By Martin Smith
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 350

Striking a note of resistance

This article is over 11 years, 11 months old
Earlier this summer I found myself walking around the Pilsen district of Chicago. Migrant Mexican workers settled in the neighbourhood in the 1960s.
Issue 350

There you can see hundreds of murals and mosaics. These works of street art depict the daily life of the migrant Mexican community and their struggle for civil rights. Many of these works are clearly influenced by the Mexican muralists of the 1910 Revolution – Diego Rivera and José Orozco.

Next to many of these murals and on noticeboards across the neighbourhood are simple handmade posters. They all show a picture of a young woman; written below are the words “Se Busca”. Some of the posters have the young woman’s details and a poem.

“Se Busca” literally means missing. The young women remembered in these posters are called “las muertas de Juárez” (the dead women of Juárez).

Since 1993 up to 5,000 women have been murdered in and around Ciudad Juárez and El Paso – the border regions between Mexico and the US. According to one US human rights organisation, “The victims of these crimes are young women, between 12 and 22 years of age. Most are either students or migrant workers…their bodies are found days or months later abandoned in vacant lots, outlying areas or in the desert. In most of these cases there were signs of sexual violence, torment, torture or in some cases disfigurement.”

These young women are migrant workers and their murders are rarely, if ever, solved. Those responsible for this butchery are organised crime gangs, corporations with factories based in the border cities and the federal authorities. All collude in the export, exploitation and murder of these migrant women workers.

The investigative journalist Diana Washington Valdez showed that most of these women were killed because they resisted or refused to submit to their exploiters. Some were killed because they were just surplus to requirements.

Later that evening I was invited to attend a meeting called by a Chicago branch of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. The hall in Pilsen was crammed to capacity, a mix of trade unionists, churchgoers and community activists.

The meeting began with prayers. Then a middle aged couple walked onto the tiny stage holding a picture of their daughter, with “Se Busca” written across it. A lone guitarist joined them and sang a mournful lament. At the end the couple repeatedly cried, “Still missing.”

My translator explained that, although the couple’s daughter’s body had been recovered, they refused to accept that she was dead. For them she was still missing in their hearts.

The meeting then discussed the campaign against Arizona Senate Bill 1070 (SB1070). If the law is passed it will make it a crime for an immigrant to be in the state without immigration papers and allow police to search “suspected illegal” immigrants and their vehicles. This would legalise the state racial profiling of Latinos, laws akin to those used by Nazis against the Jews in the 1930s.

There is a massive movement resisting SB1070. A new civil rights movement is emerging: it has some parallels with the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, so much so that the activists talk about the campaign against the “Juan Crow” laws.

Its roots lie in the protests that began in Chicago in 2005 when tens of thousands took to the streets against a law which attempted to criminalise 12 million undocumented immigrants. The law was derailed the following May Day when millions of Latin Americans struck and protested in cities across the US.

Over the last few years the movement has subsided, but SB1070 has breathed new life into the struggle. Younger members of the audience talked about the “Sound Strike”. For the uninitiated, “Sound Strike” is the campaign to boycott Arizona launched by the band Rage Against the Machine (RATM).

Outraged by SB1070, the band announced that it would not perform in the state until the bill was pulled or defeated. Hundreds of other artists have joined the campaign, including MIA, Nine Inch Nails, Steve Earle, Ozomatli and Kanye West (check out the Sound Strike website for a full list of the artists joining the boycott). A massive concert was organised by RATM in Los Angeles in July, with all proceeds going to grassroots campaigns based in Arizona resisting SB1070.

As the meeting came to a close I was honoured to be given a Mexican football shirt. It closed with the singing of folk songs, the drinking of beer and the eating of glorious tacos.

Chicago played a pivotal role in Martin Luther King’s campaign against poverty in 1966. It also spawned Curtis Mayfield, one of the finest soul singers and the man who penned many stirring civil rights anthems.

Today in Chicago and many other cities across the US a new movement is dawning, one with its own rich musical and cultural history.

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