BY Joaquin Bustelo
It’s very interesting seeing that comrades who often seem to have all
the answers for Latinos everywhere else in this continent have so
little of substance to say in analyzing the biggest mass movement in
many decades when it explodes onto the political stage of their home
I say the biggest in many decades, but just by demonstration size
alone, you’d have to say the biggest mass movement the United States
has seen. EVER.
When was there ever a demonstration of a million people in Los
Angeles? One of half a million in Dallas? Of nearly 100,000 in
Atlanta? When was there ever a series of scores of protests in one
month like we have seen since mid-March when Chicago broke the dam?
One would have hoped that it would have provoked a more thoughtful
response than whipping up leaflets calling for a $15 minimum wage that
one of the non-Latino sectarians on the Marxism list proudly boasted
about having distributed at a Los Angeles demonstration. (That’s what
I love about ultralefts: millions of immigrants stage marches for
dignity and these comrades immediately reduce things to bourgeois
economist trade-unionism, imagining that by adding one or two zeros to
be bureaucracy’s nickel-and-dime demands, that have somehow taken it
to a higher level and imbued it with revolutionary content).
Because the situation cries out for applying the tools of Marxist
analysis to orient ourselves. And this is what I believe flows from
such an analysis:
There is no task more urgent than drawing together WITHIN the Latino
movement a militant, uncompromising, legalization for all left wing.
And on the terms of the issues posed by this movement itself, not with
demands parachuted in via ultraleft leafletters, whether of the
$15/hour minimum wage or the “drive out the Bush regime” variety,
which I saw here in Atlanta huddled at the edge of the Monday rally
intensely discussing whether or not they should hand out their
leaflets and circulate their petitions, because a couple of the
younger women comrades were telling an older male that they just
didn’t feel comfortable doing that there.
Trying to recruit to overwhelmingly white, or even strongly
multinational left groups can easily become a DIVERSION from and an
obstacle to the immediate, urgent task of cohering a left wing within
this movement. It is a secondary priority that should take a back
seat, and if you’re unsure on just how to do it right, wait. Because
seeing a movement like this develop and immediately trying to recruit
out of it, without being able to offer those you seem to attract any
real analysis, understanding or perspective for this concrete struggle
is, in my view, opportunism.
And even the groups that have tried to engage with the movement on its
own terms seem unable to really understand even fairly basic things.
For example, I saw at one of the protests on TV that there were quite
a few printed placards calling for “Amnesty” signed by, if I remember
Amnesty is not a word much of the movement is putting forward, it
hasn’t caught on, and for a very simple reason. Amnesty implies you’ve
done something wrong. And Latino immigrants don’t feel they’ve done
anything wrong. It isn’t something that’s been a big discussion in the
movement, it’s just a word that hasn’t caught on because it doesn’t
express the sentiments people have. It doesn’t “feel” quite right.
Legalization, full rights, that’s the sort of way people in the
movement tend to speak about this.
The enemies of the immigrant rights movement have tried to frame the
issue in terms of “amnesty,” and if for no other reason it is
sometimes also used. But for them, it is a part of their very
conscious campaign to frame the issue in terms of what to do with
these millions of “criminals,” these “illegals.”
So while I appreciate the sentiments of the radical group that put out
the amnesty placards, I would urge them to stop. I suspect they don’t
understand the character of the movement or the feelings of its
Why is “SÃ se puede” the most commonly heard chant on these
demonstrations? It isn’t a demand, and on its face, it could mean
anything. Yet it obviously means something very important to the
MILLIONS that have now awakened to political life and struggle. Try to
*understand* the actual movement just as it is.
Then there’s the Troops Out Now Coalition, which appears to have
unilaterally issued a call for a May 1 rally in Union Square in New
York. If that is the case, then this must be rejected as rank
opportunism. This is the sort of arrogance that has had such
disastrous results in the antiwar movement. And when dealing with a
Latino movement, this idea that a non-Latino group should be calling
rallies and controlling the stage undermines the very core character
of the movement itself. Whatever the intentions, it is a direct attack
and challenge to the integrity of the movement.
I’m sure there are all sorts of problems in the Latino immigrant
rights movement in New York. We have them here in Atlanta, despite
having had a better start in cohering a genuine left wing of the
movement than many other areas. Mostly white or even strongly
multinational left groups should get it out of their heads that they
can somehow “intervene” and solve the problems of leadership of this
movement. They can’t. And their trying to do so will only complicate
things further. The movement as a whole, and especially its radical
wing, needs solid reliable allies, not attempts by outside forces to
substitute themselves for the leadership that must emerge from within
the community. All such attempts are not only doomed to fail, but run
the risk of undercutting the process of the formation of a leadership
from within the movement itself.
