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Students play a major role at historic Latino march on Washington

by Roberto Rodriguez

College and university students were a major force at the first-ever national civil and human rights rally to concentrate on Latino issues. The two-day event, which included a march and a student conference, was held in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

 

Leticia Villareal, a student at Vassar and the administrative chair of East Coast Chicano Student Forum (ECCSF), said: “Latinos were finally given a voice that was heard on the front pages of The Washington Post. I had a lot of pride in seeing a lot of brown people around me marching for justice. It was incredible. “

 

The October 12 rally brought Latinos from across the nation to protest the anti-immigrant legislation and sentiment sweeping the country. According to most observers, at least half of the tens of thousands of protesters were students.

 

Although they mostly came from California, Texas! Michigan, Illinois and New York, virtually every state of the union was represented. In fact, the travel aspect of the event was all the more significant because Washington is so far from where the majority of the nation’s Latino population live. Census data shows that most of the nation’s 30 million Latinos live in the southwestern states of California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.

 

As the three-mile march snaked through Washington’s Latino barrio, one could see the surge in pride in the eyes of its residents. One could also sense that no longer would Latinos, locally or nationally, remain silent about the anti-immigrant sentiment they face and no longer would they consider this nation’s capital as an alien country.

 

The event was sponsored by Coordinadora ’96. which presented a seven-point platform to address concerns of the nation’s Latino population. The platform included:

 

Amnesty for undocumented immigrants who entered before 1992 and acceleration of the naturalization process;

 

Enforcement of labor laws and a $7 minimum wage;

Establishment of civilian police review boards;

 

Health care for all;

 

Quality education for all;

 

Equal opportunity for all and support for affirmative action; and

 

Human and constitutional rights for all.

 

Against all odds and lacking a tradition of national marches in the nation’s capital, Coordinadora ’96–made up of human, civil and immigrant rights organizations–organized the march without the support of most major national Latino civil rights organizations. In fact, despite a unanimous–but late–endorsement from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, only four legislators spoke at the event: Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; Rep. Nydia Velasquez (D-N.Y.); Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.); and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.).

 

Prayer and Pilgrimage

 

While the march was billed as a Latino and immigrant event, it was more than that. It was a day which celebrated the fruits and labor of men and women who pick crops! place food on our tables, clean offices, tend to other people’s children–people who help sustain our nation’s infrastructure and economy) Most people also saw it as a prayer and pilgrimage.

 

Itzel Andrea Salazar was one of the coordinators of the ECCSF conference which was held at Georgetown University on Oct. 13. Of the previous day’s events, he said, “It was march of solidarity and reaffirmation. It was spiritual and it touched peoples hearts. It has inspired me to go forward.”

 

The day began with a prayer in front of the Benito Juarez statue in Washington, D.C. Juarez was the only full-blooded Native-American president in the history of Mexico (or any other government). The prayer, which was held at daybreak and began with the beat of a sacred drum, served as a reminder that it is not Latinos–many of whom who can trace their Native-American ancestry thousands of years on this continent–who are this nation’s real immigrants.

 

During the prayer, Nathan Phillips of the Omaha Nation noted, with irony, that it is people of European extraction who are most loudly questioning the right of those who are anciently connected to this continent to share in the bounty of their own ancestral lands.

 

While marchers and students at the ECCSF conference took Phillips’s words to heart, the major media did not report that message. Instead, they focused simply on the immigration debate and its attendant legislation. The media concerned itself with numbers and polls and generally missed the “soul” of the march.

 

The sea of mostly brown faces waved flags from all of the Americas. Banners flew from organizations such as the Mexican Students of Aztlan from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) from universities across the country. The one which seemed to most encapsulate their spirit said: “We didn’t cross the borders. The borders crossed us.”

 

“As I was walking to the park, there was this nervous excitement, seeing flags from all over the world,” said Villareal.

 

Too Many Answer Conference Call

 

Almost one thousand participants attended the conference sponsored by ECCSF, an East-Coast organization of approximately thirty colleges and universities. However, because of limited facilities, many students were turned away. As Frank Arrellano, president of Georgetown MEChA, noted: “For every one of us here, fifty of us couldn’t make it. Our objective now is to channel [energy] to our communities and to the country.”

 

The purpose of the conference, titled “Proactive Latino Leadership for the 21st Century,” was to move beyond anger to an analysis of problems that afflict the Latino community and to focus on solutions. In an analysis of the march at the conference, students attributed the lack of support from the national organizations and the politicians to a generation gap.

Some found it bothersome that other congressional representatives did not speak, particularly those from California. Conference participants speculated that the reason Latino politicians stayed away from the event was that they did not want to be associated with “illegal aliens” and that some did not want to damage the president’s reelection chances by being closely associated with the issue.

 

Additionally, many of the students felt there were a number of shortcomings. While viewing the march as inspirational, Adriana Cadena, a senior at Georgetown, said: “As happens in Latino culture, women’s issues were marginalized. Women’s issues are seen as private, not public. I would have also have liked to have seen more emphasis on student/youth issues.”

 

Participants also engaged in discussions of recent anti-immigrant legislation, which has gone beyond targeting undocumented immigrants and now affects permanent residents. The recent welfare bill prohibits permanent residents from receiving welfare. Recent proposals have also called for overturning the 14th Amendment–which guarantees birthright citizenship.

 

Another discussion was held regarding the recent Hopwood v. the State of Texas decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals which ordered the University of Texas law school to end its affirmative action program. J.T.

 

Gonzales and Robert Garza of the University of Texas-Austin stated that the University of Texas has always been segregated and continues to be segregated today, necessitating the remedy of affirmative action. They also noted that the court decision did not call for an end to alumni preference admissions, which some say is a continuation of old discriminatory patterns. “People are frustrated because it’s a white defense team that’s defending the university,” said Garza, who does not believe that they represent the interests of people of color.

 

Gonzales and Garza both said they are bothered by the fact that most discussions of Hopwood focus on the effect on African Americans. when the decision also affects Asians, Native Americans, and Texas’s most prominent minority, Mexican Americans. They say Hopwood has caused genuine fear and has united students of color like no other issue before.

 

Terms such as pride, rebirth, renaissance, passion, love and unity were used repeatedly by conferees to describe the way they felt about the two-day event. Veronica Narvaez, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison summed it Up: “By this, some people’s dreams were fulfilled–and other people’s nightmares.”

 

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