May First, a different kind of march


It was a few minutes before 2:00PM and a big group of people was setting up the last details to celebrate May First with a demonstration in favor of undocumented workers and workers’ rights. Hundreds of people gathered at the corner of Robert Street and Kellogg Boulevard in St. Paul, and followed the rhythm of the music that one could hear from the distance. At 2:15PM, the organizers began the program with a series of short speeches that explained the reason why they were marching. The crowd looked excited and, from the outside, it looked so diverse and different that the question “Why are they marching today, May First, 2008?” became necessary. The answers to that question were as diverse as the crowd itself that was ready to start a 45 minute march to the State Capitol.

At first glance the crowd looked thin compared to the 40,000 people that marched on April 9, 2006. That morning, nearly 40,000 souls marched the route from the St. Paul Cathedral to the State Capitol to demand an immigration reform. Today, the march was different. It was a cold windy afternoon in downtown St. Paul and though what felt like minuscule rain drops were falling, the crowd seemed to grow by the minute.

There was no doubt about it. This time the march was something different. The route was different. The weather was different and even the crowd was different.

A huge amount of teenagers, most of them students, were among the crowd, giving the final touches to signs and T-shirts. The music was loud and some of them took advantage of the stage and danced to the rhythm of reggaeton music that played occasionally on the speakers.

A few African-Americans teenagers talked to their Latino peers and joked and helped them prepare their signs while getting ready for the walk.

A few steps south a small group of senior citizens were showing their support to the marchers carrying signs and US flags.

“I am here because I want to go to College and have a higher education and thanks to Governor Pawlenty I can’t.” Said Maricela Gonzalez, a young female that was among the senior citizens, showing her support for the MN Dream Act.

“Governor Pawlenty doesn’t want us to attend college and most of us want to have a better life. We don’t want to spend the rest of our days cleaning tables or working at McDonalds.”

Beside them, another group of teenagers was working on a sign that read: “Police shouldn’t Work for ICE!” The wind was blowing strong and though they seemed to be having a good time, it was really difficult to continue working.

“Why are you marching today?” I asked one of the teenagers. “Because I don’t like the idea of the Police helping ICE deport people and I heard that Governor Pawlenty wants them to do so.” He said and suddenly a strong gust blew their sign away and they left, running behind it, before giving me the chance to ask their names.

I turned around and looked for the group of senior citizens carrying the US flags. One of them was carrying a sign that read “VIDA”.

“I am here because undocumented workers are hard working decent people that crossed the border looking for a better life for their families as our parents did.” Said Claire Olson, one of the senior citizens.

“No human being is illegal.” Said her husband in a strong voice. “The right to a decent life is not illegal and we support the right of this people to look for a better life for their families and to give them the opportunities they deserve.” He added.

A few steps behind them a White Anglo young woman was holding a sign that read: “The pilgrims were illegal too!”

Surprised by her sign I asked her what she meant and she said: “The pilgrims came aboard the Mayflower, they arrived by sea and nobody asked them for their visas. Nobody asked them for a work permit. They arrived and took the land and that was it!”

Among the marchers, there was a group of people whose motifs were obviously different. Their banners and signs read: “Down with NAFTA!”, “Down with Capitalism!”, “We demand Fair Wages for all Workers!”

Thomas Gardner, one of the young men among this group raised his fist and said: “NAFTA has done nothing but starve the people in Mexico. Millions and millions of people have been pushed beyond poverty and Corporate America is the only one seeing the benefits of this treaty. The Capitalist system is chocking the workers. We need better wages and the workers are finding more and more problems to buy food for their families while CEOs are porking in profits!”

Beside him, another young man, who identified himself as Erick, nodded with his head while asserting: “We demand better wages for the working class!”

The march began its route and soon it was moving along Cedar Street. A small group of representatives of the coalition organizing the march went inside The Saint Paul Pioneer Press’s building to deliver a stack of letters from the communities of faith in which people were asking the Editor to stop using the term “Illegal” and start using the term “undocumented” to refer to people who crossed the border without the proper documentation.

