass marches in the history of the United States by a people who largely did not exist according to federal law.

The irony was that in an effort to reclaim that spirit of spontaneity that defined the 2006 march, every effort made by the large institutional organizations seemed more contrived and predictable. The first march, no one knew where it was going to end, or who was leading it. The route that was made in 2006, the same one we did yesterday, was created by walking it. It went from the immigrant Latino center in East San Jose, to the heart of civic power in downtown -- City Hall. That route was made by children marching for their undocumented mothers, and was a social movement in a raw and profoundly inspiring form. Yet once organizations tried to organize the march, capture and direct the energy in 2007 and 2008, the march got deflated with route directors wearing matching armbands and politicians speaking on expensive stages. It resembled a parade, rather than a call to action.

Paste alt hereMarchers want an end to ICE raids.

Indeed, it was all the question marks this time around, the reasons why it shouldnt succeed, that made this march exciting again. A day before the march, large advocacy organizations declared that they would continue with the march, despite the fears of the Swine Flu. This was telling in a lot of ways. First and foremost, was the revision of history. Who gave any organization the right to even consider calling off a ground up, authentically grassroots movement, when they didnt start it to begin with? In 2006, the closest most of these organizers got to the march was watching it on the evening news. Nonetheless, given the trepidation of organizations to participate in this year's march, the event once again had more of the feeling of not knowing who will show and how many.

And out of the 2,000 or so on the streets of San Jose, not one mask. And in San Jose, where five schools have been shut down in precaution of the Swine Flu, and where there were more reported cases than any other city in the Bay Area, attendance was a clear statement. That number might sound small when compared to the 15,000 who came out in 2006, but it was bigger than the past two May Day marches, and larger then any other march in recent times in San Jose, including the anti-war marches. That message was that immigrant communities are expecting immigration reform, will do their part to make that a reality, and will hold President Obama to his promise of getting it done in his first year. We have gotten used to seeing Obamas face on shirts, mugs, posters; but yesterday was the first time I saw his face on a protest sign being held by brown faces, the same communities that voted him into office.

When Rep.Luis Gutteriez (D-Ill.) came to East San Jose just two weeks ago to drum up support for immigration reform at a forum for immigrant rights advocates, he told the audience that this was the right time for pursuing immigration reform because the movement on the ground has matured.

Paste alt hereMay Day protests in San Jose.

The march substantiated Gutierrezs observation. The marchers here knew exactly their importance in shaping their political destinies, and how high the stakes are. They were not there for the novelity or celebration, they were marching in the rain to win.

After the march there was a Pachanga (a youth party) downtown, where the young activists ate Tamales they had made with their mothers, played music, flipping between the Spanish songs they grew up listening to, and the hip hop songs they are making themselves. Many of these young college students were the high school students of 2006 who walked out of classrooms for their mothers and fathers. Crafted by the experience of the May Day marches that they helped make, they are now practically seasoned veterans three years later, telling the next generation of the power of their voice, testifying to its possibility.

Photo credit: Richard Babcock/ Charisse Domingo/ TIburon FB.

Related Articles:

However Modest, May Day Rally Showcases Immigrants' ReawakeningHowever Modest, May Day Rally Showcases Immigrants' Reawakening

Higher Turnout Expected at May 1 Marches

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