Politics

How did May Day become a day for immigrant rights marches?

Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
Riot Police protect a handful of Trump supporters near Spring Street and 1st Street in downtown L.A. on May 1, 2017.
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
Romelia Salinas snaps a photo of the May Day march on Wilshire on Monday, May 1, 2017. She is a nanny, caring for a baby she babysits in a nearby building. She said that she is undocumented and from Chiapas. Salinas said she can't attend the march because she didn't learn about it in time to ask for the day off, but she supports the marchers and went down to look and take photos. She has a young daughter who's a U.S. citizen and worries about being deported.
Leslie Berestein-Rojas/KPCC
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
Trump supporter Rob Cantrall, visiting L.A. from Oregon, positioned near the May Day rally on May 1, 2017. About 200 Trump supporters showed up, setting up at Spring Street, a block from L.A. City Hall.
Leslie Berestein-Rojas/KPCC
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
Peter Asafor came to the United States from southern Cameroon, seeking asylum. He's been in the U.S. for 13 years. He marched in his first May Day march since the big marches of 2006. He said that he came to rally for immigrant rights and to call attention to oppression of English-speaking Cameroonians by the government in his homeland. He is from Inglewood
Leslie Berestein-Rojas/KPCC
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
An anti-Affordable Care Act sign set up by Trump supporters at Spring Street and 1st Street, near L.A. City Hall, on May 1, 2017.
Leslie Berestein-Rojas/KPCC
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
In a variety of ways, marchers made their feelings known about President Trump and his policies during Monday's May Day rally in Los Angeles.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is seen speaking on screen at Grand Park during the May Day rally on May 1, 2017. Speakers spoke to those rallying in front of City Hall as these members of the public watched at the park across the street. Marchers were spread out between the two locations as part of the rally.
Leslie Berestein-Rojas/KPCC
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
Elizabeth Medina, 46, a street vendor from MacArthur Park, has a friend snap a photo of her here to send to her daughter in Mexico.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
A marcher carries this sign during Monday's May Day rally in Los Angeles.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
A rally at the end of the Los Angeles May Day march on May 1, 2017.
Leslie Berestein-Rojas/KPCC
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
Marchers start moving downtown during Monday's May Day gathering in Los Angeles.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
Juan R. Tobon, a 50-year-old garment work, showed off his sign at the May Day march on May 1, 2017. He said that he made his sign in 2005 and has been coming to May Day marches ever since.
Leslie Berestein-Rojas/KPCC
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
A marcher holds up a sign during May Day 2017.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
Silvia Rivera of Koreatown holds up a sign that reads "Build Bridges Not Walls" during the May Day rally in Los Angeles.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
Ivan Navez of East Los Angeles sold flags during the May Day rally on Monday.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
Sean Hurdle says he's here to sell buttons for $5 each AND support marchers during May Day in Los Angeles.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Arturo Blas, a mechanic from Pico Union, is here with Corriente Obrera, a workers group. He's here to honor May Day and protest President Trump and his policies.
Posters and signs like this were everywhere during May Day 2017.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC


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May 1, long marked as International Workers' Day in countries around the world, has become known in the United States for its marches rallying for immigrant rights.

Today, a major Los Angeles march planned at 11 a.m., starting at MacArthur Park and ending with a rally fronting City Hall, has President Trump's immigration policies as its target. 

May Day's close relationship with immigration became established over the past decade, although it dates back even earlier in Los Angeles, according to one advocate who lived that history.

As immigrant rights activist Angelica Salas remembers it, the first May Day march for immigration in Los Angeles took place in May 2000, when immigrant and labor rights groups organized a small march through Koreatown.

"We all gathered and marched to a restaurant…where a bunch of restaurant workers in Koreatown had not been paid," says Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

A couple of thousand people marched that day to call attention to the underpaid workers, Salas said. Choosing May 1 to march made sense because of the day's history as a time to recognize workers, she said.

In the years since, organizers have staged larger rallies, and the focus has expanded beyond immigrant workers to immigrant rights in general.

International Workers' Day is still celebrated in many countries around the world and is a national holiday in some locations. Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, who teaches labor studies at UCLA, remembers how it was observed in Mexico City, where he grew up.

"In Mexico City, this is a holiday. People don't go to work," he said. "There is a parade...it is a big celebration where the president attends, all the politicians, and all the unions march in the main plaza, in the Zocalo in Mexico City."  

But May Day has American origins, he said. It began as a remembrance of what’s known as the Haymarket Affair, a violent labor strike in May 1886 in Chicago where several people were killed.

The incident was tied to the anarchist movement of the time — one reason the remembrance never took off in the United States, said Rivera-Salgado. Lawmakers instead established Labor Day on the first Monday of September as a national holiday in 1894.

The way May Day is observed in the U.S. began evolving after labor unions began organizing immigrant workers, Rivera-Salgado said. As the labor and immigrant rights movements came together, the focus on workers' rights and immigrant rights began to merge.

“And this, of course, took off in Los Angeles in the spring of 2006, where you saw the huge massive protests," Rivera-Salgado said before that, May Day was a "very small affair.”

On May 1, 2006, hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied for immigration reform in Los Angeles.

This story has been updated.

Correction: The wrong first name for garment worker Juan R. Tobon was given in the caption of a photo on a previous version of this story. KPCC regrets the error.