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Blowing Their Own Horn

Shortly after arriving at the Arizona State Fairgrounds on the day of the march for immigration reform, I heard a sharp, mournful noise rise above the crowd that was gathering around the bandstand. It was 10:00 a.m., three hours before the march to the State Capitol was scheduled to begin. Some 15,000 people were already showing. Apart from a few red-shirted volunteers, who were handing out stickers that read "We Are America--Somos America!", all were Latino. About one-quarter were children, many young enough to be in arms or strollers. The mood had been upbeat, but that sound--halfway between a groan and a boo--made me wonder if it were about to turn ugly.

I decided to investigate. After dodging a dozen toddlers, I reached the middle of the crowd and saw a wiry Latino, about forty years old, holding a long, twisted animal horn. He placed it to his lips and blew. Out came the very sound that had frightened me.

"What is that thing?" I asked.

Seeing me, the man looked startled, then replied: "It's a horn! From"--he paused--"A ram! From Israel."

"A shofar, you mean?"

"Yes! A shofar!"

The man said his name was Raul and that he wasn't Jewish, but he appeared not to understand my other questions. As I made my way toward the press table, it struck me that his horn solo was the only sour note I'd heard so far. Throughout the crowd, images of Zapata and Villa were out. White t-shirts and white ribbons were in. Here and there was a Mexican tricolor, but fully one-third of the crowd was displaying the Stars and Stripes. Some flags were small enough to rest in a stand by a cash register, others large enough to fly from a warship. One man was waving a ten-by-ten bolt of cloth on which the stars-and-stripes design had been printed in repeatedly in miniature.

To say that immigration had become a hot issue for Arizonans would be a little like saying that Phoenix is hot. With the Border Patrol stepping up security along Mexico's borders with California and Texas, increasing numbers of undocumented would-be immigrants were choosing to cross somewhere in Arizona's vast, bleak Sonora Desert. As a result, the number of undocumented immigrants in the state had grown to an estimated 500,000. Drug caches worth tens of millions of dollars were being found in Douglas and Bisbee. Non-English-speaking students were blamed for flummoxing the state's education system. While the Minutemen manned the borders, the Arizona state legislature introduced bills that would have subjected undocumented immigrants to prosecution for felony trespassing.

Things came to a head on March 24th, 2006. As the U.S. Senate Judiciary Comittee prepared to consider HR 4437, whose most controversial item would have criminalized providing undocumented immigrants with even humanitarian aid, 20,000 protesters took to the streets of central Phoenix. Traffic had shut down. Scuffles with police had been reported. Mexican flags were raised everywhere; one was burned at Apache Junction High School.

As Arizonans were driven, increasingly, to opposing poles of black--or rather, brown--and white, I hovered in the middle, sort of a political mestizo. One on hand, my views were generally conservative--the idea of securing our borders against drug runners and terrorists sounded just fine to me. On the other hand, my mother taught English to West Africans who had fled their war-torn homelands in search of political asylum. Many still lacked any official diplomatic status. Had HR 4437 passed, my mother, the most gratingly decent person I have ever met, would have been no better in the eyes of the law than the meth addict who knocks over a bodega. Hearing my friends speak with unabashed glee at "rounding the bastards up" disturbed me.

At the press table, I met Mercedes Mercado-Ochoa, spokeswoman for Unidos en Arizona An energetic, maternal woman in her late fifties, she was laughing and fanning herself, having just gotten a small group to stop chanting "Si, se puede!" for a Channel 33 camera crew while "The Star-Spangled Banner" was being sung from the bandstand. "Yes, everyone's very respecful and respectable," she said. "We don't want to turn anybody off."

It was a strategy whose value the UEA had learned the hard way--it had also organized the March 24th demonstrations--and seen the reputation of immigrants sink further as a result. Resolving to change tone completely, it advised marchers, through allied groups including union locals and Mary's ministries, to wear white t-shirts, carry American flags, refrain from confrontational behavior--and pick up all garbage.

Judging by the messages on the picket signs, their efforts had paid off. "Ame su vecino como uno mismo--Jesus" ("Love thy neighbor as thyself--Jesus") had apparenty been mass-produced and -distrbuted. Other signs, like the one asking God, in English, to bless the United States and the U.S. Senate, were clearly unique but still emphatically nonthreatening. From groups of four and five--rarely larger--I heard the chant "Si, se puede!" ("Yes, we can!") in a tone fit for a church softball match. From the bandstand, one of the emcees called for the marchers to applaud "our non Spanish-speaking friends." The cheers that followed sounded sincere, if a bit formal.

Though the march was planned to coincide with a Valleywide walkout of Latino workers, the goal, Mercado-Ochoa said, was to show Anglos that undocumented immigrants are not alien invaders, but vital players in the local economy.

"Go to any restaurant in Scottsdale," added Arif Kazmi of the Asian American Association, a native of Pakistan who speaks with a faintly Etonian accent and illustrates his points with rather un-Etonian gestures. "You won't get served. All the kitchen help will be right here."

