Public Comment

Commentary: On Being Black at a Latino March

By Van Jones New American Media
Tuesday May 09, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO—At this week’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 tea rs for both.  

From the moment I climbed aboard the BART subway cars Monday morning, 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.  

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 shuf fling 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 wa lked off those trains with their heads held high. They may have been poor, but they stepped like they were marching into a future of limitless promise. 

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

Deep inside, I was gri eving 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. There was a time when we, to o, 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 corporat e-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” 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 f uture 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—all my 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!”  

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

Whoa, there! What the . . . ?  

Bewildered but undeterred, I got myself a “chant sheet.” Sure enough, the handy leaflet spelled everything out very clearly—in Spanish.  

“Las Calles Son Del Pueblo! El Pueblo Donde Esta? El Pueblo Esta En Las Calles, Exigiendo Libertad!”  

I found myself desperately trying to remember back to 11th grade, wondering what sound an “x” makes in Spanish.  

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

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 a lways find the beat. Suddenly, I was filled with sympathy for all those a-rhythmic white folks whom I used to make fun of at Black rallies, parties and churches. (I am so sorry, y’all!) 

Eventually I found a solution: I would simply listen for any chant t hat had the word “VIVA!” in it. Whenever appropriate, I would just raise my fist and shout “VIVA!” along with the crowd, as loud as I could.  

In the end, despite feeling somewhat out of place, I was absolutely thrilled to see my sisters and brothers taking the future into their own hands.  

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 that 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 justi ce 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.  

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 did improve the lot of all Americans—expanding social programs, democratic rights and social tolerance for all people.  

Of course, I cannot help but mourn the loss of a Black community strong enough to put this nation on its back, and c arry 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 for transfor mation and redemption.  

Strong brown hands have grabbed hold of the U.S. flag. And 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.  

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.