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Powerful Outage

Skipping Work, Boycotting Stores And Taking To The Streets, Immigrants In Hartford, Across Nation Unite To Show Clout

May 2, 2006
By MARK SPENCER, Courant Staff Writer

A month ago, Alina Zeñiga was a wife, mother and teacher who had never been involved in politics.

But on Monday, she was a blur of activity as she scurried around the stage of the bandstand in Hartford's Bushnell Park in front of thousands of people, shuttling speakers to the microphone, doing interviews and planning strategy with other immigration activists.

Those in Connecticut joined hundreds of thousands of people across the country Monday in demonstrating the political and economic clout of immigrants by attending marches and rallies, refusing to buy or sell anything and not showing up at work.

Zeñiga and other activists in the state said the large rallies in Hartford and New Haven showed that their movement is growing as undocumented immigrants shed their fear in the face of a heated debate in Washington over competing proposals that could leave them labeled as felons and deported, or give them a chance to become citizens.

It was that debate that energized Zeñiga, who immigrated from Colombia about 15 years ago, to help organize a march last month in Hartford and Monday's "Day Without Immigrants" rally and boycott.

"We are getting more organized," she said. "We know we are capable of anything. People are getting excited."

Under sunny skies, a festive mood prevailed among several thousand immigrants at the rallies in Hartford and on the New Haven green. Many came as families or with groups of friends and waved American flags along with the flags of Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador and other countries.

The question now is how the movement, which some equate to the civil rights struggle, should channel its energy.

Zeñiga said the rallies would continue, although their timing will depend on how the debate in Washington progresses. She also said the movement, dominated by Latinos, needs to reach out to other immigrant communities, such as people from the West Indies and Asian countries.

"What I see here is a spontaneity," said Fernando Betancourt, executive director of the state Latino & Rican Affairs Commission. "I see a thirst for something bigger."

Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez, who addressed the rally twice, said the Puerto Rican community is growing more supportive as it becomes more familiar with immigration issues, which are relatively new to New England.

"There's going to be more comfort and more commonality" between Puerto Ricans and Hispanic immigrants, he said.

The Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., estimated last week that there are 70,000 to 100,000 undocumented immigrants in Connecticut.

Several activists said immigrants would increasingly become involved in traditional political activity. Ylse Vasquez was helping immigrant citizens register to vote Monday.

She said many immigrant citizens previously saw little point in voting, but the immigration debate is changing that.

George Alvarez, a permanent resident who was born in Colombia and lives in East Hartford, attended the Hartford rally with his wife, sister, young son and a family friend. He said the immigration debate has prompted him to think about his role in the United States.

"This is a big trigger for me to become a citizen," he said.

In a sign of the movement's growing pains, activists were divided over whether Monday's boycott and work stoppage were wise. Some feared the move could cause a backlash, while others said it was the next step to increase pressure for immigration reform.

Organizers in Connecticut advised immigrants to try to get the day off from work and encouraged businesses in heavily Hispanic areas to close.

On Park Street in Hartford, many businesses did close, including restaurants, clothing stores, bodegas and package stores.

Some that remained open found a way to recognize the day.

Andre Ruiz opened his clothing store, Nano's, at 870 Park St., but put up the American, Mexican and Dominican flags outside, along with others.

Ruiz is Puerto Rican but said he wanted to show respect for his immigrant customers.

"They come here to work," he said. "They don't come here to just hang around. Without them, what are we going to do?"

More than a dozen stores on Grand Avenue, in the heart of New Haven's Fair Haven section, were closed for the day in a show of support.

"I've never seen anything like it in New Haven," said Kica Matos, a lawyer who heads Junta for Progressive Action, an immigrant advocacy group. "It really was like a ghost town."

Alejandro Defrutos paid a dozen of his construction workers to spend the day rallying for progress. Defrutos, who immigrated from Spain 20 years ago, said he relies on undocumented workers to keep his business running.

"I either close my business or hire these people," he said.

Criollisimo, a popular Puerto Rican restaurant on Arch Street in New Britain, was closed Monday. A sign posted on its front door read: "May 1st will be close due to supporting all the immigrants in the United States. Will reopen on Tue. May 2. Thanks."

Nationally, industries that rely on immigrant workers were clearly affected, although the economic effect of the boycott was difficult to gauge.

Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest meat producer, shuttered about a dozen of its more than 100 plants and saw "higher-than-usual absenteeism" at others. Most of the closures were in states such as Iowa and Nebraska. Eight of 14 Perdue Farms chicken plants also closed for the day.

Secaucus, N.J.-based Goya Foods, which says it is the nation's largest Hispanic-owned food chain, suspended delivery everywhere except Florida, keeping 300 trucks off the road and leaving more than 5 million products in warehouses an extra day. A spokeswoman said the company wanted to express solidarity with immigrants who are its primary customers.

None of the 175 seasonal laborers who normally work Mike Collins' 500 acres of Vidalia onion fields in southeastern Georgia showed up.

"We need to be going wide open this time of year to get these onions out of the field," he said. "We've got orders to fill. Losing a day in this part of the season causes a tremendous amount of problems."

In the Los Angeles area, normally bustling local restaurants and markets were dark. In Florida, as elsewhere, the construction and nursery industries were among the hardest hit.

Another controversial action Monday was the call for parents to keep their children out of school.

The effect on schools was significant in some cities. In the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District, which is 73 percent Hispanic, about 72,000 middle and high school students were absent - roughly one in every four.

Officials from the Chicago Public Schools estimated that as many as one-third of the city's 435,000 students didn't show up for class.

Hartford and New Haven school officials reported no significant increase in absenteeism, but Danbury Superintendent of Schools Eddie Davis said there were about 400 more absences than normal among the 3,000 students at Danbury High School, and about 100 more at each of the city's two middle schools.

At New Britain High School, 15 of the 3,000 students had parental permission to walk out of school Monday. In West Harford, more than 100 students, most of them from Conard High School, walked out of school Monday morning and marched on Main Street in support of the national movement.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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