Latino Youth are the Future of Activism - A View from the Selma march
President and General Counsel
9 March 2012. Montgomery, Alabama.
The next generation of civil rights and human rights activists was forged on the road from Selma to Montgomery yesterday. They were young. Very young: Girls and boys in sneakers carrying placards, adorable toddlers on the shoulders and in the arms of their parents, babies in baby carriages draped with the American flag. They traced the steps of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the old guard of American civil rights activism -- the masters in this field and the ones who changed America for the better. They withstood the Alabama sun and stood in unison to navigate the English and Spanish chants much better than their parents. For the next generation of social justice activists the line in the sand may have been traced in Arizona, but it was indelibly marked with Alabama’s anti-immigrant law, HB 56. For you see, the next generation of activists are Latino.
This was a replication of the iconic African-American civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery that led to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This year’s organizers, led by the National Action Network, joined immigrants’ rights to voting rights as the main focus of its organizing. Led by the National Council of La Raza, other Latino national organizations followed suit: Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, Hispanic Federation, League of United Latin American Citizens, and LatinoJustice PRLDEF to join the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
“Aquí estamos y no nos vamos! ….”
And when Latinos march we bring our kids. Makes sense for a population that has the youngest median age of any other group in the country. Years ago my son and daughter, now graduating college and high school respectively, ceded to my request that the only gift I wanted on Father’s Day was for the entire family to join me to protest the detention of the Vieques Four (José Rivera, Al Sharpton, Adolfo Carrión and Roberto Ramirez) holed up in a federal detention center deep in industrial Brooklyn. We marched, we chanted. But more importantly, my kids remembered.
Yesterday I was holding a LatinoJustice PRLDEF banner with Tasha Moro, Peter Orozco and LJP Board member Cid Wilson, and marching along with Dolores Huertas, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Isabel Rubio, Hector Sanchez, Daniel Ortega, Dick Gregory, José Calderón, Brent Wilkes, Greg Jackson, Elena Lacayo, Tony Suarez, Estela Vazquez, Bruce Goldstein and many others. But more importantly I was surrounded by beautiful, energetic Latino youth. Dolores Huertas with her grace and spirit intact, was the bridge to the most famous of Latino civil rights leaders, César Chavez. Al Sharpton embodied today’s civil rights leaders, and the small feet among me made the paths that we will follow tomorrow.
“…y si nos echan, nos regresamos!”
Union flags and chants in favor of 99% were plentiful. A trio of handheld Tibetan drums provided a calm for the recorded words of Martin Luther King, Jr. while an ACLU lawyer from the Alabama office was calming the anxiety of a Latino client whose uncle was just picked up for an alleged traffic violation that may lead to deportation in the terror climate that Alabama has created.
Then another lawyer from the SPLC, Dan Warthen, had an experience that assuredly reaffirmed why he is a public interest lawyer: he was able to announce that, minutes before, the federal appellate court sitting in Atlanta that had only last week heard the arguments to stop HB56 in its tracks, issued a preliminary injunction to stop the implementation of the last two portions of the unjust Alabama law. Now undocumented Latino residents of Alabama could initiate business transactions with the state without committing a felony. Now the state courts of Alabama could hear cases to enforce contracts made by its undocumented communities. The status quo that existed before HB56 was passed, was restored. The war was far from over.
No matter. Instead, the electricity among the marchers after Dan’s announcement was palpable. A reporter from Yakima, Washington asked me if the court ruling was a result of our march. Not really, I said. But no matter. Our marchers were confident, our steps were lighter, our chanting louder.
“Una familia! Un Alabama!”
Inside the St. Jude Communal Center in Montgomery hours later the school gym was packed to capacity. St. Jude was one of the shelters used by the 1965 civil rights marchers to rest their weary legs and last night it was home to the bookended notes of a gospel choir and a mariachi band. Being indoors with all the marchers changed the dynamics and all for the good. We could now see each other’s faces, appreciate the solidarity and feel the history in the moment.
We weren't supposed to be here, black, brown and white. The framers of HB56 imagined a state without Latinos, imagined it would be easy, imagined little resistance. That a state without Latinos would spell economic ruin didn't factor in the analysis. But that the reaction would galvanize African-Americans and Latinos in ways that haven't been seen since the Obama election also didn't factor in the analysis.
"The worst immigration law in the land, must be banned, must be banned" those last two phrases shouted out by the cute 10 year old Latina girls from Alabama with the same pride that they later shouted "si se puede." Pink clad, in white Converse knock offs, the girls were favorite targets for photographers.
"The thing they fear most is the unity in the room" said one of the speakers, appropriately. “Alabama is losing $1 million per day because of HB56,” said SPLC’s Mary Bauer, analytically. “We must correct the notion that immigrant is a bad word,” said the Chair of the National Action Network, insightfully.
The night’s biggest applause was saved for President of the National Action Network, Al Sharpton. In the bleachers of St. Jude Latino children and Latino elders were on their tired feet to hear the Reverend and he didn’t disappoint. The on-stage, Latino Spanish translator who worked the entire night found his stride in the cadence that Sharpton charted as he drew the parallels between the struggles of yesteryear and today in the South. They didn’t give us our rights, we fought for them (Ellos no nos regalaron nuestros derechos, los ganamos). And we’ll fight to save our voting rights and go to jail together if we need to (Y vamos a luchar para salvar nuestro derecho al voto hasta ir a la carcel juntos, si es necesario).
Years ago we were asked why we went to Vieques to fight for Latino rights in Puerto Rico (Hacen años que nos preguntaron porque ir a Vieques para los derechos de los Latinos en Puerto Rico). We went to stop the Navy from bombing Vieques (Fuimos a parar las bombas de la marina en Vieques)! We won there and we’ll win here (Ganamos allá, y ganaremos aquí)! Now we are asked why are we fighting for immigrant rights for Latinos (Y porque estamos luchando para los derechos de los inmigrantes?)? And we are doing so because we have to protect our rights, for all (Lo hacemos para proteger los derechos de todos)! We are here in the Bible Belt (Aquí estamos en una area Cristiana)! And yet you wouldn’t know it.
Ask yourselves, what Christ do they serve when they pass these laws (Y que Cristo sirven ellos cuando pasan estas leyes)? Didn’t Jesus help the needy without asking for his papers (No fue Cristo el que ayudó su prójimo sin pedirle papeles), without asking for his green card? (Sin pedirle su tarjeta)? You can call me “Alfredo” Sharpton now and I will be with you (Llámame Alfredo Sharpton, que juntos estamos). It’s time for the Christian Right to be right Christians (Es hora que el Christian Right sea verdaderos cristianos!)! In English or in Spanish it was a riveting message, ebbing and flowing through the rafters, filling the waves of people with hope.
The night’s other big moment was brought by a young Latino student whose polish and poise was beyond his years and whose own cadence and promise of youth embodied the virtual passing of the torch from the Black Church of Rev. Sharpton’s words to the necessary activism of tomorrow: “My name is Victor, I am undocumented and I am certainly not afraid, said this DREAM Act student, proudly. And as he ended the young Mexican with impeccable Southern English ushered in an ovation by saying: “I believe in America because I believe in y'all.”