“We planned to stop at the Pioneer Press to meet with the Editor and deliver several letters we received during mass, on Sunday, in which the members of the churches are asking him to use the word “undocumented” instead of “illegal”, because that’s the appropriate term.” Said one of the organizers.

A couple of blocks ahead, at the corner of Cedar Street and 6th Street, a White woman was yelling at them. “Suckers!!!” “Why don’t you go back to your country? We don’t want you here!”

She kept on yelling at the marchers as they approached the corner.

“It is absolutely ridiculous that these people dare to ask for rights after they entered the country as criminals.” Said the woman, who refused to give me her name.

“Lots of people think the same and we think that these people don’t deserve anything, except deportation. They arrive breaking the laws and after that they take advantage of our good faith and obtain benefits and welfare for them and their children; they receive benefits that some of us, US born citizens are not entitled to, though we pay our taxes and they don’t.”

Impatiently she waited for the march to pass and then immediately took the bus to leave downtown St. Paul.

In the meantime, another group of marchers, this time a select group of students went into Minnesota Public Radio –MPR- offices to deliver copies of the letters the organizers delivered to the Pioneer Press Editor.

“They are delivering the same message we delivered to the Pioneer Press.” Said William Martinez form MIRAC, one of the organizers of the march.

“We are asking the Editors to change their policy regarding the use of the term “illegal” because no human being is illegal.”

The march continued strait ahead to the State Capitol, where nearly 800 people gathered for a brief program. Mexican and Ecuadorian flags were displayed while marchers began to disband.

A new group of representatives of the organizations was preparing the stage, while another group was getting ready to visit some State Representatives and Senators at their offices. A smaller crowd was listening to the speakers and finally the second group went inside the State Capitol. They were delivering copies of a letter that was prepared for the occasion. The letter started by saying: “We have com here today, on May First two-thousand and eight, as mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, workers, students and people of all colors, to show the true face of Minnesota. We come here filled with pride, for the sacrifices we and others have made and pride for the hard and honest work we contribute to make this country a better place…”

On its fourth paragraph, the letter continues saying: “We ask you to cast your votes in favor of legislation that promotes the full participation and contribution of all Minnesotans. In addition, we demand that you strike down attempts to scapegoat immigrants for purely political gain such as: English only legislation; punishing people who need to work with “aggravated identity theft” charges; refusing driver’s licenses to responsible people and prohibiting separation ordinances…”

The letter finishes saying: “Most important, we are here to encourage you to champion the fight for dignity and respect that we all deserve as human beings.”

Signed, “The Community”

While they were inside, I had the chance to talk to a mother that was standing a couple of feet behind me. “I came to march today because I am desperate and I don’t know what else to do.” Said Maria, a mother of four US born citizens. “My husband was deported to El Salvador last October and though I wanted to leave with him, I had to stay in the country because I couldn’t take my children out without his permission. I stayed because of my children. My oldest girls are at school and I don’t want them to leave because in El Salvador they will never have the opportunity of a decent education and a better future.” She continued.

“I am just about to loose our house and some weeks I barely make all the payments and have enough money for food. When I talk to my husband, he says “Hang in there, keep on fighting because I know an immigration reform is coming soon and the nightmare will come to an end.””

Hundreds of people marched on May first. All of them for different reasons. Some in support of friends and relatives. Others demanding an immigration reform. Another group saw in the march an opportunity to express their discontent with the system and demand immediate change but behind all these reasons, the most important question was “Why the people that didn’t march didn’t march?”

According to Pablo Tapia, one of the leaders of the Asamblea de los Derechos Civiles de Minnesota, there are many reasons among them, fear came as the strongest. “Many of the people who marched on 2006 believe that the march was the reason behind the raids that began that same year. Many fear that if they march they will be targeted and ICE will come after them and they prefer not to march.” Said Tapia a few days before the march took place, during an organization meeting.

“We are still going to march!” He said. “We have no fear and if we are going to be targeted and deported, let it be.”