Hope for the Holidays

December 23, 2008


One of the many measures of the hardness of our times can be found in South Texas, where even the simple act of bringing Christmas cheer to children can sometimes require more than just a spirit of charity. In some cases, it often requires the kind of stonecutter’s determination one finds in a (Charles) Dickens tale, the determination of someone like Luissana Santinbañez.

“The fact that we’re able to bring these toys to children is a huge victory. It took an incredible amount of struggle” says Santibañez, a 25 year-old San Antonio resident who is one of the organizers of a toy drive for children detained along with their immigrant parents behind the concrete walls and barbed wire fences of the T. Don Hutto Detention Center.

“We only got to deliver these toys as a result of lots of litigation and many protests” she says adding “We got to do this because of the community outcry about what’s going on behind the walls of those privately-run immigrant detention centers: children and families living in horrific conditions –the lack of medical treatment, the bathrooms without soap, the food with cockroaches, the people dying in detention, the suicides. We can’t let them be so cruel to kids; We can’t let them hide this.”

The “we” Santibañez mentions includes a very broad and diverse group of people of numerous religious, racial, ethnic and class backgrounds, many of whom had never been involved in immigrant rights or any other activism.

The determination exemplified by Santibañez, who got involved in immigrant detention issues after her mother, a former permanent resident detained and eventually deported for allegedly transporting undocumented immigrants, is spreading across the entire country; It mirrors how the plight of immigrants in the United States has given rise to a different kind of hope, a hope rising out of the darkly fertile soil of very hard times.

“I’m committed to this because of people like my mother,” she says, her throat trembling with conviction as she also describes how she and her four siblings must rely on one another now that they are “left without a mother.” In a country facing colossal challenges – poverty and economic divisions not seen since the Great Depression, fabulous political and corporate corruption surpassing anything seen during the Gilded Age, panic and fear of epic proportions – immigrant stories in the United States are inspiring people around the world.

Consider the widely-watched factory takeover staged by Vicente Rangel and the other 200 mostly immigrant (80 percent) workers laid-off on December 5th by owner the Republic Door and Window manufacturing plant in Chicago. Demanding severance and accrued vacation pay after the factory owner gave them just three days notice before closing the plant down, Rangel and his fellow workers’ took over the plant and, in the process, garnered global attention. And in an act not seen from a President or President-elect since worker unrest forced Franklin Delano Roosevelt to speak about the growing worker militancy of the 1930s, President-elect Barack Obama, made favorable mention of the factory takeover in a speech delivered shortly after it happened.

Media outlets from around the world are still calling Rangel’s union; Workers from across the country are also calling the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers union to speak with Rangel and other workers who have become rock stars of the labor movement, something that still surprises Rangel.

“I never thought we’d get this kind of attention” said Rangel, a 34 year old parent from Michoacan, Mexico who migrated, he says, because “it was so poor where I came from, there were only two options: the military or migrate.”

Twenty years after he migrated from Michoacan, a region with a long tradition of labor and political militancy, Rangel found himself drawing on the traditions of struggle of both his rural homeland and his urban home.

“When we were in the factory, I thought about the great ones who came before us – Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and others were accused of being criminals like immigrants are now. I also thought of what Martin Luther King had to suffer through and how big all these struggles are,” said Rangel from his union hall. “Respeto, dignidad. We were not asking for what we didn’t deserve.

Since winning back over $1.75 million in monies and benefits owed them, Rangel and his fellow workers have decided to invest in a ‘Window of Opportunity Fund’ to reopen a newer, better plant. “We want to incentivize others to invest so we can create green jobs and do recycling that helps save the planet,” said a smiling Rangel, who added “and we hope to inspire others.”

Apparently, Rangel and the Republic workers’ holiday hope is already generating hope across geographic, cultural and linguistic boundaries.

“I don’t have a job right now,” said 53, year-old Ling Gan in Mandarin. “But when I saw [the Republic workers sit-in], I felt very inspired because their struggle to protect their rights is the same as ours.”

Gan, one of several workers at the New On Sang poultry workers in San Francisco’s who are protesting because, they say, they too are owed wages from their former employer since last September. Gan and his fellow workers are have staged strikes and protests targeting New Ong Sang’s owner, who, he says, “has cheated us because she thinks we don’t understand the laws.”

Like Rangel, Guangzhou native Gan also draws on traditions of both his homeland and his new home in his pursuit of “justice.”

“It’s a myth that Chinese are ‘passive,’ “ says Gan. “In the United States, we feel that we’re in a country of laws and we came with great trust in the legal system and will use it fight for our rights until we win back what we’re owed.”

While he is motivated by events in the Chicago factory, Gan also sees his own fight with New Ong Sang as a way to encourage others, especially because of the feeling of “I can’t pay rent, let alone buy gifts for holiday,” he says.

“But my hope is that the that the public will feel even greater sympathy towards workers experiencing these kinds of problem – and that it inspires others in a similar situation.”

2 Responses to “Hope for the Holidays”

  1. Monte Says:

    Thank you for these moving stories – they bring hope and determination to me!

  2. Joanna Says:

    Best wishes for the holiday for you and your loved ones. I appreciate your work, your stories, and your inspiration!

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