Erica is sitting next to a tree in Powderhorn Park. Her two kids are standing nearby. I say hi and sit with them, but she gives me a defensive look. Erica is Mexican; her family came to Minnesota two years ago, searching for better opportunities. She tells me she does not work, but that her husband, Juan, does. He is standing next to her, but facing the opposite direction. I ask him about his job, but he says he does not want to talk. I go back to Erica, but she hugs her knees and avoids making eye contact while she tells me she does not want to answer any more questions.
“A lot of people are afraid,” says Jose Luis Morales, a 33-yearold Nicaraguan who has lived in “San Pablo” –St. Paul—for the last four years, volunteering at the Resource Center of the Americas. Afraid or not, nothing, not even the rain, stopped an estimated 1,500 people from congregating Monday afternoon in Minneapolis..
A colorful audience gathered around the improvised stage. They carried umbrellas, raincoats or nylon garbage bags to protect themselves from the rain. They were holding posters and had their countries’ flags painted on their faces. Families, couples, and groups of friends had responded to the call for “A Day Without Immigrants: an act of conscience for the dignity of immigrant workers.”
The gathering was small compared to the 40.000 who marched to the State Capitol on April 9, but this was still a demonstration of how the community is organizing. “They are stepping out of the shadow and raising voices about how serious the problem is,” says Patrick Leet, director of Witness For Peace.
Like the April rally, Monday’s gathering was called to protest federal and state immigration laws. “None of the proposals respond to the needs of the U.S. immigrants,” says Leet. He blames legislators for not acknowledging the needs of the Latin community. “They come here to work, they pay taxes and still do not have access to public services. The problem is not the immigrants, it is the rest of the society, which does not realize that breakfast, lunch, and dinner come from the hands of immigrants. The society, the entire system is held by the work of millions of immigrants, but we will not see that on any governmental research.”
But something has changed in the last months. The movement has become offensive rather than defensive. Immigrants are not asking for small reforms but demanding legalization for everyone, respect for the rights of workers and families. They want to stop the building of walls, they want to reclaim their dignity. “There is not such thing as an illegal human being, at least not on my dictionary,” said Leet.
“This is about International Labor Day –which is celebrated on May 1 in most countries, but not in the U.S. It is not our intention to damage the economy or harm the U.S. community, but to demonstrate that we are a political and economical force in this country. We want them to know that we are here, we pay taxes, and we are also human beings,” explains Morales.
Real Immigrant Reform was a concept addressed by most speakers. Don Sequest, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers said that “it does not matter the color of your skin, the country where you were born, or the language you speak. We are all workers. The movement for immigrant reform does not end today, it begins today.”
Larry Larson, who introduced himself as Chicano, called on the Latino community to demonstrate its pride. Maria de los Angeles Pena asked for 20 seconds of silence for the sexually abused women illegal immigrants. There was also a representative of the Hmong community, showing that the event was intended for all immigrants. Speeches were given in both English and Spanish.
Live music came at the end. The attendants were cheerful and participative; dancing salsa or merengue. It was a real Latin “fiesta”—but, more than that, it was a demonstration, a petition for this country to treat all people as equals.
“We are the United States of America,” says Sequest. “Not the Divided States of America.”