A Chicana Activist Speaks Out on Immigrant Rights

by Mark Ostapiak / June 2006 issue of Socialist Action Newspaper

The May 1 demonstrations that rocked the nation with a political strike and economic boycott saw immigrant workers—largely Latino—bring back the true character of international workers day, begun by immigrants in the United States in 1886: relying on working-class mass action in the streets to affect political change.

While most accounts of the leadership in today’s immigrant-rights movement focus on the adult leadership, its youth leaders are largely overlooked.

A Youth for Socialist Action member recently caught up with one of the movement’s Chicana youth leaders, Tanya Vogel, from Tennyson High School in South Hayward, Calif., to discuss both her experience as an integral component in the organizing of 5000 demonstrators there—mostly working-class Latinos—and young peoples’ perspective of this new immigrant-rights movement.

Her account of the May 1 mobilization in South Hayward—a quiet Bay Area, working class suburb—reflected that of the movement in general. It was an organic process, sparked by the anti-immigrant bill, HR4437, of the grassroots among the immigrant community that have begun to cast off history’s heavy burden of being treated as second-class citizens.

Vogel and her teacher, Sandra Navarro, explained the significant organizing role of the Catholic churches, support by Latino small businesses, and inter-generational unity. Vogel said she was inspired by the enthusiastic outpouring of youth and their organizations from the area schools, who likely realized that what the movement would gain by their fighting for human rights outweighed the possible consequences of missing one day of class.

Additionally, many area teachers encouraged students to participate, while some participated themselves.

According to Navarro, Cesar Chavez Middle School in South Hayward reported that attendance was down 80 percent on May 1. Student absenteeism was widespread elsewhere throughout the country that day.

Even the now familiar chant, “¡Sí, se puede!” (“Yes, we can!”), made famous by the farm workers struggle of the 1960s and ’70s, had a similar effect to that of other May 1 rallies throughout the country. “We had many chants,” said Vogel, “but that was the one where people united.”

Unity, Vogel said, is important to make the movement stronger. Regarding unity between Blacks and Latinos (“Black and Brown” unity), she stressed the primacy of Latino immigrants determining their own course in collective action. “If they don’t unite, they’re not going to unite with somebody else.”

Striking a chord with Vogel was the irony of today’s situation in which Latinos serve in the military fighting for “freedom” while they’re denied freedom by the U.S. government: “I am against war. I believe they are putting Latinos in danger.”

She went on to say, “I do believe that people are being oppressed here in America because of being immigrants. The Latinos that are going to the war have to say they’re American when they don’t really feel American.”

That sentiment is likely to have enforced the choice of many Latinos at the rally to hang onto their national identity by refusing to let go of their own national flags, of which in terms of overall numbers, the Mexican and Salvadoran banners ranked two and three, respectively, after the U.S. flag.

“We are holding the U.S. flag because we want to be in this country,” Vogel said, “but we can’t leave our roots behind.”

While many of the national leaders of the May 1 mobilizations urged the movement to reject a work and school walkout, Vogel took her place among the movement’s more radical layer that supported the economic boycott and political strike to express the power of working people.

“It is a good idea,” she said, referring to the strike, “because immigrants are the working class of the USA—they are the farmers, they are the people washing the dishes in the restaurants—so I believe that really does help when a person gets out of their job and doesn’t go to work. I see that as a way to really show the people that we are a main part of the USA.”

It’s unlikely that Vogel is alone when she says that as a result of the reactionary legislation just passed in the U.S. Senate (S2611)—with a guest worker program, a total of 870 miles of border fence and vehicle barriers, militarization of the border, provisions for English as the national language, often insurmountable obstacles for citizenship, and no amnesty or legalization in sight—there is potential for another protest march and rally in her community.

If that does happen, there’s little doubt that the youth will be in the forefront again. “We are the next the generation to try to fight for immigrant rights or against other things that are discriminatory to people of different colors and races,” she explained. “I think the thing is to fight for what you believe, and I think that’s what people are going to do in this case.”

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