A Day Without Immigrants in Santa Barbara
by Ethan Stewart
The heart and soul of the South Coast came out in full force this week as the largest public demonstration in the history of Santa Barbara hit the streets for a celebration of immigrants’ rights. As part of the nationwide A Day Without Immigrants rally, more than 20,000 men, women, and children — a vast majority of them Latino — made their way up State Street on Monday afternoon dressed in white, waving American flags, toting signs and banners with headlines like “No Immigrants No Business,” banging drums, and chanting the uplifting rallying cry of the day, “¡Si, se peude!” (“Yes, we can!”). The “legal” and “illegal” masses continued on to the Santa Barbara Courthouse Sunken Gardens for a late afternoon rally where an array of speakers — flanked by portraits of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara and the Lady of Guadalupe — delivered messages of hope and solidarity. Speakers promised politicians and the certifiable sea of families, farmworkers, landscapers, painters, carpenters, dishwashers, cooks, laborers, professionals, paralegals, and students in attendance that “¡Hoy marchamos! ¡Mañana votamos!” (“Today we march! Tomorrow we vote!”). But it was Daraka Larimore Hall, the local leader of the labor movement and a city Parks and Recreation Department commissioner, who perhaps best summed up the Mexican and American pride of the occasion when he cried out to the audience, “This flag [the American flag] is never more beautiful and never more meaningful than when it’s in the hands of people fighting for their rights and fighting for their dignity. This is our country. … We are not criminals; we are workers!”
At the root of Monday’s protests was the radical Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigrant Control Act HR 4437 — a beast of federal legislation that aims to make felons out of first-time border jumpers and anybody who gives them aid, while also calling for the construction of a 750-mile wall along much of the U.S.-Mexico border and putting the burden of enforcement on local police forces. Already approved by the House of Representatives last December, the bill met hostile bipartisan opposition in the Senate last month (President George W. Bush himself remarked that it would be unrealistic to try to deport all of the nation’s undocumented foreign workers), but is set to be revisited sometime next week. Looking to seize the opportunity, local organizations like PUEBLO (People United for Economic Justice Building Leadership through Organizing) and LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) — working in the same vein as similar-minded groups across the nation — chose May 1 as the designated day to flex the power of our nation’s vast immigrant community. And while the rally at the courthouse was certainly a dramatic crescendo, it was only one part of an entire day of far-reaching political activity and protest.
As dawn broke on Monday, a standard-issue springtime fog covered Santa Barbara, though it became increasingly apparent that this day would be far from business as usual. The typically brake-light-choked commute on Highway 101 was smooth sailing for motorists headed in all directions. From Jack in the Box on Milpas to Joe’s Bar on State Street to Foodland on the Westside, dozens of local businesses and restaurants hung closed/cerrado signs in their windows out of respect for “Immigrant Rights” or simply because of, as a sign at Washington Mutual Bank lamented, “staffing issues.” The labor line on Yanonali Street, which is normally several hundred Latinos strong on any given Monday, was a ghost town at 8 a.m. Empty seats reigned supreme during roll call at local schools as more than one-third of the entire Santa Barbara School Districts’ student body didn’t show up for school May 1, with hundreds more walking out mid-morning to join an eight-school student-led demonstration at City Hall. All told, 5,586 students were marked absent, including more than 60 percent of the kids at Franklin, Harding, and McKinley elementary schools, as well as La Cumbre Junior High. Similarly, schools in both Lompoc and Carpinteria reported nearly a third of their pupils absent. By 9 a.m., more than an hour before the day’s first march was meant to begin, the power of the people was being felt across the entire county; at the courthouse rally former city councilmember Babatunde Folayemi said, “This is the most beautiful day I have seen in Santa Barbara. We are making history!”
The first significant march began at 10:30 a.m. as a closely knit, smile-filled parade of more than 2,000 Latino workers walked in an orderly fashion from La Casa de la Raza on Montecito Street to Milpas Street and then down to the waterfront and on to the amphitheater at Cabrillo Park, where the throng grew in excess of 3,000. An extensive but informal survey of the crowd suggested that virtually all of the marchers lived in the City of Santa Barbara. While gardeners were the largest single group represented, there were also large contingents of restaurant employees, construction workers, mechanics, hotel workers, and nursing assistants, with men outnumbering women by nearly 10 to 1. While the Santa Barbara Contractors Association held a members-only golf tournament, several Latino employers did personally participate in the morning march with many more helping out behind the scenes by giving permission to their employees to take the day off. A few of the marching business owners — Juan Peralta of Peralta Trucking and Francisco Tellez of Andro Auto Sound, for example — actually gave their employees the day off with pay. “These people give me more money,” said Peralta. The general consensus among the morning marchers — and again echoed in the afternoon by the State Street demonstrators — was that what they want most, besides an easier path to citizenship, is to be able to travel back and forth more easily to Mexico to visit family. Simply put, while long hours of work and crowded living conditions in the U.S. may equal homes and financial support for families in Mexico, the men and women living here rarely get to enjoy these gains and often go years without seeing aunts and uncles, grandparents, parents, and children.
The second major event of the day concluded around 1 p.m. as a procession of several hundred students converged on City Hall. Despite the urgings last week from Superintendent Brian Sarvis that students stay in school, dozens of teenagers — some from as far away as San Marcos High in Goleta — made the trek by foot to downtown Santa Barbara. Escorted by faculty and a few school administrators, the students made their show of solidarity by waving flags and carrying signs before diving into a complimentary lunch provided by the Pueblo Café. Soon thereafter, the group made its way to Ortega Park, which was the staging ground for the massive afternoon rally.
Expecting a turnout of about 6,000 marchers, the Santa Barbara Police Department deployed more than 70 officers for security purposes during the day; despite the fact that more than three times that many people showed up, there were no arrests according to police spokesperson Sgt. Paul McCaffery. Also surprising, given the controversial nature of the issue, was the overwhelmingly upbeat nature of all of the day’s sit-ins, walk-outs, and marches. Detractors were few and far between as the river of people made their way up State Street just after 4 p.m. with the number of anti-immigrant grumblings easily counted on one hand. However, the feel-good vibes were far from universal according to Diana Hull, the president and spokesperson of Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS). An ardent supporter of HR 4437, Hull called Monday’s march “coercive” and “an effort to intimidate the public, to intimidate the Senate, and to intimidate the panderers on the City Council.” She went on to suggest that if you followed the money behind the groups organizing the demonstrations, you’d see a curious mix of right-wing business interests and left-wing Latino activist interests, both of which have the objective of providing cheap workers to the American marketplace. She also offered words of warning for immigrant activists, saying that, “The millions and millions of people out there kind of leaning in our direction will get angry. They support immigrants who don’t want to wave Mexican flags and who are not into ethnic separatism. … This is disgusting. And this is not what Martin Luther King Jr. was about. … This will have a boomerang effect. This is very dumb on the part of Hispanic leaders.”
Naysayers aside, event organizers uniformly declared the day a success on Tuesday morning but cautioned that the real battle has only just begun. Alluding to the upcoming showdown in the Senate, PUEBLO leader Harley Augustino said, “There are still so many ways this thing can turn out. Clearly yesterday was a beginning, but we have a long way to go before we build it into concrete voting power for working families.” He pointed to voter registration and education for legal immigrants and the “hundreds” of volunteers who stepped forward on Monday as a means to that end. Augustino also highlighted the newly formed umbrella group The Alliance for Immigrant Rights as evidence of just how far the local struggle has come in recent weeks. “A few months ago there were maybe two or three groups committed to the cause; now there are probably 20. That is a really big change.”