On Monday, March first, I attended the May Day Dia Sin Latinx March organized by Voces de la Frontera (A Wisconsin based Immigrant and Latinx rights organization). This march was held with the objective of demanding that Waukesha County’s Sheriff Severson reject 287g, which he covertly put into effect after telling the people of Wakesha county that he wouldn’t. 287g allows local law enforcement to be used as ICE against the members of it’s own community. It would allow these officers to stop and question people based solely on their suspected immigration status.
Once arriving in Waukesha, I was excited by the huge amount of people who had shown up in resistance and solidarity. I could not gage the numbers at the time but have heard that there were from 10 to 15 thousand people. To me, one of the most beautiful aspects of this union of people was the communal aspect of it. There were tons of families and groups of people of all ages. There were parents teaching their children to stand up for themselves, that they have a beautiful community and that they are not alone. One of my favorite moments in the march was passing by a family that was marching. A little boy who could not have been more that 8 years old had a red toy megaphone and was chanting words of inspiration to his community and they would then chant back to him. This to me was more inspiring than even the amount of people who had gathered for the March.
At the beginning and the end of the march there were speeches by immigrants and children of immigrants speaking about their experiences and of what was at stake for them. There were also speeches talking about ways to hold Waukesha county accountable for their actions and speeches to give the community strength and hope. There was a lot of love in Wakesha at this march.
On May 1st of this year Voces de la Frontera arranged a statewide march for the rights of immigrants, immigrant families, and migrant workers aimed at sending a mesage to the state of Wisconsin about the economic values, through both commerce and labor, of the Latinx communities within the state. Having learned about it when a Voces leader visited our class, I planned to attend. Instead of driving to Waukesha for Un Dia sin Latinxs , as it was called, I elected to meet the bus at the nearby Public House. It’s a very short trip from my apartment, and sitting there, looking at the raised fist emerging from the woodwork, made me think about the irony of my situation. I was planning to travel to Waukesha to involve myself in a community action yet I’ve actually visited few places in my own neighborhood since moving here. I was happy to see a familiar face from class appear when M entered, and wondered how big that banner they hauled onto the bus actually was; as one woman said, it looked big enough to contain a body. We saw exactly how big it was later, as dozens of people carried it down the street.
I chose to pay for the bus ride for two reasons. First, I don’t know where Waukesha is and had no idea what the parking situation would be, but mainly because I felt that the bus ride could be a valuable observation opportunity, a chance to hear the preparatory rhetoric. I expected a journey filled with exhortations to unite, excite, and channel the energies of the riders toward one common cause and goal.
I was wrong. Aside from collecting the money – hilariously trying to collect a ticket from the driver – and boarding the bus, the Voces representative did nothing but talk to the person next to him. I saw a kairotic moment wasted. No one near us was really talking about the event, either, just making general chit-chat. Mand I took the opportunity to get to know each other a little better and discuss our connections to different Latinx communities, hers in Miami and mine in Albuquerque, and our mutual interest in film.
Once we got there, what interested me the most, naturally, was the use of language. The crowd was obviously quite ethnically diverse (a wonderful thing to see), and this was clearly acknowledged. While it seemed safe to assume that many if not most of the Spanish-speakers there also understood English (for reasons I’ll get to in a bit), it seemed equally safe to assume, this being the American Midwest, that this was not reciprocal and that not all the English speakers spoke Spanish at all or, like me, had limited understanding. Both languages were heard from the speakers, but Spanish took precedence; English, when spoken, was used to explain to those who didn’t understand what had just been said in Spanish. While the size of the crowd was impressive, and the signs and slogans powerful, I enjoyed this subtle reversal of language subordination the most. This was unapologetically a Spanish-speaking event. The initial rally weighed heavily toward Spanish, and the slogans – whose printed forms were about 50/50 between the languages – were almost always spoken in Spanish, with one not being spoken in English near me until halfway through the march, finally letting me know that the last word was “defeated.” This allowed everyone to follow the rhetoric, but also modeled the kindness and consideration for other languages that Spanish so frequently does not get in America, and that other languages may not get at all.
