POSADAS, Argentina – I had almost forgotten that today was Labor Day – which is celebrated on May 1 here in Latin America, rather than in September. Here Labor Day, or Dia de los Trabajadores – Day of the Workers – is much more of a rallying event for the working class, a concept foreign to most Americans these days, even as our own labor movement seems to fade into the sunset.
At any rate, it’s not Labor Day here, so I wished my family a happy holiday online and headed for the central plaza to find a bank to change my money. It was my first day in Argentina, having crossed the border from Paraguay last night. In any new city here in Latin America, the Plaza de Armas is always my first stop – or, as my host corrected me, the “centro,” as it’s called here in Argentina. Here in Posadas it’s also known as the 9th of July Plaza – the day commemorating Argentine independence.
“”Plaza de Armas’ is so Latin American!” he teased me. “Argentines don’t really think of themselves as Latin Americans.”
“Of course you don’t,” I joked right back. “But naming your plazas and your streets for dates is so Latin American!”
“Really?” That stopped him.
So I headed down to the Centro, where the day’s activities underscored what my host had told me. There in the center of the very Latin American 9th of July Plaza, under the palms and brightly blooming lapacho trees, a ceremony was taking place. A brass band was filling out the bandstand, a crowd filled out the space and several rows of immigration officers stood at attention as a woman spoke from the stage.
Wait – immigration officers?
“What’s going on here?” I asked an official-looking man standing at the back of the crowd.
“It’s a ceremony to honor the immigrants,” he told me – and it was then that I saw his jersey was emblazoned with the insignia of the national immigration service. “Today is National Immigrant Day.”
How appropriate, I thought, reflecting on the current situation for those who form the sturdy backbone of our national labor force, toiling on our farms and in our sweatshops and meat-packing plants in jobs most U.S. citizens don’t want. I tried to imagine a National Immigrant Day in the United States, and I was having a hard time of it.
I moved up to the front to get a better view, and an official-looking woman was reading a proclamation about what a gift the immigrant community had given to this country by making the decision to become citizens; they had shared their lives, their energy, and the colorful and rich tapestry of their various cultures and traditions, she was saying.
Standing behind her was a row of schoolchildren dressed in traditional costumes from different lands; a Paraguayan Guarani in red robes, a gaucho in white poncho and loose gaucho pants, a German in lederhosen, a Heidi-like Swiss girl with braids.
Clearly the European cultures were more numerous than the indigenous ones – an accurate representation of Argentina’s past, but not so accurate in terms of the contemporary scene, where hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of undocumented Bolivian, Peruvian and Paraguayan immigrants toil in subhuman conditions – as do undocumented immigrants throughout the developed world.
Argentina is not known for its kindness to South American immigrants, any more than the United States is, and friends from Peru and Paraguay had shared harrowing stories with me about the treatment of their kin in Argentina. But like the United States, Argentina is a country of immigrants – and this was the most interesting acknowledgement of that fact that I’d ever seen.
I looked on as the dignitaries of the city called out the names of immigrants who had resided here for 50 years or more. The list went on and on as elders from Brazil, Paraguay, Spain, France, Eastern Europe and the Middle East stepped forward proudly, dressed in their most elegant dresses and most dapper suits, to receive their certificates and words of thanks from the city leaders for their years of service to their country.
The list went on and on. I went to change money at the bank and it was still going on when I came back. Photographs were being taken; the band was playing a medley of styles from Bolivia, Paraguay, Spain and France.
I thought again of the immigrants in my own country who, amid a rising wave of suspicion and anti-immigrant sentiment, are being stopped and questioned, asked for their documents and sent back home by the busloads. Immigrants who have risked everything – their family’s savings, and indeed their lives – to lay a claim to the American dream.
I thought of the 72 immigrants from all over Latin America whose bodies were recently found in the Mexican desert, slain by the Zetas, a particularly bloodthirsty mafia, for their refusal to serve as drug traffickers. A chilling reminder that the vast majority of our undocumented immigrants are not, in fact, criminals – just hardworking people who want a chance at a decent life.
Of course, the immigrants being honored here today were fine upstanding citizens – not the destitute and desperate refugees of an economic system that had failed them in so many ways that they were willing to play the Russian roulette of human trafficking.
Or were they?
A tiny Brazilian woman with stooped and shrunken frame made her way to the front with the help of a cane. The city officials towered over her as she reached up to take her certificate. I wondered: Were her documents in order as she came across the border in the 1950s or ’60s? For that matter, were my great grandfather’s documents when he came over to the United States from Germany a century before?
All that aside, these are tough times for the millions of legal, documented immigrants in both countries who face increasing scrutiny in the heightened mood of xenophobia that typically accompanies an economic downturn.
Tonight’s news showed festive multicultural ceremonies all over the country, featuring folkloric dances, music and food from many countries. How I’d love to see this celebration play out on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
A day of pomp and circumstance can’t take back the sting of an unjust economic system that leaves billions at the mercy of a cosmic lottery. But it can inspire a mood of reflection and recognition, something that is sorely lacking in our national dialog on this day of labor – and of immigrants.
Tracy L. Barnett is a freelance writer and the founder of The Esperanza Project, an online web magazine featuring Latin American environmental leaders. She is currently traveling in Latin America researching environmental issues for the website and for a book.