We should have walked out!
Text by Zelene Pineda Suchilt
Illustration by Blake Jones
Driving North on Shepherd, as you cross the train tracks before you hit the Katy Freeway, nestled between a church and a shed you will find a congregation of recent immigrants looking for work. I remember seeing them on the way to school one day, and asked myself if they were the terrorists Lou Dobbs was talking about. After the attacks of September 11th, as the U.S. headed for an economic recession, attitudes and conversations about Mexican immigrants began to shift. The people needed a scapegoat and xenophobia ran rampant.
In 2005, the Arizona-based vigilante group known as the Minute Men came into notoriety for staking out day laborer hot spots like the one on Shepherd and outside Home Depots all across the US. To the average Minute Man, a war veteran enjoying the comforts of retirement while watching Fox news, it made sense to blame immigrants for the perils of the nation — someone needed to be a hero and others the target.
When the House of Representatives passed H.R. 4437 in 2006 — one of the most xenophobic and anti-constitutional bills in American history — the masses began to mobilize. It was one of those rare moments in history when popular sentiment reflected that a great injustice was being formalized and committed against the most vulnerable: immigrants. Soon, groups working on anti-war efforts as well as labor and social justice issues came together against the oppressive piece of legislation and in support of immigrants and immigration reform. In Houston, since immigration and labor are so closely related — immigrants come here seeking work, after all — immigrant rights organizers worked in unison with the labor movement.
When moments like this come along, it is advisable to look at the actions of young people. They have the energy to escalate an issue into a movement due to their impulsiveness and natural state of rebellion. In Houston, where the majority of the population are people of color (historically of Black, Native and Mexican descent), young people began to walk out of school.
At Reagan High school the principal, Robert Pambello was talked into raising a Mexican flag below the American and Texan flags, by the majority latin@ student body, but was quickly ordered to remove it. The “Mega Marchas” or mass demonstrations started on March 10th in Chicago. 500,000 thousand people took to the streets, on the 24th, 20,000 marched to Senator Jon Kyl’s office in Phoenix, while in Georgia, tens of thousands of workers participated in a work stoppage, then LA, Ohio, Northern Virginia, Nashville….and on the 30th the Mexican flag was raised at Reagan.
HISD was forced to take a stand. They called for a press conference in which they touted two of the student protestors, one of whom was me:
“We want the media to have an example, of what students are capable of — organizing, being effective, making an impression” and Latina Club President: Tina Marie, “- without breaking rules and without breaking laws and working within the school system.”
Over 500 students at Lamar High School met at the flagpole before school began on April 6, a demonstration modeled in part on “Prayer on the Pole” actions organized by Christian students to protest the separation of faith and education. Most of the students who came to the rally identified as Mexican. They brought flags and were ready to walk.
Directly across the Lamar campus, on one of the busiest (if not the busiest) street in Houston, Westheimer, is the River Oaks Country Club. Tina Marie and I had decided that walking out would put students in physical danger from traffic, and we had learned the financial strains that police issued tickets placed on low income, under-educated youth from the other recent walk-outs in Houston and other cities.
The rally was promoted through MySpace and mass text messages, and we flyer bombed the school throughout the week. We asked that everyone wear white in solidarity. We even sent out a press release, and several media outlets came to the campus but were escorted by school security across the street to the commercial strip in front of Lamar. The plan was to hold the rally before school and walk in to class as a political act in support of immigration reform. I began the rally by letting people know what H.R. 4437 was, and what actions were being organized by the national movement to reform immigration law.
Principal McSwain came down from his office balcony and asked to use our megaphone to speak about his Irish grandparents and faith, he was supportive of immigrants and “Prayer on the Pole.”When the bell rang, we all walked in, in our white shirts. Mexican students were disappointed that we hadn’t walked out, that we gave McSwain the megaphone, and when the school broadcast channel interviewed Tina and me immediately following the walk in, they christened us Timon and Pumba.
McSwain invited us to the HISD press conference that was being held that same day, to which we drove in a limousine. We were the stars of the press conference and were granted permission to make a statement. Our action became known throughout the city because of the local and international coverage it had received.
Looking back, I wish we had walked out and caused a real stir. Down Kirby…towards Shepherd… to where? I don’t know. That was for the masses to decide.
by Guest Author