Thousands of workers waved American flags, marched to mariachi music and rallied for labor and immigrant rights in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday, as May Day gatherings drew light but peaceful crowds.
Turnout across Southern California and the nation was markedly lower than in the last few years, when millions of marchers in more than 100 cities hit the streets on May Day to urge a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and other reforms.
In Los Angeles, where about 8,500 people took part in three separate marches that merged to rally at 1st Street and Broadway, some participants said fear of government raids and growing apathy about pros- pects for change had dampened turnout. About 20,000 had been expected to participate.
"A lot of people feel that nothing is being done," said Xochilt Pacheco, 30, a Mexican American from Highland Park whose father is an illegal immigrant. She wore a white dress with the slogans "We are workers, not criminals" and "Legalize me" printed in red letters. "We march and nothing is done. We march and there are raids," she said.
Others said the lower turnout was a reflection of the immigrant rights movement's shift in focus from marches to voter registration and other civic activities; a decision not to push boycotts of school and work this year; and a preoccupation with contract negotiations and other issues. Unlike in past years, the Service Employees International Union Local 1877 and the We are America Alliance, a coalition of churches, labor unions and community groups, were not heavily involved in organizing this year's marches.
"This year, we're focusing on civic engagement work," said march participant Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles.
On that front, immigrant rights advocates say they have won considerable success. The number of citizenship applications had doubled to 1.4 million by the end of fiscal year 2007 compared to the previous year, according to Rosalind Gold of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund in Los Angeles. The number of Latinos registered to vote in California had increased by 13%, nearly triple the non-Latino rate, in April 2008 compared to the previous year.
The May Day marches, which historically commemorate International Workers' Day, have been specifically used in Los Angeles to celebrate the contributions of the immigrant workers who make up nearly half of the county's workforce. They took place amid continuing fierce debate over immigration reform proposals, which have stalled in Congress.
The battle over what to do about the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants has prompted hundreds of state and local legislative proposals, colored the presidential campaign and brought tens of thousands of marchers into the streets nationwide in the last two years.
While turnout was light this year, the mood was festive at the Los Angeles marches' three downtown area departure points.
At MacArthur Park, vendors hawked noisemakers, American and Mexican flags and bacon-wrapped hot dogs as Aztec performers danced on a makeshift stage and musicians competed for attention.
At Olympic Boulevard and Broadway, a loud mariachi band led about 1,500 people in an early afternoon procession north to the Civic Center as activists handed out fliers and pushcart owners offered sweating marchers Popsicles, fruit and shaved ice.
While the largely Latino crowd occasionally chanted in Spanish -- "si se puede," yes we can -- immigrants from South Korea, the Philippines, Japan and elsewhere also participated.
"I think it's really important for us to show the broad span of immigrants in Los Angeles," said Bev Tang of Silverlake, of the Filipino youth group Anakbayan. "Filipino immigrants are out here and are part of the struggle."
Rick Oltman, spokesman for the anti-illegal immigration group Californians for Population Stabilization, criticized marchers' calls for a moratorium on raids.
"It is reminding the American people that there is this whole group of people, illegal aliens, who do not want our laws enforced," he said.
But marchers included many legal immigrants. Andres Rivas, 68, a former El Salvador city mayor who received amnesty in the 1980s and is now a naturalized U.S. citizen, said he marched to support those who are still fighting for legal status. He said he was helped by those who fought for him and now, "we have to stand up for those who don't have it today."