Get on the Bus

Austin Latinos March on Washington

Juan's right hand bears the tattoos of his former gang, a holy cross between his thumb and index finger, and the gang's name across the top. Big brown pants hang from his narrow waist and his black hair crops a face that shows traces of baby fat. He's an average Latino 16-year-old boy growing up in Austin, except that he's been kicked out of school and has hit the job market.

Wednesday morning, Juan climbs into one of the nine buses that had pulled onto St. Edward's University and Huston-Tillotson College campuses the previous night. This vato (dude) joins almost 20 other Austinites headed for the first-ever Latino march on Washington. "I don't know what this trip is all about, man. It sounds cool though, marching," he says, with a street-savvy tone. Juan, still sleepy from rising at 2am, settles into his seat as the caravan, filled with mostly Latino passengers, leaves Austin. In two days, he and the other 400 passengers will join Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Central and South Americans, and Mexican-Americans to deliver the seven demands of Proposition 1 and display a unified Latino power. Proposition 1 calls for human and civil rights for all, $7.00 minimum wage, free education from elementary school through college, national health care, preservation of affirmative action, the extension of naturalization and amnesty, and the creation of a citizens' police review board.

The march or marcha's logo pictures a red, white, and blue backdrop, with a tag of the Statue of Liberty tied to the capital and black footsteps scrambling into the open roof. The logo, says the march's organizers, represents Latinos' goal to gain greater access to the U.S. government's policymaking. "We are going to open their [the government's] eyes that we are here, we will remain here and we have a power," says Robert Donolly, president of the East Town Lake Citizens Neighborhood Association in Austin.

Raza Sí, Migra No

By afternoon the buses decorated with Marcha and Proposition 1 flyers roll onto the Teamsters parking lot in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Teamsters were just one of the hundreds of unions and Latino activists supporting the demonstration. The Brown Berets, a Latino civil rights group which started in the Sixties and then evolved from a militant political organization to one emphasizing community service, takes its post at each of the exits in the Teamsters' auditorium. They stand at attention during the rally, wearing beige military casual uniforms and dark brown berets. Word had spread among the passengers about a possible confrontation with locals in Little Rock, including the presence of the Ku Klux Klan. They fear some people in Little Rock won't take too kindly to Spanish-speaking people conducting a rally in their Southern town. No one is taking any chances.

Austin's own poet and artist, Paul Hernandez, is among the speakers, plus Lupe Pacheco, both members of El Concilio and hosts of the KOOP radio show Barrio News and Issues. "For more than two years we have been working for the same objective: human rights, because we are all human," Pacheco says softly into the microphone. "Even though they treat us less than human, our children, our parents, are part of our heart. We are all united, like one person and that's what we are going to take to Washington -- that we are all united and human. And sí, se puede (yes, we can)." The crowd responds with chants of "Raza sí, migra no!" (The people yes, the Immigration Naturalization Service no!)

Hernandez, an ex-Brown Beret, limps to the microphone clutching a colorful wooden cane. His black braid falls downs his back, laugh lines have etched into his dark brown skin. "Que viva la raza!," he yells. "Long live the people!" The crowd responds with "Que viva la causa!" (Long live the cause!) and "Que viva la mujer!" (Long live women!)

"We know for a fact that we have carried this nation on our backs." Hernandez yells into the microphone. "We have been the workers, we have fed the millions of people in this country, whether they appreciated it or not. We were the farm workers, the construction workers, the laborers, the ones that have scrubbed the floors, and the ones that planted the gardens. Now we have a greater destiny, our destiny is to be the leaders." The crowd roars in approval, clapping their hands madly. The Tijuana military band closed the ceremonies with a march they generated from their bugles and drums.

