Occupy Los Angeles: What Was The Role Of The City's Latinos?


Published in The Huffington Post on 12/01/2011

Andrea Long-Chavez in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Los Angeles County, California, is home to 1.8 million Latinos. It is also home to Occupy L.A., the Southern California city’s answer to Occupy Wall Street-inspired protests across the country and world.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Latinos comprise 47.7 percent of Los Angeles County’s population and 48.5 percent of the residents of the city of Los Angeles.

Antonio Villaraigosa, who has been Los Angeles’ mayor for the past six years, is Latino and a longtime activist for Latino causes. Even the Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles and the country’s highest-ranking Hispanic bishop, Jose Horacio Gomez, is Mexican-American. The California Legislature is generally supportive of Hispanic issues and recently approved the California DREAM Act — which was then signed by Governor Jerry Brown — that extends state assistance to undocumented students. This is taking place even while other states like Arizona, Alabama, Indiana, Georgia and South Carolina have been passing severely restrictive anti-immigrant legislation.

Southern California has seen some of the largest protests and acts of civil disobedience in the history of the United States, including the 2006 marches for immigration reform that brought more than 500,000 people to the streets of downtown L.A. on March 26. This event and other actions reveal a strong Latino presence and influence. In short, Southern California has seen a meteoric rise in Latino activism.

But for some Hispanic activists, their heavy involvement in public affairs did not seem to count as much in the wake of the Occupy L.A. and other «occupy» movements in the state.

After a month and a half of occupying the L.A. City Hall lawn, the encampment is no more. The Los Angeles Police Department removed the last protesters from the park Tuesday, enforcing an eviction order from the City Attorney.

With the Occupy L.A. encampment gone, the subject could be seen as moot. But any attempt to understand the Occupy movement — particularly in California — needs to clarify what is, or was, the role of Latinos.

Only it’s not that easy. Even among Latino activists, as a series of interviews by The Huffington Post shows, there are differing opinions regarding Latino integration into the movement.

On one hand, the protesters took up crucial Latino issues, such as adopting some demands for immigration reform.

In Occupy L.A.’s «Assembly-authored City response» members included a list of «grievances not addressed,» one of which calls for «Los Angeles to be declared a Sanctuary city for the undocumented, deportations to be discontinued and cooperation with immigration authorities be ended — including the turning in of arrestees’ names to immigration authorities.»

But not everyone agreed that Latinos have been welcomed. Erick Huerta, a DREAM Act student activist from East Los Angeles Community College, told The Huffington Post that he was confronted by an Occupier who told him, «I am unemployed because immigrants are taking jobs.»

Where, and how, do immigrant rights activists and Occupiers intersect?

‘Latinos are making decisions’

As an undergraduate at California State University, Los Angeles, Esperanza Arrizon is an immigrant rights activist with SURGE, an organization that promotes higher education for students regardless of immigration status.

Now an media worker with the grassroots organization Good Jobs LA, Arrizon said she used to visit the Occupy site up to three times a week and was active in the Occupy L.A. actions committee. In her Good Jobs LA Blog, Arrizon describes an atmosphere of solidarity between Latinos and non-Latinos in the movement.

«Latinos are making decisions,» she said. «I can say this because I’ve gone to committee meetings and voted on things. Decisions are not made by an individual.»

But others raised the question of actual Latino participation. Was Occupy L.A. representative of the actual percentage of L.A.’s population that is Latino? If not, was it because the Occupy movement, as Martha White argued in the online publication Time Moneyland, fails to engage people of color?

«While it’s impossible to precisely measure the racial makeup of the deliberately leaderless Occupy movement, most of the images and video clips that have garnered media attention do indeed seem to feature mostly Whites,» White wrote.

Said student-activist Huerta: «There are very little people of color voices. That’s a major issue.»

But others disagreed, saying that the issues of diversity and minority inclusion are being addressed.

In her blog Multiamerican, KPCC’s Leslie Berestein Rojas acknowledges that «Since the beginning, Occupy protests in other cities have been accused of being too white, with little Black or Latino participation despite these groups having been hit hardest by the economic crisis that spurred the protests in the first place.»

«This hasn’t been the case so much in California, though, where Latinos have been involved in the protests since the start, among them immigrant rights activists and supporters.»

Veronica Federovsky, the West Coast Coordinator at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and a Latina, concurs.

