Shuffling her feet in her Garden Grove home last weekend, Mariela Muniz stared into the carpet and suffered, as teenagers do, the silent deliberation of her parents. Soon, her father nodded and her mother uttered the words she’d been waiting to hear: “Lo puedes hacer.”
“You can do it.”
The next morning, the 15-year-old sophomore at Garden Grove High School -- with the permission of her parents, both of whom are factory workers and Mexican immigrants who became U.S. citizens after entering the country illegally -- skipped school for the first time in her life.
Following in the footsteps of those who led the first of the student walkouts March 24 and the adults who organized last Saturday’s massive protest against proposed immigration legislation, Muniz became one of a few dozen students in Southern California who helped spearhead a national exhibition of civil unrest, one of the largest and most boisterous since the civil rights movement four decades ago. By the end of today -- in Fresno, in Monterey Park, in San Diego -- more than 40,000 students in California will have walked out of their schools to protest the proposed reforms.
There is little question that some students took advantage of the protests to ditch school. Some acknowledged they had little idea what all the fuss was about. Others took the opportunity to throw bottles at police and to shut down freeways. Law enforcement officials criticized them for diverting resources from more pressing needs, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told them to go back to school.
But for the small group of students who instigated the walkouts, most of whom hadn’t been politically active but were well-connected on campus and online, it was a transformative week.
Using modern technology -- mostly their communal pages on the enormously popular MySpace website -- they pulled off an event with surprising speed and dexterity. Planned in mere hours on little sleep, lacking any formal organization, the protests were chaotic and decentralized and organic.
They were also a reminder that there are more than 35 million Latinos in the United States, about 40% of them in California. At least 8 million are in the country illegally. But many of their children -- including many of the student leaders -- are citizens by birth. And they represent a voting bloc that could help shape the politics of the West for years to come.
“I think it is the beginning of something,” said Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science at UC Irvine. “You have the foundation for a new kind of Hispanic politics.”
Many of the student leaders attended last weekend’s Gran Marcha -- which brought 500,000 demonstrators to downtown Los Angeles, stunning even the event’s organizers -- and said they were awed by the event.
“I’ve always been proud to say that I’m Hispanic,” said Rafael “Ralph” Tabares, 17, a Marshall High School student and an organizer of his school’s walkout. “But on Saturday, I thought: Whoa. We can do something. And we can do it right.”
Others said they were inspired by the recent airing of the HBO film “Walkout,” which re-created the Chicano-era school walkout by 20,000 Los Angeles students in 1968.
Since that tumultuous time, many Latinos in California had come to favor quiet, somber assimilation over loud, showy rebellion. To many, the student protests -- and the Gran Marcha -- represented a reawakening.
“It hearkens back to 1968,” said Andres Jimenez, director of the California Policy Research Center at the University of California. “There was a sense of frustration that they saw with their parents in terms of the tenor of the immigration debate. This group is being singled out as a ‘problem group.’ And they wanted to seek an avenue to respond to that, to show that on the contrary, this group is very much a part of the broader society.”
To be sure, students revealed both their youth and their naivete at times. When thousands of Los Angeles students descended on City Hall on Monday, for example, one student said she remembered something about civil rights protesters in the 1960s sitting down during demonstrations. It was a reference to the “sit-in,” but it wasn’t entirely clear whether the students recognized the pedigree of their decision to plop down on the steps.
“That was the idea of a girl from Belmont” High School, said Tabares. “In the ‘60s, the way they did it was sitting down. So we told everybody to sit down.”
Just as often, however, students evidenced a surprising amount of savvy. They carried trash bags in their backpacks so they could not be accused of littering. They corralled students who tried to stray into stores and restaurants so they would not be seen as marauders.
Tabares even ordered classmates to put away Mexican flags they had brought to the demonstration -- predicting, correctly, that the flags would be shown on the news and that the demonstrators would be criticized as nationalists for other countries, not residents seeking rights at home.
Stephanie Cisneros, a senior at Los Angeles Downtown Business Magnet, had to contend with the fact that many of her classmates were concerned about the police in squad cars following the marchers.
“Living in a low-income neighborhood, you just don’t have a really good image of the police,” said Cisneros, who became one of six students invited into City Hall to meet privately with Villaraigosa. “People thought we were going to get arrested. But I told them: ‘No. We are exercising our right to free speech. As long as we don’t do anything wrong, we won’t be arrested.’ ”
Cisneros and a few others directed demonstrators to cross the street with the light and to remain on the sidewalk so they couldn’t be accused of trespassing. “We were respectful. But we fought for something,” she said.
The protest staged by Muniz and two friends in Orange County was typical of the student leaders’ efforts.
They had heard about the March 24 walkouts at several high schools in Los Angeles, and decided to launch a protest of their own. On Sunday afternoon, they posted a bulletin on MySpace -- since discovered by school administrators, who were not pleased -- announcing that anyone wishing to participate should stand up at the 8 a.m. tardy bell Monday and “meet in front of the school.”
In the scattered, rapid-fire text typical of students’ MySpace missives, the bulletin continued: “dOnt b scared.... All these politic officials are trying to make their dreams come true by destroying ours, AND THEY WILL, unless we do something about it!!”
On the Internet site, which serves as a free-of-charge, virtual gathering place, users can send bulletins to all of their MySpace “friends.” The lists can include dozens of people and the bulletins can be passed along in seconds.
It didn’t take long before most of Garden Grove High’s roughly 2,200 students knew what was coming, without the knowledge or involvement of teachers or parents.
Soon, the bulletin crossed over an invisible but critical line between teens who were friends but attended different schools. Students began posting their telephone numbers, and soon dozens more pledges to participate were obtained through phone calls and instant text messages.
Still, when the tardy bell rang Monday morning, Muniz had no idea what to expect. Teenagers can talk a big game. But would they follow through?
She waited in front of the school. Soon, the doors opened, and scores of students -- most of them Latino, but a handful of whites, African Americans and Asian Americans too -- joined her. They marched through Garden Grove and Anaheim, picking up students at several other schools as planned through MySpace bulletins. By 1 p.m., they had covered 10 miles. An estimated 1,500 students had walked out. Muniz was a truant -- and, to her friends, a hero.
School administrators have since informed her that she’ll have to perform community service as penance. Back at her home, a humble ranch-style house with family photographs on the wall and avocados on the dining room table, she said it was worth it.
“Sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in,” she said. “We did. And it worked.”