For the first time in memory, the Latino community took to the streets of Washington, D.C., in large numbers on October 12, 1996. (The date carries much significance in that the dominant culture of North America celebrates it as "Columbus Day." Most others in this hemisphere call
it by other nameschief among them, "Indigenous Peoples Day.") To march with the thousands of Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters that day was to marvel at the many enriching aspects of this community in our midst.
First and most obvious is their youthfulness and vigor. Moving down Washington's lovely 16th Street toward Lafayette Square and the White House, one was carried along by wave after wave of enthusiastic Latino kids. Upon reflection, this phenomenon comes as no surprise. The major part of the population in just about every country from Mexico on south is under 15 years of age. That demographic fact raises interesting questions for our aging U.S. society as the next few decades unfold.
The sheer numbers of Latinos that day made a deep impression as well. Washington, D.C. police have all but given up attempts to calculate crowd size, given past difficulties and controversies around such estimates. I am left with impressions. For example, walking downhill somewhere in the middle of the throng, I looked ahead over a sea of humanity and could not see the lead marchers; looking behind me, it was the sameno end in sight. The Latinos were out in force.
Gratifying qualities of the Latino community penetrated my consciousness as we walked along. The Spanish language, whether understood or not, sounds musical, upbeat, and embracing when it surrounds you. The question pops into mind: Why would anyone want a law to prohibit such a lovely means of expression in multicultural United States?
The natural warmth of these brown sisters and brothers flows out to the Anglo companero. Of course, my Franciscan robe, so much a part of Latino religious folklore, made me a target of their affection. But the other gringos who dotted the crowd received similar gestures of welcome and gratitude from the Latino majority. They do know how to make you feel at home.
Finally, and above all, was the crowd's overwhelming sense of purpose. The Spanish-speaking community in this country, like all other perceived "foreigners," rightly feels besieged. Xenophobic policies being carried out by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (the hated "Migra") impact bitterly on anyone who looks even slightly dark or "different"be they documented or not.
So we saw clever banners in Spanish and English proclaiming, "NO ONE IS ILLEGAL" and "WE SHALL NOT GO AWAY" and "A PEOPLE WHO DO NOT REMEMBER THEIR ROOTS CANNOT KNOW THEIR FUTURE"this last a reference, perhaps, to efforts at closing U.S. borders against newcomers. The surface climate of celebration and "fiesta" masked somewhat the deep anger that prompted this huge demonstration.
ALONG THE ROUTE I was interviewed by an African-American reporter for the conservative Washington Times newspaper. Our conversation turned into a fruitful dialogue in which we challenged each other on two significant points. First, that both the Latino and African-American communities need to put aside their differences and realize who the common enemy is in this country. And, second, that the churches, especially the Catholic Church, had better accompany the Latinos and other minorities on the streets as well as in the sanctuaries.
The marching and demonstrating on that clear October day left one overriding impression. The Latino community in this country is a not-so-somnolent giant. The dominant culture can no more hold it back than it can put toothpaste back in the tube. Our best tacticeven in terms of self-interest, not to mention our better valuesis to celebrate the new vigor and breadth that this latest immigrant community, like so many before it, brings to our national life.
JOE NANGLE, O.F.M., is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.