OPINION: Beyond the Occupy movement

By Martha Sánchez

Before getting into the Occupy movement, let me refresh early attempts to mobilize people for a comprehensive reform of the immigration laws in the United States. Such movements marked a historical precedent of mass participation in U.S history.

May day marches calling for immigration reform started in 2006. Here, people are seen marching in Los Angeles in May of 2010. (Photo courtesy of Nelson A. Castillo)

Since 2006, thousands of people have walked out from their jobs to participate in non-violent street demonstrations in support of family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors and even to support themselves. The largest demonstration occurred in Los Angeles. The media reported more than 500,000 participants. Most people believe and affirmed that we were over a million.

The message was clear, the people were there, and the media helped to coordinate the voices of the people. The only thing they asked us to do was to put on a white shirt and march peacefully.

We were inspired by powerful social movements led by Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez. We were all Americans!

Some may argue whether the immigration movement has been the largest social movement in U.S. history, but for most community organizers like me, it is. I want to share my personal motivation for participating. I marched in support of my family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. I marched in support of diversity and difference, to stop violence against women, in favor of all genders, cultures and for the reunification of families, and social change.

I’m an immigrant too and I believe in the U.S. Constitution. My children are American citizens and I believe in the power of people.

For the last eight years, I have been very active in politics, advocating for low income communities in all aspects: job opportunities, decent housing, education, affordable health care and after-school programs. The most critical fight has been against the greed of corporations. Here is where the Occupy movement comes in.

After being acknowledged as “community leader” in the poorest South Los Angeles community, I have found it difficult to involve Latinos in the Occupy movement for several reasons.

First, people in the Latino community don’t see themselves represented in this movement. The media is not portraying the Occupy movement as a Social Justice movement. In fact, most people think that “it is a hippie movement, a homeless movement.”

Second, no matter how clear the message of “We are the 99%” is, we don’t think of ourselves as part of the movement. Nobody is encouraging me to put on my white T-shirt and to go out as I was told in the past.

The not-so-new plot of “divide and rule” is convincing immigrant families, fathers and husbands that anyone going out to organizing meetings might be arrested and deported.

What we the 99% should consider is the power of the “immigration movement.” Let me explain why.

Currently, we have two different scenarios ruling political debates “economy and immigration.” While some people want to bring back economic prosperity to their hometowns, others just want to close the borders and get rid of non-welcomed immigrants because they claim immigrants have ruined and exhausted our economic resources.

Beyond those political positions, the one thing that really divides us is that immigrants work in slavery-like conditions, our families are starving and many of us lack of legal papers to hold a fair competition for jobs.

If workers could see that the exodus of manufacturing jobs has forced more people to accept precarious livelihoods. If they could see immigrants as victims as well, they would turn their voices for us not against us, forcing the government to implement reforms that would provide millions of undocumented workers with legal status, and putting all people to work based on their skills, personal talents and education. That’s what I call fair competition for jobs.

So, we are forced to choose between putting on a white T-shirt to go out and chant for immigration reform, risking to be fired, arrested and deported, or to fight against the greed of corporations that no matter what, are still hiring undocumented workers.

Are there more options? I’m asking middle class people, to those involved in the Occupy movement and more affluent members of society that sympathize with this movement to think about the power of bringing a huge number of people aligned to your demands. I’m calling those organizers, leaders and community members to join voices and efforts to go beyond the Occupy movement and to rescue the lost voices from the immigration marches.

We can’t win any battle by perpetuating western tactics of “divide and conquer.” Can I say that we are the 90 of the 99 percent in Los Angeles?

Can you think of putting faces like mine in the Occupy battle by supporting comprehensive immigration reform?

imageI’m not asking people to “wear the white T-shirt” once again and chant about one single issue. I’m asking people to “put on a sweater” to shelter themselves against the cold decisions of Wall Street. I’m calling on the 99 percent to stop pushing my demands to the bottom of the list.

The Occupy movement is a global movement. We are willing to rebuild this country, just give us the opportunity to respond to our family needs as well. “We are the 99 percent.”

Martha Sanchez is a community activist and a member of the South Central Neighborhood Council.