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Migrants' Boycott Plan Is Crossing the Border

April 27, 2006|Hector Tobar and Cecilia Sanchez | Times Staff Writers

MEXICO CITY — It began as a series of e-mails bouncing around Mexico and Central America, the kind of chain letter a lot of people think of as a nuisance.

"Send this message to as many people as possible!" read one sent by a video-rental shop owner in San Salvador to more than 200 clients. "Don't buy anything North American ... No Dunkin' Donuts, McDonald's, Burguer [sic] King, Starbucks, Sears, Crispy Cream [sic], Wal-Mart.... "

Spreading now by word of mouth as well as through cyberspace, the campaign calls for a 24-hour boycott Monday of American businesses in Mexico and other Latin American countries. The idea is to show solidarity with immigrant rights protests scheduled in several U.S. cities that day.

This week, a growing number of business groups, trade unions and political leaders in Mexico said they planned to join the boycott, which will be on the traditional May Day holiday here.

Even though Internet access is still a luxury in Mexico (only 9% of households have it), word of the boycott is quickly spreading.

Teresa Garcia Hernandez, a 44-year-old nurse in Mexico City who doesn't surf the Internet, heard about the boycott from her teenage children.

"They're really excited about it and they're telling all their friends, cousins and uncles," she said. "They told me, 'Mama, since your friends don't have this thing called the Internet, you tell them in person not to buy anything gringo that day.' "

Many Mexicans are closely following the immigration debate in the United States. There is a growing sense among Mexicans that proposals being debated by the U.S. Congress could hurt millions of compatriots who crossed over illegally.

In Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, the Chamber of Commerce announced that its 5,000 members would neither buy nor sell U.S. products that day. And leaders of a Chihuahua state peasant group said they planned to block the bridges that link Ciudad Juarez and El Paso.

"For those of us who live on the border, it's to our advantage to shop in El Paso, but one day isn't going to hurt us," Ciudad Juarez resident Adriana Olague told the newspaper El Universal. "And this way we help the paisanos [countrymen] over there who are looking to get better treatment."

For some Mexicans, however, the talk of a boycott is worrisome.

In the Mexico City neighborhood of Anzures, Carlos Torres pointed out that his McDonald's franchise was the joint investment of "many families that are completely Mexican."

"With this boycott we could have serious losses," Torres said. "Just because it's an American brand doesn't mean the owners are gringos. This is our source of employment. The workers here are all Mexicans."

The growing clamor to buy "nothing gringo" on Monday has also caused concern among members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Mexico.

Larry Rubin, president of the group, noted that 40% of the Mexican workforce is employed by U.S. companies. The chamber has lobbied for changes in U.S. immigration laws that would allow millions of Mexicans in the United States to gain legal status.

"Our members have been very vocal in support of a positive immigration reform in the U.S.," Rubin said. Boycotting American products "is not a good way for Mexicans to pay back this support," he said. "It's like shooting oneself in the foot."

Immigration groups in the U.S. conceived of their protest as "A Day Without Latinos," a name derived from a 2004 mockumentary in which California descends into chaos when it is mysteriously emptied of its Mexican population. Latin American activists quickly picked up on the slogan. One of the e-mails circulating through the region gleefully tells its recipients: "We can make the movie 'A Day Without a Mexican' into reality!"

Elmer Escobar, the owner of four Evolution Video stores in El Salvador's capital, San Salvador, got the "Day Without a Mexican" e-mail from a friend and promptly sent it to the 288 clients in his database.

In a country where nearly every family has a relative who has migrated to the U.S., joining the boycott feels a bit like an obligation, Escobar said.

"I have family in Los Angeles and San Francisco, relatives who came up from the bottom like I did," Escobar said. "We've all suffered to improve our lives. And the others who've migrated from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, they've come up from the bottom too. That's why we have to stick together."

A professor at the National University in San Salvador printed out the e-mail and posted it across the campus.

In Guatemala, activists who work with Maya Indians are planning to use community radio stations to spread word of the boycott to rural areas.

"We want to send the message to the towns and settlements, asking people to tell their relatives in the U.S. not to send remittances [to Guatemala] on that day," said Ignacio Ochoa, director of the Nahual Foundation. "We believe that just boycotting American products won't have as big an impact."

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