Kazmi, a retired civil engineer who still acts as a consultant to the City of Phoenix, had been a U.S. citizen for over thirty years. He appreciated the need for a border. "If you don't want people in this country, then by all means, keep them out." But he believed the process of applying for residency and citizenship was unnecessarily complicated and often badly handled. His own daughter-in-law had been forced to reapply for residency after she'd been married to a citizen for years. "Such botheration is unnecessary. If people get into this country, by hook or by crook, then make it as easy as possible for them to stay."

Kazmi introduced me to the Reverend Gene Lefebvre, a pastor in Phoenix's United Church of Christ. Lefebvre, scheduled to speak later at the State Capitol, volunteers for No More Deaths--No Mas Muertes, an organization that provides medical aid to would-be immigrants who fall sick or run out of water in the Sonora desert, which straddles Arizona's border with Mexico. "Each year, 300 people die crossing that border. Many of them are simply abandoned by the coyotes. We go out there in teams--if the crossers show themselves, we know they're in trouble. We give them food and water. If they want to go back, we call the Border Patrol. If not, we leave them."

Last year, two NMD volunteers were arrested and charged with conspiring to transport three illegal entrants into the United States. NMD claims that the volunteers were bringing the entrants to a hospital in Tucson--something the Border Patrol had previously permitted them to do. Prosecutors claim that the entrants were not sick enough to require emergency medical care. "Two kids in their early twenties facing federal felony charges. They could end up doing fifteen years. This whole business of criminalizing immigrants and people who try to help them is politically stupid," Lefebvre said, shaking his head.

Heading down the midway, I passed a long table, shaded by a tent, where twenty red-shirted volunteers were coaching marchers through voter registration forms. They appeared to be doing a brisk business. One Asian woman was rapping out sharply, "Write your last name here! Now your first name! Street address! Mailing address! Phone number! Mother's maiden name!" Later, I asked her how many new voters she had registered. "Maybe twenty, she answered." "It's hard to tell. It takes a long time because we always ask for two pieces of ID."

Over the past hour the crowd had more than trebled. The area by the voter registration table had become so clogged with marchers that I could not take more than a step without excusing myself. Ducking into one of the exhibition halls off the midway, I collapsed into a folding chair. A tiny, heavy-bosomed Latina caught my eye, waved, and held up a sign. Written on it in blue marker was the chorus to Jesus Jones' "Right Here, Right Now."

I was alive and I waited waited
I was alive and I waited for this
Right here, right now, there is no other place I want to be
Right here, right now, watching the world wake up from history

"What do you think?" She asked, introducing herself as Diana. "I can't remember the name of the band who sang it, but it was about the Berlin Wall coming down. That's what this feels like to me: history."

Diana described herself as a "restaurant worker" from central Phoenix. She'd been born in the United States, but her parents--here she introduced me to two silver-haired seniors, their faces brown and lined as walnuts, who nodded in greeting--had come from Mexico.

"This is not just a Mexican issue," Diana said with a professional spokeswoman's flair. "We're from Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Ecuador. A lot of the people here have never protested before--where they come from, it isn't allowed or wouldn't do any good. The mood's very hopeful." She herself had come here with her boss's blessing. "Most people know that all we want to do is work."

I checked the time: it was 12:45. The march was supposed to begin in fifteen minutes. Wishing Diana and her parents good luck, I stepped back into the fresh air. In the short time I'd been gone, the crowd had formed into a single broad column. Marchers stood still, each separated from the other by barely more than a foot. I looked ahead, toward McDowell Road--then back, toward the parking lot. The column seemed to have neither beginning nor end. The organizers of the march had promised to produce 100,000 marchers. From what I could see, they had exceeded that number by half.

A nortenos band on the platform struck up "De Colores," a popular mariachi song, whose lyrics told of people marching with banners and winning freedom. Whole rows took up the chorus and swaying. I squeezed into the crowd, about twenty rows back from the gate that led onto McDowell Road, and eventually took my place behind a man carrying a preschool-aged daughter on his shoulders and in front of a chubby boy banging on a snare drum.

Finally, the column began, at the rate of one row every minute, to file out through the gate and onto McDowell Road, where volunteers in yellow shirts marshaled it onto Grand Avenue. Fanning out to fill the street, it took up a pace between a stroll and a march. The chanting--"Si, se puede!" and "Hoy marchamos, manana votamos!" ("Today we march, tomorrow we vote!) was strong, but still less martial by far than "Let's go, Rangers!" during a slow night at the Garden. Every hundred yards or, a Phoenix policeman sat astride a motorcycle. All of them looked frankly bored. "How many people do you think are marching?" I asked one. "Dunno," he yawned. "I lost count at five."

Both sidewalks facing Grand Avenue were clogged with Latinos, most of them wearing white shirts like the marchers. The welding yards looked to be closed; the bars and Rodriguez's Boxing Club were open. Volunteers passed out bottles of water donated by local businesses, while other volunteers collected the spent bottles in ten-gallon trash bags. Having run out of cigarettes, I scanned the crowd for a sympathetic fellow smoker, but saw none. No one, either among the marchers or the well-wishers, was smoking. Unidos en Arizona's pleas for good behavior were being answered to a fault.

