Copyrighted material


by Daffodil Altan

coverage of historic March immigration rights protests

(PNS) -- The best they could do was pick on their choice of flag -- Mexican instead of American.

When the world of adults observed the thousands of students spilling into Los Angeles streets, they couldn't point to rioting or violence because the walkouts were peaceful. They couldn't point to the students' lack of organization because their destination was clear. So instead of praising the nearly 40,000 students who walked out of their Los Angeles schools en masse March 27 on their near flawless protests, adults -- mostly on the media front -- found various ways to bring them down, to undermine their political activism by filing their demonstrations away as nothing more than truancy.

"Some students, they knew what they what they were going out for, they just didn't know how to say it, you know," says Brenda Rodriguez, a senior at Wilson High School in East Los Angeles. "But when there's like people who underestimate them, it kinda brings them down, you know."

Maybe it has to do with California's damaged education system, or maybe with the fact that immigrants and minorities make up the bulk of California's students. But for some reason, adults don't seem to have as much faith in teenagers -- especially poor ones of color -- and their capacity to ignite and deliver a political message. But the spontaneous eruption of a massive, co-ordinated walkout was proof that these students, no matter how poor, deprived, or English-limited, used technology, education and networking to make themselves heard.

"You know how they say that you have to take action and show what you're going for in order for them to pay attention to you?" says Brenda. "So it's like, that's exactly what they did. And as you can see, worldwide, nationally, everyone did the same thing. I think we were on the right page with what we did."

No one knows exactly how it started, or by whom, but there were fliers, text messages, MySpace bulletins and the repetition of one code phrase -- HR4437 -- that circulated throughout schools and cyberspaces over the course of a few days. There was no formal leadership organizing the protests, no inspired pulpit voice, no radio or television personality telling them when and where to meet. This was a purely student driven, student generated, student executed moment. "I think everybody was a leader because they had to be. Because they stood up for themselves," says Miguel Lopez, a senior at Garfield High School in East L.A. who walked out.

This should make grownups nervous. Because if you don't have anyone telling the kids what to do, then what they represent is sheer and potent. Some will soon turn or are already 18. Many will vote. And no one has paused to reckon with them.

"These students, they feel a part of it," says Lorena Rodriguez, a senior at Garfield High School. "They feel like they belong in this issue. And it's not just their parents that are at risk here. It might be also them."

There's nothing in these students' sentiments that drips with the politicized language of eager college activists. The call wasn't for anarchism or socialism. Most simply felt they had no choice but to stand up for themselves. The call was for a stop to bills like HR4437 -- which passed in the House and which would make felons out of undocumented immigrants, their families and anyone else caught within arm's reach of them. Although legislation is now stalled, students want to make sure that the government knows that legislation like HR4437 will not slip beneath their radar.

"We were just right there showing support for our parents and showing that we don't think it's right what they're doing and they can't try to just sneak up this stupid law on us," says Jennifer Lopez, a senior at Manual Arts High School in South L.A.

Miguel Lopez, the East L.A. high school senior who dreams of going to U.C. Berkeley was born in the United States but has an undocumented sister. Legislation like HR4437 would land in the middle of his family's living room. And threaten to break his them apart, he says. This is scary. Scary enough to organize around, to yell and scream about.

"I don't think the moment has passed," says Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "I think these young people are undergoing a transformation." The mayor told students that he supported their efforts, but made it clear that he expected them to go back to school, a position that drew criticism and confused students, especially since Villaraigosa had participated in the famous Chicano student walkouts in 1968.

"I told these kids, 'Now If you want to walk out after school, on Saturday and Sunday, you can do that. There's a right way and a wrong way. In a school district where half of us are failing, you can't miss five or six days...We can't have you fail.'"

So, in an effort to be taken more seriously, East L.A. students with a group called Inner City Struggle organized an after-school protest April 7, which culminated in front of the Los Angeles Unified School District. The students asked that the district declare itself a safe zone for undocumented students and their families and take a stand against punitive legislation. The only media that was there to cover the event was the Spanish-language daily newspaper La Opinion. None of the big English news outlets -- which had reported on the student walkouts closely the week before -- showed up.

But that has not deterred students from continuing to organize -- and to organize across races. "All of our like friends, like Asian, Mexicans, African-Americans, we're all like on the same page because they all migrated from somewhere," says Brenda.

At Community Coalition, an organization in South Central L.A. that caters to teens in the area, the goal is to bridge what some call the "black-brown divide." "We're always fighting against that stereotype," says Robert Battles, the lead youth organizer at the center. "This immigration bill is pretty much a throwback to slavery. It's not something that just affects the Latino community, it affects the whole global community." Students from the South Central organization met up with students from East L.A. for the rally in front of the L.A. Unified School District headquarters.

There is an overwhelming sense in Los Angeles that the point of this political moment for these students is not the advancement of a theme, but the redefinition of what it means to be an immigrant in the United States. There is a genuine excitement for the legitimate force they represent in numbers -- and the power that their collective voices have the capacity to wield. "It was really, really great 'cause at first you were like, it's like the students are like Chicano power," says Miguel. "It was like our selves. It's our own kind. It's the youth actually speaking out and walking, doing this for a change."

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Albion Monitor   April 10, 2006   (

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