On Being Black at a Latino March


At Monday’s “Dia Sin Inmigrantes/Day Without Immigrants” march in San Francisco, I saw a beautiful, exciting and hopeful vision of the future of this country. I also caught a glimpse of a familiar past, fading away. And I shed a few tears for both.

From the moment I boarded the BART car, I knew this May Day march and rally would differ from the Bay Area’s usual protest fare. The trains headed into downtown San Francisco were filled with working-class Latinos, all wearing white; most had kids in tow. There were few protest signs or banners, but the stars and stripes were everywhere. One tyke on my train kept trying to poke his cousin with a little American flag.

Some of the teeniest kids were wearing their older sibling’s white T-shirts with their shirt hems hanging down past their knees. The children were all well- scrubbed and happy … and very proud.

So were their parents. They knew they were part of something new, and big, and promising.

The bright mood contrasted starkly with the dreary atmosphere that chokes most protests nowadays. On this march, I saw no resigned shuffling of already defeated feet. No sea of scowls. No pierced tongues, screaming. Nor could I spy a single person dragging behind her the weighty conviction that resistance — though obligatory — was futile.

To the contrary. Beaming, brown-skinned families walked off those trains with their heads held high. Sure, they may have been poor, facing tough challenges in the near term. But they stepped like they were marching into a future of limitless promise and potential.

Their optimism brought tears to my eyes. And not only for the obvious reasons.

Deep inside, I was grieving for my own people. I wished that my beloved African-American community had managed, somehow, to retain our own sparkling sense of faith in a magnificent future. There was once a time when we, too, marched forward together, filled with utter confidence in the new day dawning.  There was a time when we, too, believed that America’s tomorrow held something bright for us … and for our children.

But those dreams have been eaten away by the AIDS virus, laid off by down-sizers, locked out by smiling bigots, shot up by gang-bangers and buried in a corporate-run prison yard. Now we cling to Black History Month for validation or inspiration. That’s because Black Present Moment is so depressing — with worse, almost certainly, on the way.

When Katrina’s floodwaters washed our problems back onto the front pages, the once-mighty Black Freedom Movement could not rise even to that occasion. Our legendary “movement” has collapsed, fallen apart. It is now a hollowed-out shell — with our “spokespersons,” both young and old, trying somehow to live off our past glories.

Meanwhile, the white-shirted future was pouring itself down Market Street, chanting “Si, se puede!”

My feelings of solidarity quickly trumped my sorrows. Thousands of people were standing up, here and across the United States, for their right to live and work in dignity in this country. Deep in my bones, I felt their pain, knew their hopes and affirmed their dreams. And just as non-blacks had supported our freedom movement in the last century, I was determined, as a non- immigrant, to give my passionate support to this righteous cause.

So I joined the crowds in the street, trying to add my voice to the thunderous chants. But I quickly discovered that, good intentions notwithstanding, political solidarity is sometimes more easily felt than expressed.

My fellow marchers started roaring out: “Zapata! Vive! La lucha! Sigue!”

I was like, Huh? What?

“Zapata! Vive! La lucha! Sigue!”

Say what?

Then louder, faster: “LaLuchaSigueSigue! ZapataViveVive! LaLuchaSigueSigue! ZapataViveVive!”

Bewildered, but undeterred, I got myself a “chant sheet.” I figured that I could use one of the official written guides to keep me in the know and on track.
Sure enough, the handy leaflet spelled everything out very clearly: “Las Calles Son Del Pueblo! El Pueblo Donde Esta? El Pueblo Esta En Las Calles, Exigiendo Libertad!”

Unfortunately, those words looked precisely like alphabet soup to me. I found myself desperately trying to remember back to 11th grade, wondering what sound an “x” makes in Spanish.

Finally, I had to face the sad truth: I had B.S.-ed my way through all my high school and college language requirements. I had to admit that Mrs. Savage (from fourth-period Espanol) had been right, after all: I really hadn’t cheated anyone but myself.

Now I had to accept the miserable results: as an utterly monolingual English speaker, I wasn’t even knowledgeable enough about the Spanish language to shout out simple phrases, during most of the protest.

Okay, I told myself. Fine. I decided instead to just walk cheerfully along, clapping in time with the drummers. But even some of the Latin rhythms were unfamiliar, strangely syncopated. I couldn’t always find the beat, despite my best efforts. (Suddenly, I was filled with love and sympathy for all those arhythmic white folks whom I used to make fun of at black rallies, parties and churches. I am so sorry, y’all!)

Well, needless to say, I was on the verge of giving up. Then I found a solution: I would simply listen for any chant that had the word “Viva!” in it. For some reason, there were lots of chants with that word in it. And then, whenever appropriate, I would just raise my fist and shout “Viva!” along with the crowd, as loud as I could.

And that was pretty much all I could do. I did it for a few hours, then went home. I hope it was enough. Because, despite feeling somewhat out of place, I was absolutely thrilled to see my sisters and brothers taking the future into their own hands. By simply standing up for their own kids and grandparents — for their own dignity and futures — activist Latinos today are pulling the nation to a higher level of fairness and inclusion.

They are posing a simple and devastating question: should U.S. society continue to profit from the labor of 11 million people — many of whom pick our fruit, nurse our children, clean our workplaces — without embracing them fully, without honoring their work, without extending to them the same rights and respect we would want for ourselves?

Can we countenance or tolerate a Jim Crow system — in brown-face — with a shunned tier of second-class workers, enriching society but lacking legal status and protections?

Or are we willing to change our laws, and change our hearts, to embrace those upon whom our economy has come to rest? This is a simple moral challenge. The right answers are not easy, but they are obvious.

I know there will be a backlash (there always is when people push for fairness), even coming from some black folks. But I also know that the Latino-led struggle for justice and inclusion offers hope to all of us. A national conversation about the true meaning of dignity, equality, opportunity and fair play in the modern economy can ultimately benefit every American community.

I am confident that it will. Because during the two prior centuries, it was the African-American community that performed this service for the country. And we paid a high and awful cost in blood and martyrs. Unfortunately, we did not achieve all of our aims. But we did tear apartheid from pages of U.S. law books. And in the course of that struggle, we improved the lot of all Americans; expanding social programs, democratic rights and social tolerance for all people. And our efforts opened the doors for today’s equality struggles. Our marching feet moved the whole nation forward.

I cannot help but mourn the loss of a black community strong enough to put this nation on its back, and carry it forward, step by step, toward justice … as we once did. But my pain only amplifies and underscores my joy that this marvelous new force has arisen, one that is capable — in this tough, new era — of deepening and extending the struggle to transform and redeem.

Strong brown hands have grabbed hold of the U.S. flag. They are pulling it away from those who have monopolized it, from bullies who have abused the nation’s symbols for their violent and illegitimate ends.

I am glad. Because only a mass movement with broad shoulders — and rough hands — will have the power to win the coming tug-of-war for the heart and soul of this country. The Latino community has birthed just such a movement. If history is any guide, as Latinos and other immigrant communities raise core questions about their children’s access to education, health care, jobs and safety, every American community will benefit hugely from their efforts. Including my own.

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