April 08, 2006

If a beautiful woman walked by a construction site on May 1st, she heard no whistles; no one showed up to work that morning.

I was commissioned by one of my clients to gather footage, shoot photos and record opinions of as many marching immigrants as I could. I was mentally prepared to get there, cover the project and hopefully still make it to the gym! In fact, I was ready for the expected: angry immigrants and union leaders declaring their resentments, screaming their hatred. A lifetime of low wages and less than unfair treatment in their countries of origin and in the US, most likely would take the shape of insults, result in a defiance against city authorities and the eventual eruption of riots. My cameraman, my photographer and I took the subway on our way to downtown. Station after station, smiling Latinos wearing white t-shirts and carrying American flags crowded the train carts. Entire families dressed with the same "uniform", babies and abuelos included. "Are we going to a soccer game?," I wondered. If so, where are the Mexican or Salvadorian flags? What team are you guys supporting?." This certainly didn't look like a political rally or a boycott.

As I exited the station and walked towards downtown, hundreds of animated marchers flocked the streets. The closer I got to the point of departure, Broadway and Olympic, the louder I could hear the roar of thousands who were already there. Many t-shirts had inscribed messages: "I built your house, don't send me home," "I'm not a crook, I am your cook," "Wanted for illegally crossing borders," the latter displaying mug shots of Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney. "I'll help you build the wall for $5 an hour." Suddenly, countless American flags, Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadorian, as well as homemade posters and banners featuring Che Guevara, Cuauhtémoc, Frida Kahlo, César Chávez and La Virgen de Guadalupe, among many other icons, waved energetically under the clear blue sky as an LAPD helicopter cruised by. Then, in the middle of it all, a man whose t-shirt read "Go south and don't come back," turned on his portable loud speaker and went: "Baa-aaa-aaa… you are nothing but stupid sheep" and continued yelling, "take the 405 south and don't stop." To my amazement, he didn't get pushed or beaten. Yet, he was booed, laughed at and his voice was completely drowned by a band of Mariachis that appeared out of nowhere playing "El Son de la Negra" at full force. Few times have I felt so Mexican in my life. This was one of them. My eyes became water and my throat a primal song. The musicians were fully dressed up, but not working. "We are here for support", the lead singer told me with pride. And in the middle of a song, a woman from "security" joined the band and started dancing with the violin player.

I soon found out that the people wearing the "security" t-shirts were volunteers, all of them Latinos. "We came to help organize this march and to show everyone that we are civilized and peaceful people", one "security" guy said to me. And sure enough, the volunteer security squad broke the march into groups of about three hundred and followed them in an orderly fashion. I spoke with Anglo teachers, African-American activists, students of all cultures and backgrounds, gang members, Iranian business men. "Please don't show my face on the news," a Chinese man begged me, "if my boss sees me, he'll fire me. I wanted to be here because I am an immigrant and this is the biggest day for immigrants around the world," he said. "What do you think the solution to this immigration debate is, sir?," I asked a nervous policeman. "No comments," he replied. Yet, his eyes were as eloquent as a Rottweiler and at that moment I remembered how Carlos Milian, "The Dog Whisperer," advices his viewers not to attempt any of his tricks at home. Then a hand touched my shoulder, I turned around and saw another policeman. He said "look, we have been instructed not to talk to anyone, but off the record, I support this march, I am Polish-American; my parents immigrated here illegally. I just want you to know that." I felt a wave of brotherhood and sisterhood starting to raise and raise and raise, a tsunami of togetherness washing away myths, mental blocks and emotional borders. Every single marcher, from a gang member to a nanny, to a gardener, to a scholar, to a lawyer, to a field worker, walked with one mission in mind: to be heard, recognized, counted.

As an advertising professional in our Hispanic Market, I have seen my "target audience" being slowly measured and weighed by mainstream America, first as an afterthought, then as training ground for assistant brand managers, finally as an "Oh, there is a market," after the Census 2000 underscore their buying power. Nowadays, general market agencies compete against Hispanic ones for the mouth, eyes, heart and wallet of the Latino consumer. This May 1st, my target audience became the message and mainstream America the audience.

I went to have a drink with my cameraman and my photographer to "El Torito." An Anglo custormer was flirting with the waitresses: "So, are you ready to celebrate cincou de mayou?," he asked one of them. "I am not Mexican, I am Salvadorian," replied the waitress. "Don't Salvadorians also have a cincou de mayou?."

The Day Without an Immigrant march is still going, and will be for a long, long time. It is reaching headlines around the globe, igniting debates on radio and TV news programs and walking deep into the very fabric of America. The "experts" will try to interpret it, the media will try to sell as much of it as possible, and the illegal immigrant will go back to work. In the end, the march's legacy is the bond that it created among Hispanics, the "one-ness" that has been heart felt, and the wordless pact that has been sealed.

By Federico Traeger
(Partner and Creative Director of Piropo Communications)

Federico Traeger is a Partner and Creative Director of Piropo Communications
He has been Executive Creative Director at US Hispanic agencies such as Bromley Communications (9years) and the Bravo Group NY (3 years).

photo by  Arturo Escobar

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