Letter from the US: Latino march demands rights and justice


Letter from the US. By Barry Sheppard

Latino march demands rights and justice

Tens of thousands of Latinos marched through the streets of Washington, D.C. and rallied near the White House on October 12 to press their demands on Congress and the President.

This was the first national Latino demonstration in the nation's capital. It also brought together people whose origins lie in many different countries of Latin America. "Where else can you see Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Salvadorans, Cubans and South Americans together?", asked Juan Jose Gutierrez, the Los Angeles activist who spearheaded the effort.

Geraldo Rivera, a television talk show host, said, "We've always allowed regional differences and cultural differences to separate us. What you're seeing now is the beginning of the 21st century in terms of Latino-American political activism. I think from now on Washington will be confronted with a group that puts aside the differences of whether or not they came from this or that island, or this or that state in Mexico."

Some participants said the rally reminded them of the 1960s. "But this is better, way better", said Manuel Ochoa of Chicago. "Fighting for Chicanos is one thing, but this is something new. It's on a broader scale."

Chicanos is a term used by many Mexican-Americans to describe themselves. Many are descendants of Mexicans who were incorporated into the U.S. when Washington took Texas, Colorado, Arizona and California from Mexico in the 19th century. The 1960s saw a radicalization of Chicanos, including a 30,000-strong Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam war and for Chicano rights in Los Angeles in 1970 that was brutally attacked by police.

The October 12 action was endorsed by a coalition of groups representing the different Hispanic peoples living in the US, as well as by the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organisations. The main point of the march was to protest new laws that cut off benefits to immigrants who are not citizens, make it more difficult to prove discrimination in hiring, and make it more difficult for people to win political asylum.

The centrepiece of the action was a platform of seven demands, which organisers said must be adopted by Congress to ensure full equality and justice for Latinos. They are: human and constitutional rights for all; against the cutbacks in affirmative action; expansion of health services; citizen police review boards; labour law reform and a $7 per hour minimum wage; a streamlined citizenship program and an extension of amnesty for those undocumented workers who entered the country before 1992.

Twenty-five year old Javier Salas, from Maryland, held a hand-painted sign in Spanish and English that said, "I am from Earth and they call me alien."

At times the march seemed as much a festival as a protest. The crowd danced to salsa music from CD players. But along with an air of gaiety, talk kept returning to what marchers said was a growing hostility towards Hispanic people, exemplified by proposals like that to ban the use of any language except English in government proceedings. The demagogic use of immigrant bashing by figures in both major parties was also on marchers' minds.

Pete Wilson, governor of California, based his short-lived campaign for the Republican nomination for president on an evil and vicious campaign against immigrants. As well as leading the fight against affirmative action, he spearheaded the successful effort to pass a referendum in 1994 that cut back services to immigrants. Parts of that referendum have been declared unconstitutional in the courts, but when Clinton signed the Republican-sponsored law to repeal welfare, which cuts off benefits to even so-called legal immigrants, he chortled that this invalidated the court findings, and has proceeded to move against giving any services to undocumented workers and their children.

One aspect of Wilson's offensive was his announcement that California will soon cut off prenatal care to undocumented workers. Community health clinics in Latino areas report that, after the announcement, pregnant women without papers suddenly stopped coming to the clinics. Some of them will go to the hospital emergency rooms, doctors say, when they are due. But the lack of prenatal care will inevitably mean the babies' health will suffer and there will be more children born with birth defects.

The debate has just begun over immigrants' access to other public health and safety benefits, like the services that help control the spread of infectious diseases. If this is eliminated, then not only will immigrants suffer, but everyone will be placed in greater danger.

The march, which had been planned for three years, took place just as new government reports indicate that poverty among Hispanics has grown. For the first time, the percentage of Latinos living below the official poverty level is the same as for blacks, about 30%. The repeal of the federal welfare program will hit all Latinos hard, whether they are citizens or not.

It is also noteworthy that the march occurred during the presidential election campaign. During most such campaigns protests usually don't occur at all, or they are small, as activists tend to fall in behind the Democrats and seek to avoid "embarrassing" them by putting them on the spot. That this was not a factor on October 12 is another indication of the developing mood towards independence from the two parties.