These sorts of issues highlight the importance of having a solid,
grounded class analysis and Marxist understanding of what is going on.
An understanding especially of the *national* character of the
movement and the *nationalist* sentiments that drive it is essential
–and there seems to be a fair bit of NOT even seeing this going
around–, but that is not enough. You have to understand the actual
social forces, class forces that find expression in and through this
upsurge in the community and how they interact with broader forces.
The absolutely all-encompassing character of this movement in the
Latino communities is the result of a confluence of class forces that
is not likely to last.
You have the overall neoliberal drive for world domination, redoubled
with a vengeance after 9/11, which breeds and emboldens white
supremacist forces; and from that, the aggressiveness and inroads and
victories scored by the nativist wing of the Republican Party, the
offensiveness of racist hatemongers like CNN’s Lou Dobbs and so on.
But you also have the divisions within the Republicans between the
more mainstream corporatists (Bush-Cheney) and right wing demagogues
(Sensenbrenner-Dobbs-Tancredo), the pusillanimous continuous caving in
by the “liberal” democrats and the stampede for cover from the
“mainstream” DLC Democrats (with honorable exceptions, and more from
the Congressional Black Caucus than the “Hispanic” Caucus, it must be
admitted); and within it all the ACTUAL ruling class expressing its
class interests by hiring and sheltering undocumented workers by the
And you have this mass of Latino immigrants, both documented and un-,
but especially the undocumented, pushed out of their own countries by
the same neoliberal offensive that is attacking them here, who for
years have been beat up and denigrated as “illegals,” as job-stealing,
welfare-cheating, diseased-carrying, school-budget-busting, terrorist
sub-humans. Who are hired to build roads and then denied the right to
have drivers licenses. Who prepare the food served on airplane but are
not allowed to board them.
But within the Latino community, you have something else, you have
middle-class and even some small capitalist layers. Usually
subservient to their master’s voice, THIS layer has moved, partly as a
result from their own status as Latinos –including having been
undocumented (in Atlanta we have a couple of ex-”illegal”
millionaires), partly from the pressure from below, from their own
workers, friends, and family, but also and very importantly from their
own *class* interests.
Stalin says in the famous 1913 Bolshevik pamphlet on the national
question that the heart and soul of the nationalism of the bourgeoisie
is their home market. That is the same here, even though it manifests
in ways which the Bolsheviks couldn’t have imagined (and even though I
disagree with the Bolshevik 1913 position of reducing the national
question to just the interests of the bourgeois forces).
What has made this a MASS movement is the media, and most of all the
radio. And what made it possible for all these DJ’s and radio
personalities to go all-out for the movement is that despite their
middle class status, they are also, almost to a person, immigrants,
and immigrants who came here as adults (very few people can work in
Spanish-language media at a professional level, just from a language
point of view, unless they were educated in Latin America: otherwise
their Spanish is too “foreign,” too corrupted by English). But also,
because their bosses did NOT tell them to lay off, on the contrary,
they egged them on. And their advertisers ALSO didn’t complain, but
said “right on” to the brothers. (And overwhelmingly they are
“brothers” — there are very few women DJ’s).
Frankly, what Nativo Lopez of MAPA told Lou Dobbs is the God’s honest
truth: if you had to name one person who was responsible for uniting
the Latino community, that would be Sensenbrenner. The vicious, racist
“Latinos have no rights the white man is bound to respect” bill he
pushed through the House in December convinced bourgeois Latinos and
middle layers that their trust in the fundamental capitalist
rationality of U.S. politics was misplaced in this case. And if you
look at the bill, it is simply the legal framework for a pogrom.
In desperation, these traditionally “moderate” forces have turned to
the Latino working class, and to the tactics associated historically
with the working class movement, marches and rallies, economic
boycotts and â€“in essence– strikes.
And in doing so they have unleashed a proletariat worthy of the name.
One that realizes that it must not “permit itself to be treated as
rabble,” one that instinctively feels that it “needs its courage, its
self-confidence, its pride and its sense of independence even more
than its bread.” One that calls its events marches for dignity, not
marches for amnesty.
The interactions of this Latino proletariat with the other social
classes isn’t as straightforward as people might think. This is not
exactly “class against class,” it is much more *complicated.*
One of the untold stories –there must be thousands of them by now
nationwide– of the Latino movement here in Atlanta is that when we
held the day without immigrants protest here on March 24, a lot of the
union members at a big commercial laundry walked out from the plant
and crippled production. I know the head of that plant’s local. She is
undocumented, a mother who is supporting children she left with their
grandparents back in Mexico that she hasn’t seen for years because the
border crossing has become too dangerous and she can’t risk her job.
