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

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

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.”


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