Dense as the crowd was, I found myself jostling a fellow marcher every few minutes. On seeing I was a gabacho, Latinos looked startled first, then curious. Then, abruptly, they turned away. Knowing fewer than four hundred words of Spanish--most of them dirty--I hesitated to strike up conversation. Just as we were passing Mel's Diner--the very one where Flo bid patrons kiss her grits--I spotted a young Anglo woman in the crowd and rushed to introduce myself. Her name was Sunshine. A behavioral health therapist from Flagstaff, she'd made the five-hour drive to Phoenix that very morning, and would drive back as soon as the march ended. She had been committed to immigration issues ever since she moved from what she called "the white Midwest" to Yuma, where she'd taught math to the children of migrant cabbage-pickers.

"The kids would come to school exhausted," said Sunshine. "Either they worked themselves, or their parents worked, which meant they had to spend evenings taking care of their younger brothers and sisters. They almost had time to sit down and study. Plus, they traveled all the time, from Yuma to California to Mexico and back again. Whatever--I adjusted, worked on my Spanish, and did what I could for them. But after three years I was completely burnt out."

Sunshine showed me photographs she'd taken with her digital camera. "To get the sweep of the crowd, I had to hold the thing over my head and aim downward," she said. Each of the photos did show an apparently endless funnel of humanity. Everywhere against the white of the marchers' shirts and the white of the sky leaped out the red and blue of the American flags.

Sunshine laughed, shook her head, and laughed again. "Whoever color-coordinated this thing made a great call."

After we'd covered a mile, Grand Avenue merged with 7th Avenue and the scenery changed from shabby industrial to gleaming corporate. Under the cluster of skyscrapers that gives Phoenix its only claim to a skyline, we began, for the first time that day, to encounter large groups of Anglos. Standing on the sidewalk behind the yellow tape barricade set up by police, they were dressed business-casual and had the appearance of office workers on a late lunch break. Their expressions were hard to read. They appeared neither sympathetic nor hostile, simply bemused, as though their opinions on immigration were frozen by the sight of such a monstrously big group. The marchers grinned, raised their flags a little higher, and chanted "Si, se puede!"

After the crowd had made its second right turn, onto Washington street, marchers began falling out. They filled the sidewalks, talking on cell phones and eating bag lunches while leaning on parking meters and squatting in doorways while employees of the Fox network stared down from the roof of their headquarters as though waiting to be airlifted to some quieter place. The marchers looked tired and elated. I made it as far as Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, a clean-cut grassy square just below the State Capitol, before collapsing. After I'd drunk the last of my water and pulled a stone out of my shoe, I turned around and headed back.

Having regained Grand Avenue, I saw--or rather, heard then looked up to see--a tall marcher playing a trumpet. With great brio, and no small degree of skill, he tootled out "The Star-Spangled Banner," holding the final note an extra few seconds and letting it die gradually. Then, with a notch greater brio, he launched into "La Cucaracha," adding mariachi-style flourishes. His fellow marchers cheered, though for which song, I couldn't say.

4 Comments On This Entry

Wow! That was interesting Mooga. I'm going to have to digest this for a little while before responding. I do however have a couple of questions to ask you right now. How many of them do you think were illegals? Were most of them unable to speak English?

Congratulations on your new blog. I look forward to reading much more of your writings. :salute:
I am not in a state where I can read this with a clear mind, but I am glad I know about it and look forward to visiting your blog when I can read, understand, process, and discuss your posts with you.
Yaay Mooga! :salute:
Wow, that's a lot of information to take in.

I am looking forward to more of your take on this, as we are looking to move to the Tucson area this fall and I have some concerns over what is going on down there, politically and in terms of what it would mean for schooling and such for my daughter. Glad you're around to keep us informed!

Mooga - That was beautifully written. Your words paint a very vivid and powerful picture. I know you have somewhat mixed feelings on the issue -- understandably so.

It sounds as though the marchers took pains to convey their message peacefully. I am wondering, though --did you get a sense as to what their ultimate message is? "Yes, we can." Yes we can what? What is your sense as to what they actually want?

P.S. I thought you gave up the smoking?! :rolleyes:

Thank you, Jax (and everyone) for reviewing my article so generously. Since this is the first time in years I've tried to write anything like a polished piece, I'm relieved to know it didn't put anyone to sleep.

To answer your question, I think the march organizers chose "Yes, we can!" as their slogan because it was vague enough to apply to any programme. It could just as easily mean "Yes, we can get amnesty" as "Yes, we can pay our back taxes, learn English, and become citizens." I should have done more research on the organizations sponsoring the march, but there are so many of them. Probably, each constituent organization has involved itself in immigration reform for its own reasons, and therefore has its own distinct agenda. It may only have been the drastic, imminent threat posed by HR 4437 that made them work together. Anyway, the next time I try my hand at reportage (which I intend will be soon), I will force myself to do more homework.

New blog entry to come some time in the next couple of days! Sorry to make everyone wait!
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