I didn’t expect such a feeling of liberation as a white person
surrounded mostly by people from Latin America, standing outside of the
Catholic Cathedral in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Palm Sunday.
Spanish filled the spring air, along with recorded ranchera music,
familiar from back home in Texas, and a lone trumpter who inspired
laughing encourgement from the crowd.. There were whole families, some
dressed as if they’d come straight from Palm Sunday services. The Mexica
Danzantes of Danza Cuahtemoc, seen at many local democtrations danced, with their magnificient, feathered head-dresses, making rythmn with each step around a circle. Shining faces all around me regularly raised the chant: “!Si Se Puede!”
Translation: “Yes! We Can!”
It’s a slogan that’s quintessentially American in its optimism and a
beautiful rejection of the ugly white supreamcy expressed from some in
Congress to the border vigilante Minutemen.
For 25 years, progressive politics in America has been on the defensive
and our loudest word has been “NO!”
Fighting just to keep some of the gains won in the past—and losing
ground—we choose political candidates based on the idea that they will
go in reverse more slowly than the other candidate. There’s so many
questions we don’t ask and isssues we don’t raise. We’ve forgotten how
to dream of a better future.
But, on Palm Sunday, all around me were people marching for their
dreams, no less than the historic 1963 March on Washington. I could feel
all the potential of these newest Americans to reignite the progressive
Teenagers, bursting with energy, carried silhouettes of a graduate in
cap and gown, labled “MN Dream Act”, the bill that would allow in-state
tuition for the children of immigrants. In the United States, tuition
rises by 10 to 15 percent every year. More and more youth are cut
out from the possibility of higher education or graduate with debt that
narrows their aspirations away from public service to a kind of debt
peonage—if they can find a decent job at all. Too many join the
military hoping for college money—if they survive war.
Yet, in the other industrialized nations of Europe, as well as in the far
poorer, island nation of Cuba, college is free for all who have the
ability and desire to go. Why not here in America?
!Si Se Puede! Yes! We Can!
Some express concerns about “strains” on public schools by immigrants’
children. But, the true pressures on American public schools are
relentless tax cuts resulting in budget cuts, teacher lay-offs, large
class sizes. The real assault on public education comes not from
immigrants but by a righ-twing agenda to dismantle public education
entirely, turning it over to churches and corporations.
We need a movement of parents, students and teachers to take back public
education as one of the basic pillars of democracy.
!Si Se Pueda! Yes! We Can!
Groups of men, many of with sun-weathered faces, strong-looking from
obvious physical labor, held yellow signs emblazoned with the Statue
of Liberty, each labled with rural Minnesota towns, where they pick
sugar beets or soybeans and corn, tend animals raised for market, do
meat packing—the industry with perhaps the highest injury rate in America.
I wondered when they’d last seen the families they are working here so
hard for. How many of the women in the crowd care for other women’s
childre, in order to send money to feed and school the children they’ve
been separated from for years? The so-called “family values”
conservatives who aim to criminalize these desperate mothers and fathers
are exposed as manipulative hypocrites.
American flags fluttered in the breeze, along with flags of Mexico, El
Salvador, Guatamala, Ecuador, and countries I couldn’t identify. Some
Americans express outrage seeing flags of other contries at the recent
immigrants’ rallies. But I think that’s their own ethnic heritage lost
to “whiteness,” turned to anger about not knowing where they themselves
come from. Minnesota Green Party candidate for the U.S. Senate Michael
Cavlan was there with the Irish flag, which delighted the crowd.
Many wore white T-shirts which simply said, “I’m a worker. Not a criminal.”
How few Americans think of themselves as “workers,” but instead cling
to the often-hollow moniker of “middle-class”—a status shrinking as
more and more wealth is siphoned upward into fewer hands. It requires
two incomes for the basics of a decent life and in 2005, 12 percent of
Americans live in deep poverty:that’s 35 million people. How many more
Americans struggle to get by? another 35 million? 50 million?
Yes, Americans with only a high school diploma or less, are “competing”
with immigrant workers for unskilled jobs—and many of these Americans
are African-American and Latino. But this crisis in American
communities of color was not created by immigrants but, rather, by the
unfinished work to challenge class-priviledged white supremacy that
maintains inequality. Rural economies face Big Agriculture and Wal-Mart
demolishing the family farm and Main Street small businesses—similar to
what’s been done to Mexican farmers, pushed off their land. Corporate
globalization, hijacking resources, and destroying economies abroad,
creates the conditions leading to migration here, just as these same
elites also “outsource” many Americans’ jobs.
So many of America’s great progressive struggles waged and victories won
have been by people of color and, yes, by immigrants as well. The 19th
and early 20th century American labor movement was full of immigrant
workers who fought, bled, and died on picket lines for the eight-hour day.
What I saw marcing toward the Minnesota State Capitol on Palm Sunday was the possiblity of a re-ignited labor movement that refuses to be
divided and conqured, by race, national origin, or immigration status—if
American-born workers will join it.
!Si Se Puede! Yes! We Can!
My only disappointment was how few of the thousands white progressives
who’ve marched against the war in Iraq were present on Palm Sunday.
Don’t they understand that this immigration fight—with all the
implications I’ve been exploring here—is the “war at home”? When
weapons are the top priority, draining resources from every other area of
national life, there are domestic casualties to the war in Iraq.
For years, I’ve heard white peace activists plaintively ask, “Why don’t
people of color turn out for anti-war marches?” The answer to that
quesiton lies in white people’s absence in what’s being called the new
civil rights movement (and every other struggle being waged by people of
color). We must re-learn solidarity and practice it. The future for all
of us and what kind of country America will be depends on it.
!Si Se Puede! Yes! We Can!
Lydia Howell is a Minneapolis-based longtime activist, journalist, and poet. She’s the Arts Editor of the online journal TC Daily Planet and producer-host of Catalyst on KFAI Radio, airing Tuesdays, 11am, archived at www.kfai.org.