Revived in the United States on a mass scale by the immigrant rights movement six years ago, the annual commemoration of International Workers’ Day is fast becoming an established tradition across the country. And if anything captured the essence of the 2012 celebrations, it was the convergence of issues popularized by Occupy Wall Street-influenced movements with demands for justice long pushed by immigrant community organizations. Held on a balmy spring day, a rally and march in Albuquerque, New Mexico, gave a glimpse of movements that could continue to reshape U.S. and world politics in future years.
As the late afternoon sun continued to beat down on a hot New Mexican land, hundreds of people began gathering in a park near Albuquerque’s downtown. Mobilized by Enlace Comunitario, El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, the Albuquerque Partnership, La Raza Unida Party and many other organizations, young and old alike assembled to demand respect for immigrants and fundamental changes in labor, immigration and economic policies.
Proclaimed a sampling of the signs: “No a la SB 1070,” “Todos Somos un Nuevo Mexico” and “Se quiebran corazones cuando separan familias,” or “Hearts are broken when families separate.”
“It’s important to remember New Mexico is not Alabama, is not Arizona,” New Mexico State Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino (D-Bernalillo) told an enthusiastic crowd. “Here in New Mexico we want to say to the immigrants only one word-welcome!”
Taking time to talk to FNS before the event moved into high gear, pro-immigrant activist Ramon Dorado stressed the importance of immigrants in New Mexico’s biggest city. The longtime resident pointed to a man tending a small hand-cart draped with churros for sale. The vendor, Dorado insisted, is not taking a job from anyone but in fact creating one that spreads money around. “Where does he spend it?” Dorado asked. “Here in Albuquerque, and this is good for the economy.”
His voice rising with emotion, Dorado said the last four years have been tough times for immigrants locally. “It’s very difficult for struggling immigrants to get their families ahead,” he said, adding that many people have lost jobs because of the introduction of the federal government’s E-verify system in small businesses, and families are increasingly divided with one or more members deported while others linger in the United States.
According to Dorado, his own son was deported to Mexico while just two weeks shy of completing a professional program at the local community college. After spending practically all of his life in the United States, the young man was stopped by a local cop and then turned over to “the migra,” Dorado said. Once a leader in his church’s youth group and a top-notch student, Dorado’s son is now trying to get by in a country south of the border in which he is a stranger while the rest of his family is stuck in anguish north of the border.
“Put yourself in my shoes, in the shoes of my wife,” Dorado pleaded.
Roused to marching by the sounds of a Mexican banda, Aztec dancers and matachines, the pro-immigrant crowd welcomed a contingent of several dozen people from the (Un) Occupy movement that marched from the University of New Mexico. On the park stage, an emcee welcomed “the 99 percent.” Signs carried by the reinforcements supported labor rights, single payer health care, no war against Iran and justice for murdered Florida teen Trayvon Martin, among other demands. Read one bilingual placard: “Abuelas (Grandmothers) United: Against Corporate Greed, Against Citizens United….”
While demonstrators in Albuquerque were marching in the streets, sister activists an hour north in the state capital of Santa Fe were inaugurating a new worker center. Founded by the immigrant and labor advocacy organization Somos un Pueblo Unido, the new center is a “dream that the workers committee had,” said Somos organizer Alma Castro.
Although pricey Santa Fe has the highest minimum wage in the nation at $10.29 per hour, Castro said that worker complaints related to wage theft and other abuses that are not always thoroughly investigated helped prompt the opening of a space specifically dedicated to labor issues. According to Castro, the new center will be a place where workers can go to get advice, know-your-rights training and helpful computer resources. A part-time staff attorney will also be available, she told FNS.
Castro estimated that about 250 people showed up for the center’s May 1 inauguration, where mariachi music and food were enjoyed by the celebrants. The participation of organized labor was important in the center’s creation, she noted, and for the second year in a row unions joined together with Somos to recreate May Day as worker’s day in the United States like the rest of the world.
“We’ve always had May Day events,” Castro said. “It’s interesting to see an organization like Somos have relationships with unions.”
From Los Angeles to El Paso to New York and elsewhere, the fusion of immigrant and Occupy movement demands was evident in 2012. Although the overall number of participants in more than 125 U.S. cities chalking up May Day events, according to the website occupytogether.org, was less than the historic turnout of 2006, the breadth of issues raised was expanded and the shift toward a multi-issue movement rooted in working-class demands was notable. With few exceptions, however, mainstream media did not explore the issues raised by May Day demonstrators and instead zeroed in clashes between police and protesters or isolated incidents of window-smashing in some places. An Associated Press story minimized the turnouts in comparison with those of 2006.
But a chant heard for blocks away in the streets of Albuquerque was impossible for any passerby to ignore: “Aqui estamos y no nos vamos,” or “We are here to stay.”
Building for the big day, Occupy El Paso’s Facebook page resembled a bilingual, encyclopedia-like repository splashed with images, slogans and historical tidbits of social movements that ranged from Black liberation to the eight-hour day. In perhaps the classic style of “El Chuco,” (El Paso), the page contained references to Cesar Chavez’s birthday, a miniaturized poster of murdered Black Panther Lil’ Bobby Hutton, remembrances of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination and the 1992 L.A. Uprising, a shot of a German building that supposedly plays music when it rains, and a warning not to “Mess with Texas Nurses.”
On the Gulf Coast, the New Orleans Workers’ Center launched Stand Up 2012, a campaign to demand that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano “follow her agency’s own directive, and stop deporting those who stand up to defend their civil, labor, and human rights.”
In a press release, the pro-labor group charged that 32 leaders from the Congress of Day Laborers face retaliatory deportation because they stood up for worker and civil rights. The labor group called on the Immigration and Customers Enforcement agency to use "...discretion to grant dignity, stability and economic security to the Southern 32.”
Summed up the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights: “Today, immigrant workers continue fighting for living wages and know that an injury to one is an injury to all. “May Day is also the day when working class immigrant communities across the country will say a booming NO to punitive enforcement and the criminalization of immigrant workers. As the November presidential election nears, we also raise our voices for a fair and just legalization that respects labor and civil rights.”
Looking beyond May Day, the possible impact of the immigrant rights and Occupy movements on the 2012 elections is one of the year’s big questions, especially in the event of close races. While 2006’s mobilization of millions of immigrants for a path to legalization arguably strengthened the Democrats and contributed greatly to the presidential election of Barack Obama, who captured the Latino vote amid promises of an immigration reform, different dynamics are at play this year.
And while Occupy has undoubtedly shifted the parameters of political debate and popularized the notion of the 99 percent, the diverse movement is proudly non-partisan and quite often very critical of the Democrats.
Ramon Dorado said many immigrants feel betrayed by the Obama administration, which has deported record numbers of immigrants since taking office. Immigrants with voting rights, he said, are questioning why they should support people who will only end up deporting members of their community. “Romney won’t get the immigrant vote,” Dorado asserted. “But Obama has lied to us…(immigrants) don’t believe in the candidates.”
The Duke City activist criticized divisions between Democrats and Republicans that have impeded immigration reform, and blasted private prisons that profit from the incarceration of people for civil violations. And in a broad commentary, Dorado homed in on the irony of border walls and such in an economically globalized world. “How can we put barriers on the border when there is free trade?” he questioned. “This is incredible.”
Kent Paterson edits Frontera NorteSur, an online news service provided by New Mexico State University.