Getting the Word Out on Immigration

LOS ANGELES, March 30, 2006 — -- The enormous turnout at immigration rallies in Los Angeles took this city, the country, and much of the media by surprise -- but not the Spanish-language media, because they played an active role in getting the word out.

The turnout in the demonstrations on Saturday was estimated at half a million people, a number not seen here since the protests against the Vietnam War.

"Never in our city have we had so many people come together," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said.

Latinos, including the mayor, are fighting federal legislation that would make illegally entering the United States a felony. To cheers, the mayor said, "We will defeat the legislation, and we will because it's un-American."

Some who marched at the rally echoed the mayor's sentiment.

"We were united, and we all came for a single cause," said Maria Huertas, a 27-year-old single mother from Colombia.

In Washington, politicians have long known that Latinos have the potential to be a major political force, but they have rarely been able to unite for any length of time.

Despite that, community activists and Latino journalists say Saturday's large turnout was expected.

"All the Latino community knew about it -- especially those Latinos who don't even know English," said Gustavo Arellano who writes the column "Ask a Mexican" for the newspaper Ocean County Weekly. "They knew what was going on in Congress and they weren't going to stand for it, so they went out there and rallied.

"You have these protests and somehow everyone's surprised. I wasn't surprised. I'm a member of the media. Latino members of the media were not surprised because we have our ear to the street," he said.

Activists planned Saturday's rally in just a few weeks and tackled it much the way politicians would go about a campaign. They began meeting in December and determined their goal -- influence the debate in Washington. They scheduled the rally two days before the U.S. Senate took up immigration legislation. "We wanted to impact, really impact," rally organizer Javier Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez and a handful of other immigration activists devised a plan to use Spanish-language media to get out the message.

"We knew that if we could present the issue to Spanish media that it would be the vehicle to educate the community," said Jesse Diaz, another rally organizer.

They encouraged Hispanic media to join an "epic campaign" to get Congress to pass "humane and inclusive" immigration reform. Organizers reminded the media that the Latinos who would benefit from legal protections were their viewers, listeners and readers.

Latino reporters responded, covering stories about the rally's planning. Some television stations even ran on-air promotions for the event and let Rodriguez and Diaz appear in a televised discussion that lasted four hours.

The free TV time was no small contribution. Spanish media attract a huge audience in Los Angeles. Univision is the most popular Spanish-language network in the United States. Its national evening newscast beats the leading network newscast by 2-to-1.

Nearly a dozen Latino radio personalities also took up the cause, encouraging fans to participate in rallies. Every morning, Eduardo Sotelo talked about it on his popular radio show. "I was telling people who listen to me that it was a great opportunity to demonstrate that we're going to be peacefully marching," he said.

Rodriguez and Diaz, longtime Latino activists, knew that presenting a positive image was essential to influencing leaders in Washington.

"They said if we're going to go there, go in peace," said Rafael Tapia, a 29-year-old from Mexico who participated in Saturday's rally.

Not wanting to appear divisive, planners encouraged marchers to leave their Mexican flags at home.

"They told us to bring American flags so that way the American people will know that we love this country," said Tapia, who heard about the rally while watching Spanish-language television.

Organizers also relied on church and union leaders to back them up. Unions bused in people from as far away as Texas and Nevada.

If one thing, the march is making the rest of the country aware that this is a powerful community, one whose power should not be underestimated.

Rally organizers say that they've won the first battle by organizing their community, but they're not stopping there. They're planning other pro-immigrant rallies in other parts of the country.