Tuesday, May 02, 2006

May Day March: Si, se puede!

I marched with 20,000 marchers in Orlando yesterday in the day without immigrants. It was the largest march in Orlando history. It was matched by similar marches in Homestead (agricultural district south of Miami), Sarasota, Deland (small city just north of here) and Pensacola. It was an incredible day, bright sunshine, blue skies, warm temperatures and a sea of brown faces clad in white tee-shirts. There were young men and women holding American flags, mothers pushing strollers, children holding parents' hands, elderly people, construction workers, bank tellers, union officials, and a gaggle of us Gringo marchers there to support their efforts. I arrived home three hours later sunburned, exhausted but exhilarated as I listened to the evening news and was informed that I was one of over a million Americans who had been in the streets for justice this May Day.

A few observations:

  • The largest single group of marchers here in Orlando, as measured by crowd response to questions about places of origin from the organizers over the PA system, was from Puerto Rico. In other words, US citizens. While the local CBS affiliate initially reported that the streets were filled with "illegal aliens," (which brought a chuckle from this fifth generation Floridian who's Gringo to the bone), in fact the majority were at least documented if not citizens.
  • The announcements were tri-lingual - Spanish, English and Haitian Creole. What was most interesting was hearing the chants glide effortlessly from one language to another - "Si, se puede! Yes, we can!" These are people whose ability to learn and grow expose their detractors' resistance to do the same. The presence of such diverse cultures has made this place a desirable place to live for those of us who are not so fearful that we must surround ourselves with like-minded, like-situated and like-appearing peoples.
  • The presence of religion took two forms: 1. fundamentalist Protestant sects passing out Spanish editions of their comic book style tracts and holding banners which seemed to equate one's immigration status with sinfulness and the need to repent, 2. Roman Catholic religious orders and Catholic Workers who have a presence among the farmworkers here. Noticeably missing: all mainline Protestant churches, including those who have "Hispanic ministry" like the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida. So much for putting one's money - and one's official presence - where one's mouth is.
  • The smugness of the counter-demonstrators provided a stark contrast to the exuberant passion of the marchers:
  1. "This is my country! Go home!" Translation: Somehow I have come to speak for the whole country which I presume to be mine to speak for. It's all about me.
  2. "My mother was a legal alien. What's your problem?" Translation: I got mine, screw you.
  3. "What's that? I can't understand you?" Translation: I'm a monolingual philistine (and to whose surprise the crowd immediately translated their chant - "Yes, we can!").
  4. My response to the counter-demonstrators whose tiny flags were dwarfed by the sea of American flags among the marchers: "Shame on you!"

I had questioned my motives for going to the march debating with myself the night before whether I should even go. I'm not an immigrant though I'm clearly the descendant of immigrants, some of whom faced major discrimination when they came (Irish, German). I'm not Latino or Haitian though many of my students are and I teach Latin American Humanities. Was I presuming to be the great white liberal, doing something good for some poor souls whom I presume need my help and from whom I will demand to be duly appreciated? But within moments of arriving at the T.D. Waterhouse Center, where million dollar NBA players are watched from corporate skyboxes flowing with champagne and the people filling the parking lot clean their toilets and stock their bars, I knew why I was there.

Justice and dignity were the two main words I saw over and over. Protestations against unjust characterizations of immigrants as criminals and terrorists screamed from some of the signs. Demands that the value of the work immigrants provide be recognized was featured in other signs (Who built your house?). These are all themes I recognize implicitly. As a gay man who has lost jobs, been denied jobs and been treated with less than human dignity because of his sexual orientation, I understand these concerns immediately, personally and viscerally. But more importantly, as a man who has spent his life working for justice and human dignity from special ed classrooms of public schools to courtrooms of juvenile justice as public defender to observing cease-fires and elections in Central America, this is simply one more chapter in a story that is much larger than me. I thought back to previous marches down the streets of Orlando in which I had participated to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. and the ongoing struggle for African-American civil rights and to several Gay Pride parades in which I had marched or stood curbside with banners which proudly - but debatably - read "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You." Yesterday's march was just the latest chapter but undoubtedly not the last.

Justice. Dignity. Human rights. Seeing the image of G-d on every human face and throughout the good creation. Those are concerns worth fighting for. They are, in the words of Princeton ethicist Cornell West, causes larger than oneself worth devoting one's life to.

For those who watched with dismay or perhaps even fear as the streets of America were swollen with a mere fraction of its immigrant population: This is your wake up call. The sleeping giant has awoken. They now have your attention. But this is just the beginning.

Get used to the idea that your nation is a nation of immigrants. And here's a poorly kept secret for those of you who are history challenged: we always have been. Immigration laws, which didn't come into existence until after WWI, have always been based in the fears of the WASP majority that they were losing dominance of this country. It's why the first immigration laws were passed in the wake of the wave of eastern and southern European immigrants who brought their own languages other than English which lasted exactly one generation and their own religions (Roman Catholicism, Judaism) which didn't ever go away.

Immigration laws always exist in geo-political contexts. That's why the more recent laws allowed the collateral damage (translation: human victims) of our foreign policy mistakes in Cuba and southeast Asia to flee across our borders while making the path of more recent victims of that policy from El Salvador and Guatemala (where we sided with the right wing victors) difficult if not impossible to traverse. Immigration laws are the essence of social construction - they exist at the will of the power majority and often tyrannize the less powerful minorities within their power. They are the manifestations of the deepest fears of the power holders, using human beings to mark social boundaries of power, privilege and status. Indeed, national borders themselves are classic examples of social constructions. Point to the line between Arizona and Mexico from space. Or from that vantage point, explain why the tiny Rio Grande is a border while the more logical choice of the Mississippi is not.

While an orderly pattern of immigration is undoubtedly needed if for no other reasons than to prevent infrastructure collapse if not to prevent terrorist attacks, we need to constantly remember that immigration policy exists in a specific context. If we want to understand immigration patterns and why they occur as they do, we must be willing to look at the larger picture in which immigration occurs. That context includes ourselves and lives of privilege we lead in America. I am not opposed to someone objecting to uncontrolled immigration and porous borders so long as they do not speak with their mouths full of immigrant produced food sitting in homes that immigrant labor built and maintain and whose cheap labor made all of it affordable. But what I am not willing to take seriously - even for one second - is a confused notion that somehow a human being can be reduced to an immigration status. Regardless of how we may see them, no human being is illegal. And if we are not willing to see that, there are many, many more marchers ready to come to our streets to make that lesson clear. "Si, se puede." Yes, we can.

One last thought. Cultural diversity spurs creativity and syncretic generativity. The immigration struggles in America offer Americans an opportunity to become a stronger people, a better nation. The immigrants are here. They have come seeking the same dreams of prosperity Americans enjoy, the dreams beamed around the world via satellite and piped into every home able to afford a TV. Immigrants have fueled a standard of living unsurpassed in history, albeit one built on the backs of near-slave labor. Among the slogans repeated over and over in the march yesterday was this one: "El pueblo, unido, jamas seran vencido." A united people can never be defeated. Abraham Lincoln recognized this truth in his use of Jesus' words that "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

Can we Americans learn to embrace the other who lives within our borders, to see them as fully human, to afford them the dignity such recognition requires, and only then to talk about immigration? I suspect our ability to do so will determine whether this great house we have built will continue to stand or fall from internal dissension. Yesterday's march gives me hope. The immigrants have spoken. Now the ball is in our court.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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