How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Readers on the state of the immigrant rights movement, post-May Day

Photo by Fibonacci Blue/Flickr (Creative Commons)

At a May Day immigrant rights rally in Minneapolis, May 1, 2012

It's been nearly a week since May Day rallies took place in L.A. and throughout the country. This time, the immigrants rights marchers who have turned out for several years shared the stage with protesters from the Occupy movement, who organized their own events.

One of the constant themes since, as the May Day post-game analyses continue to roll out, has been the relatively low turnout and how it relates to the state of the immigrant rights movement. Shortly after the protests, one headline stated: “May Day Protests Show Weak Immigration Movement.”

That's up for debate, especially in an era of virtual activism and a burgeoning immigrant youth movement that has taken up social media as one of its main organizing tools. But it's undeniable that the immigrant rights movement has changed quite a bit since six years ago, when the promise of what seemed like imminent comprehensive immigration reform drew hundreds of thousands to march in the streets.


American snapshot: May Day downtown, today

Photo by Mae Ryan/KPCC

A protester wheels "aliens," including an E.T. doll, down the street in downtown Los Angeles, May 1, 2012

KPCC's Mae Ryan has been in downtown L.A. this afternoon snapping photos of various protesters as a series of May Day marches converge, including an immigrant rights march.

This protester wins the prize for creativity. From Mae's notes: "A man carts aliens with shirts that read "I don't want to be an Alien. I want to be legal." We had no idea, E.T. Now you're out.

More on the day's rallies at; also, a post on Multi-American explores the directions in which the immigrant rights movement has gone since the historic May Day rallies of 2006.


Beyond May Day and marches, an evolving immigrant rights movement

Photo by jenlund70/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The crowd at Olympic and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, May 1, 2008

As an immigrant rights marchers wind their way through downtown Los Angeles this afternoon in one of a series of rallies tied to May Day in L.A. and throughout the country, today marks the sixth anniversary of a historic event that drew hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the city's streets.

That massive demonstration in 2006 took place at a time when hopes were high among immigrant rights activists that broad reforms to the nation's immigration system were imminent. Resistance to enforcement-based federal measures (at the time, the ill-fated HR 4437) had spread, while the talk coming out of Congress during the Bush administration suggested bipartisan support not only for a guest worker program, but for earned legalization.

In Los Angeles and throughout the country that spring, rallies calling for immigration reform drew record crowds. On May 1, traditionally known as International Workers’ Day and celebrated as a “labor day” holiday in some parts of the world, immigrant rights organizers wishing to point out the connection between immigrant workers and the national economy organized what was called the “Great American Boycott." The goal was for people to abstain from buying or selling, working or even attending school, anything that could demonstrate the power of immigrants. In Los Angeles alone that day, two related marches drew upwards of 650,000 participants.


American snapshot: A worker on Workers' Day, downtown

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

American flags and wide-brimmed hats for sale at a May Day immigrant rights rally in downtown L.A., May 1, 2011

One of several May Day rallies taking place in Los Angeles today is an immigrant rights march downtown this afternoon, the latest in a series of annual large rallies organized by immigrant rights advocates each May 1 since 2006, the year of the so-called “Great American Boycott.” 

A constant presence during these marches are the people who are work them, not as organizers but as entrepreneurs. They are almost exclusively immigrants, business-minded individuals who come to the rallies with their hot dog and paleta carts or coolers loaded with sliced fruit to cater to hungry protesters, who arrive toting wide-brimmed hats to sell to those wanting to fend off the sun, or who bring along a load of miniature plastic American flags for the patriotically inclined.

During last year's May Day immigrant rights march in Los Angeles, which drew about 4,000 people downtown, I snapped several portraits of these enterprising workers who never let up. Because they are in the land of opportunity for a reason.