A higher up in her union went to bat for the workers, and got them all
off with a verbal warning. They were also negotiating significant
participation by workers from that plant in the Monday protest,
although I don’t know the outcome of that.
You would think the reaction of the plant management would have been
to immediately fire everyone involved in what was in essence a wildcat
but you would be wrong. The plant management and company involved have
been more lenient because, of course it’s in their interests not just
to keep their workers relatively happy, but more fundamentally,
because it’s in their interests to keep their workers period. And what
the laundry capitalists see as their right to exploit this labor is
under attack, and from their point of view the action of these workers
in defending their staying in this country is a defense also of the
right of the laundry bosses to exploit them.
I suspect the compaÃ±eras who led and took part this action did not
necessarily think this through in such explicit terms to figure out
whether they could get away with it. They acted on instinct but mostly
driven by the attacks against them from the politicians, which as they
see it, leave them no choice but to fight back, and now that the
opportunity to do so has presented itself, they are willing to take
risks to do so.
It is important to *understand* the various class forces and interests
in play to orient yourself in this movement. There is on the organized
socialist left very little understanding, and in what’s being
reported, there is quite a bit of arrogance.
* * *
The movement that has erupted is clearly and beyond any possible
confusion a *national* movement, a multi-class movement by oppressed
people against their oppression as a people. Very significantly, it is
a NEW movement. There has never been a generically Latino movement
before. This is a product of the evolution of the last 30 or 40 years,
the huge continuing immigration and the development of a “national”
(meaning Latino, as opposed to nationwide) media in Spanish. I went
over some of the factors leading to the development of a generically
“Latino” (as distinct from a specifically Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican
or Chicano) national identity several months ago in a paper I think I
posted to this list (as well as others) and can send to anyone who is
But this “Latino” movement is also an expression of the national
movement of Latin America as a whole, of the collection of Balkanized
nations that are slowly waking up to the reality that they must become
a single nation because that is the only way to deal with the problem
they all share, U.S. imperialism.
I don’t mean to imply by this that there hasn’t also been a rise in
specifically Chicano (or Mexican, or Mexican-American) nationalist
sentiment as a result. Quite the contrary, the signs are everywhere of
a big upsurge in nationalist sentiment of the main immigrant
nationality groupings. But as comrade Evo Morales and the Bolivian
indigenous movement teaches, the nationalism of the oppressed is
fundamentally *different* from the nationalism of the oppressor in
this regard. “No es excluyente” â€“ it doesn’t exclude. You can be
indigenous, and Guatemalan, and Mesoamerican, and Latin American, and
a part of the Third World, a person of color.
Being white (Anglo) in the “American” sense is completely different.
That is an exclusive identity, that’s the whole point to whiteness,
white supremacy. As Malcolm X put it, in the United States “white
And because it IS a national movement, the right approach is to
support the national-revolutionary forces, the coalescence of a left
wing in the movement that can become over time a proletarian wing of
the movement, especially as it vies for leadership with bourgeois and
Now, in a direct sense this is NOT a job for Anglo comrades, except
insofar as it affects their general political stance in terms of
propaganda and alliances. Comrades from other oppressed nationalities
can perhaps play more of a role, but even then, overwhelmingly, this
can only really be done by Latino militants and activists. That is the
real challenge, to cohere the left wing that ALREADY exists as
scattered activists in this movement, and especially the fresh forces
It is a pressing, urgent task. The conditions of this upsurge cannot
last for a long time. The *class* interests of the Latino proletariat
and other forces coincide only in part, and most strongly in the
negative: against criminalization of immigrants, against the
But when it comes to what people are for, or at least willing to
settle for, it is a different matter.
All sorts of forces were willing to support the phony “compromise”
cooked up by that gusano Mel Martinez a week ago and accepted by
Kennedy and the Democrats that would have divided the undocumented
between those who could PROVE they’d been here more than five years
and the rest that couldn’t and had to go back to Mexico and get
This is the most important dividing line between the emerging
revolutionary-national forces, proletarian in all but name, and the
bourgeois forces: legalization for all or for some.
Another very important issue intimately tied up with this is the guest
worker program. The revolutionary national forces are all for letting
“guest workers” into the United States — provided they get the same
rights everyone else gets when they move here, specifically, permanent
residency and U.S. citizenship under the same conditions and
timetables as, say, a Rupert Murdoch.
