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March Just a First Step, Latino Leaders Say : Rights: New statewide coalition vows to go on offensive against what many say is a rising tide of immigrant-bashing.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was an impressive, well-organized show of force, the kind of watershed event that immigrant advocates had long hoped to mobilize. Thousand of Latinos marched along Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles last Saturday in repudiation of what many call a rising tide of immigrant-bashing and xenophobia.

Behind the demonstration was a newly formed statewide coalition and a corps of young Latino leaders--typically immigrants or the working-class offspring of immigrant parents--who are far removed from Los Angeles’ traditional Eastside Latino leadership.

“In the next several months, you’re going to see us on the offensive,” said Roberto Lovato, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, a social service and advocacy organization based in the Pico-Union district west of Downtown. “The debate has been one-sided, but not any more.”

Lovato, a 30-year-old native of San Francisco’s Mission District and the son of Salvadoran immigrants (“My father was a janitor and my mother was a maid,” he says) was one of five principal Los Angeles-based march organizers. All of them are in their 30s or early 40s.

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The five have long histories with immigrant causes. And all call the march and coordinated actions throughout the state a turning point in a debate that, they acknowledge, has left them on the defensive.

“This movement is taking off,” said Juan Jose Gutierrez, another organizer, who came to Los Angeles from Mexico with his family when he was 11 and now heads One Stop Immigration, an Eastside center that works primarily with a Mexican population.

The other principal Los Angeles-based organizers were Susan Alva, staff attorney with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles; Arturo Vargas, vice president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Jose de Paz, who heads the California Immigrant Workers Assn.

The emergence of new Latino leaders statewide is part of a strategy designed to counter what many in the community view as an anti-immigrant backlash--particularly in California, the nation’s battleground on this issue.

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“We want new leadership to come along, so we’ll hopefully have a long-lasting network,” said Mario Salgado, a Colombian-born Oakland attorney who heads the statewide California Latino Civil Rights Network, the umbrella group formed in February that sponsored the march and other activities.

All five Los Angeles-based organizers emphasize the need to galvanize Latinos and build bridges to other immigrant groups and non-Latinos. “We want to bring people together,” Gutierrez said, “re-creating the social quilt that L.A. is all about.”

Facing the difficult logistic task of pulling off a large-scale march, organizers counted on volunteer help and heavy promotion by neighborhood organizations, Roman Catholic parishes and the Spanish-language media.

Meantime, the event’s architects also had to cut through divisions that have long fragmented the Latino community. Some differences stem from the Latino population’s greatly varied nature--a fact that belies the occasional outside perception of a monolithic bloc. In fact, opinion polls show that many Latinos condemn unlawful immigration.

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For years, Central American expatriates have fought for political asylum rights and just conclusions of civil conflict in El Salvador and Guatemala. Those often-dramatic battles sometimes overshadowed the plight of the much larger Mexican immigrant population, which has generally lacked the focus of their Central American counterparts.

It was significant, then, that Mexican, Salvadoran and Guatemalan flags were hoisted in tandem Saturday, and shouts of “Viva Mexico!” were followed by rhythmic exhortations saluting the nations of Central and South America and the Caribbean.

While stressing links with other communities, organizers leave no doubt that this is foremost a Latino movement--one designed to embrace both new immigrants and multi-generational U.S. residents, the undocumented and those with legal status. The many attacks on illegal immigrants, they say, are to be viewed as assaults on all people of Latin American ancestry.

“The immigration issue, particularly in California, has very much turned into a Latino issue,” said Alva, a New York native of Mexican and Dominican descent who previously worked with the United Farm Workers union. “We’re feeling the brunt of it.”

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After Saturday’s march, jubilant organizers were talking about a broad-based movement, a late-century version of the 1960s black civil rights struggle. An even larger statewide mass mobilization is planned for Los Angeles in October, just weeks before California elections that some view as a referendum on immigration issues.

“We have some tremendous momentum now,” said Vargas of MALDEF.

Vargas, a 31-year-old native of Los Angeles’ Pico-Union district who has a master’s degree in education from Stanford University, has been with the Los Angeles-based fund since 1988. A onetime student body president at Belmont High School, he worked for three years in Washington with the National Council of La Raza.

Of the current movement, Vargas said: “We want to demonstrate that there is broad opposition to what we consider hate talk.”

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The group’s immediate targets include Gov. Pete Wilson’s reelection campaign and the “save our state” initiative, which has been submitted for possible inclusion on the November ballot--and supported by Wilson. The sweeping initiative--which opponents call the most drastic anti-immigrant proposal in recent U.S. history--would, among other things, make illegal immigrants ineligible for all but emergency health services, mandate the expulsion of undocumented youths from public schools and require police to report illegal immigrants to federal authorities.

Initiative opponents are seeking allies among health professionals, educators, law enforcement officials, women’s groups and others.

Another key objective is increasing U.S. citizenship sign-ups among Latino immigrants, particularly Mexican nationals--the largest single group--who have traditionally had lower citizenship naturalization rates than most other immigrants. Simultaneously, organizers hope to bolster Latino voter registration and turnout among existing citizens.

“Marching and sloganeering is fine,” said Gutierrez of One Stop Immigration, “but what ultimately counts is the ballot box.”

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Although march organizers are optimistic, they acknowledge that they have a long way to go.

“We need to lead ourselves,” said De Paz, a former Chicano studies teacher who heads the California Immigrant Workers Assn., a group affiliated with the AFL-CIO, and is spearheading the the Fight Back! campaign. “We’re not apologizing anymore for being immigrants.”


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