By Esther Cepeda
The Seattle Times
Editor’s Note – The views and opinions expressed in this article are of those of the author only. They in no way reflect the views and opinions of hispanicohio.com or its partners and affiliates.
CHICAGO – It has all the makings of an inspirational tale for the history books: a diverse community of U.S.-born and immigrant Latinos – feeling demonized by one political party’s radically anti-immigrant policies and another’s stepped-up deportations – unites to bring about a long-sought comprehensive immigration-reform plan.
Are we, as some are proclaiming, on the cusp of a Hispanic civil-rights movement? If we are, we have to call it something else: It’s time to retire the appropriation of the term “civil rights movement.” It doesn’t belong to us.
Whether it’s Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois stirring up his base with references to integrating lunch counters, or Fox News’ Glenn Beck wrapping himself in Martin Luther King’s conscientious objection at last summer’s “Restoring Honor” rally, or the debate in the gay African-American community about whether it’s proper to advocate for their issues under the banner of the civil-rights movement, we need to leave the epic struggle to bring full citizenship to Americans who were once held in bondage alone. It belongs to history.
One of my recent columns about a movement to form a third political party for Latinos generated this typically angry note: “I have to speak up, Esther, and be very critical of Rep. Gutierrez’s statement that a Latino uprising over the Dream Act would mirror the American civil-rights movement. The American civil-rights movement was championed by taxpaying citizens of the United States of America, who for generations had been denied the fundamental rights afforded by citizenship and guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. This dreadful analogy will engender neither sympathy nor support from the likes of those who marched with and supported Dr. King. On the contrary, they may find it offensive.”
Yes they do. Back in 2006, Elvira Arellano, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who was convicted of Social Security fraud, took sanctuary in a Chicago storefront church with her U.S.-born 7-year-old son for a year to avoid being deported. She famously said, “I’m strong, I’ve learned from Rosa Parks – I’m not going to go to the back of the bus. The law is wrong.” This led to her supporters calling her a Mexican Rosa Parks – and people of all races and ethnicities across the country were infuriated.
Regardless of how respectful or well-intentioned the comparison, there’s really no equivalent to the suffering that African Americans had to overcome. And though some immigrant activists see clear parallels, 30 million U.S.-born Latinos couldn’t rightfully march under a civil-rights banner – their struggles are different.
“I would say we want to walk a fine line between being sensitive to people’s feelings and being doctrinaire,” said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the internationally recognized Montgomery, Ala.-based civil-rights organization. “We tend to use the term civil rights in a universal way but we are on the verge of a new terminology because civil rights, in a strict legal sense, lacks the components of human rights such as the economic right to work.”
Cohen told me that his organization tries to be sensitive to the terminology concerns of some of the very people they advocate for when trying to communicate about issues in the context of today’s cultural and political atmosphere. “We’re more liberal with using the terms ‘civil rights,’ we use it often and in a more universal sense than some advocates like .
“We tell people there’s no hierarchy of oppression, but the bottom line is that language is powerful and there’s always an evolution of language. The work of any civil-rights organization is to communicate well, and when you’re talking to people who may be on the other side of your issues you want to use terms that are familiar to them, but you don’t want to carry unintended consequences so you have to be cognizant of how people respond to you.”
That cognizance must be at the forefront of the minds of leaders who are calling on disillusioned Latinos to work more closely together to realize their immigration-reform hopes in the coming years. It will be an epic struggle, too. And to be a successful one, it will have to be framed as being unique to the issue, all the people of diverse nationalities involved, and to this moment in time – the immigration-rights movement.
Esther J. Cepeda’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times.