The message, while unspoken, was clear to anyone who listened, and served a legitimate and important purpose: to show that in this event, on this day, this Latinx community would not assume a secondary position, a back seat, and Spanish would not be a “foreign” language here. English was used to be inclusive; not, as is common, the default.
On the long march I saw and heard the energy and focus I had missed on the bus. Interchanging slogans were chanted constantly, and the entire town seemed to be watching. White, Latinx, and African-Americans marched for two miles by the thousands, some with their dogs, and unlike at other political rallies or parades, no one seemed to be there for any other purpose. Their energy was channeled directly down the street and toward the courthouse.
The speeches at the end of the march – and man, did my knees and foot hurt at the end of that march, making me feel inordinately aged – offered more English, either as a translation of entire speeches made in Spanish or, as in the case of a student with immigrant parents, made in English in the first place. His speech was not translated into Spanish, and this stands behind my assumption that most if not all of the Spanish-speaking attendees could get by in English just fine. Spanish was, it seems, not used in this event for purposes of comprehension, but rather to assert identity, to establish presence: a rhetorical choice made all the more effective by the fact that it wasn’t openly stated.
At least, not in English.
Listen to three white, female, graduate students chat about our experiences marching with Voces de la Frontera on May 1, covering topics like our reactions to the march, the unfortunate backlash we saw the march receive on social media, and the often dehumanizing aspects of citizenship.
-SP, DK, & CS
Lisa Flores, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has a forthcoming book that takes a close look at the United States’ rhetoric around the Bracero program. In February, she came to UWM and delivered a talk titled “The Promise of Race and the Whiteness of Nation: Rhetorical Dynamics of Immigration” in which she framed her rhetorical analysis of this time period.
In 1942 the United States signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement with Mexico, an agreement that basically categorized Mexican farm laborers as imports. This series of laws is known and remembered as the Bracero program. It was originally intended to fill the gap that opened in the labor force during WWII but the US continued to “import” Mexican laborers until 1964, long after WWII ended.
Before I summarize her argument, I want to point out the importance of Flores’ research and how it intersects with the work we’re doing in our course. All semester long, implicit and explicitly, we have read, noticed, and discussed the violence English has participated in with colonization. This violence can be seen in the history of “manifest destiny” wherein the US literally stole land from indigenous people with barbaric force, but it can also be seen in the way we deploy English-only laws, standardized curriculums, and the stigmatizing and criminalization of Splanglishes. This violence can also be seen, quite literally, in the way the US’s current administration talks about Mexican people. The current US president was born 20 years before the Bracero program was terminated. The effect of the rhetoric Flores studies is alive and well in the US, pumping more violence and imperialism into contemporary American discourse and politics, further colonizing and dehumanizing our Latinx populations.
Lisa Flores analyzed American ad campaigns soliciting Mexican laborers. Advertisements appealed to laborers, yes, but they also appealed to businesses and “citizens” to comfort them. Ads targeted to Mexican men offered promises of prosperity and good living conditions. Ads appealing to business owners showcased Mexican laborers as happy and hard-working contributions to their enterprise. And ads appealing to “citizens” promised the sustenance of nation and, also, showcased Mexican laborers as happy neighbors, here to help in the enterprise of building a nation.
This is where Flores’ analysis takes shape. She borrows from Sara Ahmed and argues that the US characterized Mexican laborers as “happy objects.” Ahmed explains her concept of “happy objects” in her book The Promise of Happiness—the similarity with Flores’ talk’s title is noteworthy. For Ahmed, a happy object contains the promise of a happy future. If it makes your skin crawl for people to refer to other people as an object, you’re not alone. But, ultimately Flores argues that the US’s rhetoric treated Mexican laborers as “happy objects” to uphold notions of white supremacy and nationalism. To dehumanize is to gain rhetorical power.
Where do we see that happening today?
The US is currently in a crisis wherein we can’t decide how to protect and support people who want to live here, who regard this soil as home. Our Latinx people, our Dreamers, our DACA recipients are not given the full category of citizenship. This violent term continues to be used to dehumanize and colonize populations on US soil. American discourse about our Latinx population has gone from “happy objects” to dangerous criminals and Lisa Flores’ research shows how the one ultimately led to the other.