A few weeks ago, most felt invisible.
Today the immigrants—especially those from Latin America—have thrust themselves into the national spotlight.
On May Day, they stayed home from work and school, marched and rallied and proclaimed that no person should be considered illegal and that immigrants are a vital component of the U.S. economy.
In Berkeley the “day without immigrants” made an impact at the Berkeley Alternative School, where 28 out of 120 students were in class. School Principal Victor Diaz said he would have joined the protest but came to school because four of the 10 teachers opted to stay away.
The remaining teachers at the school on Monday planned to talk about the meaning of the day with those present, Diaz said.
Many parents kept Berkeley High School students out of school, but some students went to school and marched out. One group of about 50 students, led by the nonprofit group Youth Together marched along Martin Luther King Way to the Ashby BART station, where they stood in line while their adult supporters spent a half-hour trying to negotiate free BART passage to the San Francisco rally.
Denied that and chanting “Rise up, people rise up,” the orderly group opened the gate, walked through and down to the platform, as a dozen BART and Berkeley police looked on without stopping them.
“I’m here to represent my people,” said Tony, a student wrapped in a Mexican flag who declined to give his last name. Tony spoke to the Daily Planet as he waited in line in the BART Station with the other students.
“I’ve got to represent what we’re doing here, standing up for our people,” he said. “We’re not here to cause problems. We’re here to work.”
Ninth-grader Minna Toloni was also waiting to get on BART.
“I’m here to support immigrant rights,” she said. “It’s racist to try to claim you’re free and kick out some people.”
While the group of Berkeley High students waited to see if negotiations would work, a group of several dozen Willard Middle School students on a field trip to the San Francisco rally—with BART tickets—went through the turnstile as the high school students cheered.
Over at Thousand Oaks school, 16 members of the staff and 150 students were not at school. A Berkeley teacher for 18 years, Liz Fuentes teaches fifth grade at Thousand Oaks. In a phone interview Sunday night, Fuentes said she planned to stay away from work and march in San Francisco “to express my horror at the possible passage of [HR] 4437.”
The House Bill, which passed in December, would criminalize undocumented people and those who help them. It would also cause a wall to be build on the border between Mexico and the United States.
The bill, which has not been enacted because the Senate has not signed on to it, has helped spark the anger that has fueled recent marches and demonstrations.
“Attention must be paid to this moment,” Fuentes said.
“How can they try to treat us like criminals?” asked a friend of Fuentes, who requested that her name not be used.
In a phone interview Sunday evening, she said her high school-age daughter would be going to the San Francisco march with her. And she wouldn’t be going to her job cleaning houses and her husband wouldn’t be going to his job as a carpenter.
“It’s time people opened their eyes; we don’t have to be scared of nobody,” she said. “We come here and pay taxes. It’s time for us to speak up. We have to fight.”
While those who stayed out of work and school Monday were overwhelmingly Latino, other immigrants and supporters joined their ranks. One Frenchman, who asked not to be named for this story, works in a high-tech job in Emeryville and marched in San Francisco rather than go to work.
The Berkeley resident criticized HR 4437, especially because it criminalizes those who help undocumented people.
“It reminds me of World War II,” he said. “If you helped a Jew, you’d be a criminal. It’s pretty serious.”
Meanwhile, at Mi Tierra Foods on San Pablo Avenue, a sign on the door Monday announced that the store would be closed May 1 for “Immigrant Solidarity.”
In a quick phone survey Sunday evening of five Mexican Restaurants, all planned to close for the day: Juan’s Place, La Familia, Picante, Mario’s and La Fiesta. Godoalsido Mejia who manages Juan’s Place said the 34-year-old West Berkeley restaurant got calls—he did not say from whom—pressuring them to close, which is what made them decide to shut down. Besides, “the employees were going to take off and if you have no help, you have no service,” he said.
Monday morning, down at Café Trieste at Dwight Way and San Pablo, Luis Flores was fixing lattes as usual. He said he had the option to take off, but others were taking the day off, so he decided to work. “I’m wearing a white shirt to protest,” he said.
At Café Roma, on Monterey Avenue and Hopkins Street, two people were working, while another had taken off for the day. Caffé Strada at College Avenue and Bancroft Way, however, was closed for the day, as were Venus and La Note restaurants on Shattuck Avenue. And on Fourth and Delaware streets two lone day laborers stood waiting for work, while there are generally many more.
Berkeley resident Bonito Tovar was at the Ashby Avenue BART station, waiting for colleagues to go to the San Francisco march. Tovar works in construction at the Richmond-based Rutherford & Singlested, which closed for the day. He beamed as he watched the High School students walk though the swinging door, down the escalator and onto the BART train. “They are the future,” he said.
Judith Scherr: Mi Tierra Foods on San Pablo Avenue shut down for the day May 1..