«From what I’ve seen, there are a lot of people of color,» she said. «But of the few times I’ve been there, besides meetings with specific committees, I went to actions, and those actions brought people out from different organizations and unions. So, it wasn’t just occupiers. There was more diversity at actual events.»

The Absent Working Class

Zuriel Espinoza, a youth organizer with Good Jobs LA and the Development Committee chair for DREAM Team LA, a support group for undocumented students, was approached during the first week of encampment to participate in the media committee. But, he said, «I want to be present 100% but might have other commitments that won’t let me/»

Espinoza recognized that «Occupy L.A. has been trying to outreach to Latinos and integrate them into the movement … but you don’t see Latinos occupying because a lot of our communities are working class.»

This explanation — that Latinos are workers and as such don’t have the time to participate — was echoed in a forum organized in New York for AOL Latino by David Ramirez a month ago. There, Julio Cesar Malone, a veteran journalist and columnist for Spanish-language media in New York, said he thinks some Latinos who identify with the movement may not have the time or energy to actively take part.

«What time does a Latino have to go protest on Wall Street?» Malone asked. «Our people are working two jobs to survive. Many work 16 hours, and have to commute for four more — that’s 20 hours; they’re drained.»

That reasoning may lead to considering those who «can» participate in the protest, to be, somehow, «privileged.»

Espinoza explained: «At first, because they’re privileged enough to be at the Occupy site, it made me want to push away from the movement.»

«That’s what I went through at first, but then I saw that, hey, they’re not rejecting me, they are trying to be inclusive. It is my responsibility as a DREAMer, as an undocumented person, as a Latino, and a college-educated person, to try and jump on board and represent because I am the face of L.A., and I wanted to jump on.»

Some Latino activists may have been reluctant to join a movement where a main activity — camping — is foreign to other traditional forms of political action.

«There is Occupy ELAC,» Huerta said, referring to East L.A. Community College, a smaller encampment not far away from where the main one was, in front of City Hall. «But I haven’t been to it. I have better things to do than to occupy a space. It is a certain privilege to spend the night there and hold it down, but we all have lives.»

Huerta said the absence of people of color made him feel alienated.

«I felt the divide, especially in L.A., by the lack of ideology and lack of messaging,» she said. «That was the first time I was confronted with feelings of alienation.»

Arrizon said, «While OLA is fighting for the 99 percent as they say — the 99 percent isn’t involved. The occupation is a small number of people compared to the masses being affected. The majority doesn’t know about the occupy movement or see it from a distance and think they’re kooky.»

Participation Through Unions

But while some debate how well-represented Hispanics may be in the movement, including by pro-immigrant organizations or activists, others noted that Latinos were present during the days of Occupy L.A. through the involvement of unions.

In the last decade, the percentage of Hispanics in labor unions swelled from 6 percent in 1987 to about 13.5 percent in 2007, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

And while membership in unions as a whole has shrunk, SEIU, which has a heavy Hispanic component, is among the fastest-growing unions in the country.

«I think this is a huge shift in unions’ priorities in the last years,» National Day Laborer coordinator Federovsky said. «Before, it was jobs and worker’s rights and wages, but now I think immigration is a big issue for them too. They either are undocumented or have someone in their family who is. So, whole families are being affected by immigration policies in this country.»

The presence of union members and organizers at Occupy L.A. was significant, Arrizon said.

«There’s so much support for unions there,» she noted. «A lot of union people are there as well, as occupiers … That’s what I notice with the OLA folks. The good organizers that genuinely want to move the occupation forward. A lot of them have been affiliated with unions or community organizations.»

Federovsky said that unions have been so involved in Occupy L.A. because, «their base is immigrants.»

«So, those are really big issues for them because they are workers who may run the risk of detention or deportation and are affected by Secure Communities,» she said, referring to the federal collaboration on deportations between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local authorities.

As many wait to see what shape Occupy L.A. and other evicted Occupy protests will now take, a key question remains: how aware are Latinos of the Occupy movement and its goals?

«Latinos have bank accounts, including undocumented immigrants, and I know a lot of immigrants who are homeowners who have suffered — more people are getting it,» Espinoza said.

After all, as organizers of the Migrant Day Action that should have taken place Wednesday on Occupy L.A. grounds if it hadn’t been shut down, said: «Immigrants are part of the 99 percent.»