Immigration nation

The marches prove that immigrants are not alone. They have families -- and they're woven into our nation too deeply to tear out.

Published April 11, 2006 11:30AM (EDT)

The crowds parading up the streets of America on Monday, and for the last two weeks, have been telling us with their bodies, if not always in English, that illegal immigrants are not alone in the United States of America.

Indeed, illegal immigrants, who were supposed to live a shadowy existence, belong to neighborhoods and to church congregations that were willing to stand alongside them. And most important: Many millions of illegal immigrants have U.S. relatives, sons and daughters, in-laws, cousins, grandchildren.

That family tie is the lesson of these parades. In Houston and Boston, in Phoenix and in San Jose, Calif., what we saw were not exactly "protests," nor were they political demonstrations, primarily. We were seeing huge family gatherings, celebrations of the clan.

In Los Angeles, I saw a veritable platoon of young women with baby strollers, the babies asleep or not, the women chatting, as though they were headed to the grocery store. I saw carnival balloons and comic oversize sombreros. I saw the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe floating on somebody's shoulders. I saw the flags of several nations, often, of course, Mexico's. On one Mexican flag, an old man with an Indian face had taped the photographs of his sons, serving in Iraq.

In generations past, for example during the Depression, once America had done with the eager hands of Mexico, there were mass deportations. Send the Messicans back!

But now, how do you deport so many millions who belong to even more millions?

After the early parades, some Americans (who never complain about Irish flags on St. Patrick's day) complained to Sean Hannity about all those damn Mexican flags. (If they love Mexico so much, why'n't they go back?) In Dallas on Sunday, some mad-as-hell Texans decided to burn the Mexican flag.

Yesterday, it was clear that the crowds had heard the complaints. On extravagant display were yards and yards of red, white, blue. And thus the irony was deepened: The happy parade of outsiders was waving American flags.

For years, the wisdom in political circles was that Mexicans do not vote, are apathetic, too busy or lazy. Mexicans, after all, are not Cubans; they lack the political savvy or will.

The giant was sleeping in Phoenix and Chicago and throughout North Carolina. And the Democrats were just as happy to leave the snoring undisturbed, because of the unhappiness of trade unionists and of the complaints of African-Americans against illegal migrant workers who undercharge America for their labor, then work with third-world fury.

Some Republicans, including the president, saw signs of the giant stirring. George Bush is the first American president to speak Spanish and to run a reelection ad in which he is pictured waving a Mexican flag. His is that portion of the Republican Party that understands big business has a lot to gain from cheap labor.

But then there is the Republican Party of Pat Buchanan and Tom Tancredo -- a party that now mixes hysteria with patriotism and wars against any notion that America exists within the Americas.

Buchanan likes to portray the brown (suspiciously Indian-looking) Mexicans crossing our Southwestern border as "foreigners." Pat Buchanan, with his rifle butt, may end up responsible for stirring the giant awake.

In the end, however, the gatherings all over America these last days were not most importantly political events.

Their scale has been epic, but their meaning is intimate. No coincidence is it that they were not organized by politicians, but were the result of grass-roots passions -- the encouragements of local radio DJs, nuns and neighbors.

Before these mass gatherings began, two weeks ago, I would have told you that I feared that the increasingly virulent rhetoric against illegal immigrants would end up causing the "Arab-ization" of millions of Hispanic children -- an alienation on a scale comparable to that suffered by Islamic youths in Paris or Amsterdam.

No other children in America hear what the children of illegal immigrants now regularly hear on angry-white-guy talk radio or from the likes of Lou Dobbs on CNN or Bill O'Reilly on Fox.

From the Congress came daily calls for a vast new Wall of China, mass deportations. And a litany of complaints: Illegal immigrants take, take, take from America. They pose a burden, a drag on the country; they are welfare cheats, criminals, drug dealers, thieves.

No one in public mentioned to their children what their parents and grandparents have done for America for over a century -- and at what a cheap price.

What, I wondered, would the children think about their parents?

I got my answer in the huge family gatherings.

By Richard Rodriguez

Richard Rodriguez is the author of "Brown: The Last Discovery of America."

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