We *reject* a new Bracero program. Latino bourgeois forces especially
are basically okay with a new bracero program, which is essentially an
attempt at a continuation of what has been the real U.S. immigration
policy –letting immigrants in, but with second class status, as
“illegals”– in a more controlled way and under a new name (what the
Latino capitalists object to in the whole drive by the ultrarightists
is moving Latino undocumented immigrants from second class status to
no status whatsoever, and possibly driving them out of the country.
Latino bourgeois forces object because it undercuts the markets many
of them rely on as well as increases their legal risks for exploiting
I should make clear here that when referring to Latino capitalists,
I’m referring mostly not to the odd individual like the Hispanic head
of microprocessor company AMD, but rather to those whose businesses
revolve around the community, at least to a large extent. This
includes, in a sense, even some large Anglo-owned businesses, who, for
example, own community media, but whose Latino executives in charge of
a radio or newspaper have been given sufficient autonomy to respond to
this situation. And those executives would be among those who I’m
Nor is this strictly speaking just small capitalists, it involves some
significant forces in the bourgeois world, such as the Mexican and
Venezuelan TV monopolies behind Univision.
From this it should be clear why grouping together a broad left
current within the immigrant rights movement around a few essential
points is the central strategic priority TODAY. Because the
multi-class alliance with these bourgeois forces is unlikely to last.
There will either be a new rotten compromise cooked up when Congress
reconvenes in a couple of weeks, OR the Democrats will decide this is
a great club to beat the Republicans over the head with, reject all
compromises, and seek to divert the movement into purely bourgeois
electoralism, urging us to compromise our demands THAT way, by
subordinating them to getting “friends” elected.
That electoralist line is one that *excludes* the overwhelming
majority of participants in the movement, not just the undocumented
but legal immigrants also who don’t have the right to vote. On
average, it takes about two decades for half of the immigrants
admitted in a given year to become citizens, and many never do. So it
will be harder to divert this movement into electoralism. But you
could already see the effort being made, especially in the speeches at
the Washington, D.C. rally.
The left instead will want to keep the heat on for legalization for
everyone, and for expanded working class immigrants in the future
being treated the same as bourgeois immigrants, in other words, for
Latino immigrants being treated the same as white immigrants.
There is a need for the most conscious working class Latino fighters
to IMMEDIATELY fuse with –not multinational revolutionary groups–
but the most advanced and grass-roots-based and oriented wing of the
ACTUAL movement in their localities, and to start coordinating and
building ties between those forces in different localities.
Four points can serve as an initial platform or program for this left
A) Legalization for all; a “road to citizenship” on the same
conditions as all other immigrants.
B) Yes to massively expanded normal immigration from Latin America on
the same conditions as all other immigrants; no to a new Bracero program;
C) The Latino community and especially the immigrants must own and run
this movement; YES to support from Black and white and non-profit and
trade union and political party (even Republican) allies, NO to
non-Latino control over our destiny and our movement.
D) For continuing with the campaign of massive public protests.
In the medium term (in this case, months, not days or weeks) the
revolutionary left needs to do a lot of hard thinking. Historically,
the idea of recruitment to left groups out of these sorts of movements
has not resulted in building strong revolutionary organizations in the
United States but rather to isolate and fragment the leadership of the
social movements. The kind of political movement that needs to be
built is one that is more like the MAS, that serves to bring together
the leading militant of the social movements rather than scattering
them into a half dozen narrow sects.
There is a need for a new political space where leading activists can
begin to discuss and think through the strategic challenges that are
posed as the actual movements develop. There is no chance the
currently existing organized socialist groups can be that space, there
is no room in them, neither socially, culturally nor politically. The
discussion (or lack of it) within this list and I believe also within
the organized groups shows that the tendency of the socialist left is
to have way too many answers and way too few questions.
Of particular importance is that this new space make possible the REAL
leading participation of militants from the oppressed nationalities
and especially women. If you go to myspace.com, and look at the videos
of the student high school walkouts from all over the country that
have been posted there, the very strong impression you get is that the
majority of the leadership and participants in the movement are young
women. And that is certainly true of the overall immigrant rights
movement in my area, where women are the central core of leaders and
The traditional Left has a very serious problem of reproducing the
patterns of power and privilege from broader society. The forms of the
meetings, the style of discourse and debate, the emphasis on the
production of literature accessible really only to a very few in a
movement like this, all of that needs to be re-examined in a
self-critical spirit. And the practice of left groups that are
overwhelmingly not Latino coming into this movement with their own
sectarian leaflets and agendas with which to mold and shape the actual
movement needs to be self-critically examined from this angle also.