A Spicy Mix

That night, some of the Austinites settle to sleep on a church's basement floor in Washington D.C. Many had left behind their spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends and taken time off from work, even losing some wages to participate in the historic events. During the weekend, the city swelled with two million visitors for the Latino march, the AIDS march and vigil, and an international culinary festival. In the mostly Latino D.C. neighborhood of Adams Morgan, salsa and cumbia music spill out of apartment windows and boutiques. Ethiopian restaurants stand next to Mexican and Indian cuisine, a blending of the colorful cultures in Washington.

On Saturday morning, the tired but exhilarated bus riders gather in Adams Morgan's Meridian Park to begin the mile-and-a-half march to the Ellipse, the area between the White House and the Washington Monument. Demonstrators filter into the park for over two hours carrying posters and the flags of the various Latino countries. "La Marcha" for dignity and justice attracted supporters of immigrant rights, socialists, and gay and lesbian activists, both non-Latino and Latino. "Everything on this agenda is very progressive. Working people need to come together whether we are Black, White, or Latino," yells an African-American woman with Washington's International Socialists Organization.

After the march, the program kicks off with two renditions of the Star Spangled Banner, in Spanish, then in English. Organizers and guest speakers take the stage demanding a new political agenda concerning Latinos and the end of scapegoating Latinos for America's economic and social ills. But it is after Geraldo Rivera's introduction of Anthony Baez's parents that the crowd breaks into a frenzy of frustration and anger. Baez died in 1994 when he was 29 years old from asphyxiation after being placed in a choke-hold by a New York police officer. Just the week before, on October 7, the officer was found "not guilty" of criminally negligent homicide. Baez's mother stands by the podium holding a cardboard poster that pictured the children and adults who lost their lives at the hands of police officers.

Other speakers include U.S. Congress members Nydia Velasquez (D-NY), Jose Serrano (D-NY), Ed Pastor (D-AZ), and Luis Gutierrez (D-IL). Notably, the lone Texan-elected official appears to be Dallas State Senator Roberto Alonzo. Not one of Texas' congressional representatives, nor Texas State Attorney General Dan Morales, attends the march.

Behind the stage, on the White House grounds, classical music floats through the flower beds and bushes. It looks like an afternoon party, only on a grand scale. Crowd estimates range between 75,000 to 100,000. At 5pm people continue to stroll down the sidewalks heading toward the march that was scheduled to end at 3pm. Saturday night, Austinites spend hours waiting for a bus to transport them to the 4-H Club where they will spend their last night in Washington. Then Sunday afternoon the San Antonio/Austin crowd waits for a bus running three hours late. Due to bus breakdowns and misplanning, they depart Washington 12 hours later than planned.

Knowledge Is Power

At noon on Sunday, two buses arrive and the teen from Austin stuffs his lanky body back into the tiny bus seats. "I don't plan to go back to school," he says to the girl sitting in the next seat. "I'll get my GED." Juan explains that for the past two years his school attendance has been erratic at best. In Austin, one out of two Latinos fail to graduate from high school and a smaller percent of Latinos finish college. The odds are not good for the teen, nor for many of the children in Austin's 35 percent Latino population. A local activist begins listening to the youth speak and offers to help him get back in school. "They won't let me back in," he says. "Not anywhere in AISD (Austin Independent School District)." For the next few hours he explains how he got the scars on his wrist from one of his fights. The holes from the stitches are still visible. The youth can't do pushups because of the damage to his arm. On the bus drive back to Texas, young Chicanos from San Antonio College's Movimento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) chapter begin talking politics. They argue the importance of formal and self-education, integrating their ideas into the march's platform, then about the "evils committed by people sent to represent us." Juan complains that he doesn't understand the terms or concepts, but remains interested. Hours later the heated debates subside into whispers and a few lights click off as people doze off. The youth looks over to the activist and asks quietly, "Will you go with me to the school, see if I can get back in?"

"Yeah, man," the activists whisper. The next morning, the bus stops in Arkansas, and Juan steps into the convenience store with the same know-it-all smirk as the days before. "I have two goals now," he says. "To finish school and learn Spanish. I want to understand what people are saying, man!" Michelle García is a recent graduate of the University of Texas journalism school.

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