Walkout by Latino immigrants set for today

But in Columbia, some say they can’t afford to miss work.
Monday, May 1, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:29 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting.]

Silence is the key to today’s “Day Without Immigrants,” a nationwide walkout planned by immigration-reform activists to continue the push for comprehensive reform of laws that would primarily affect migrants from Latin America. Latino immigrants across the country are being asked to stay home from work, school or shopping to draw attention to the roles they play in everyday American life.

While some Latinos in Columbia plan to participate in the boycott, many plan on business as usual. Some of those not participating say the protest is unnecessary. Others say they simply can’t afford to miss a day of work.

“My friends and I, we’re going to work,” said Sergio Gomez, a construction worker in Fulton. Gomez, originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, has been living in mid-Missouri with his wife and six children for 15 years. He said he would work not because he doesn’t support reform, but because he does not want to miss a day of pay.

“I work hard, I have a lot of kids. I need to work,” he said.

Javier Pollo, host of La Hora Latina, a Spanish-language radio program on KOPN, said he does not see the need to walk out.

“I think the government understands perfectly that the Latino community is a great support economically and with labor,” he said.

Mario Cortez, manager of International House of Pancakes on Conley Road, said he was not aware of any plans the restaurant’s Hispanic workers might have to miss work. But, he said, “If the Hispanics decided they weren’t going to work, it would be very difficult for my business.”

Some workers and their employers, however, will join the ranks of people walking out across the nation. Cesar Valdivia, manager of the Tequila Mexican restaurant on Nifong Boulevard, will close the restaurant. Although he has gained residency since he moved to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico, eight years ago, Valdivia wants to support his employees. Many are Mexican immigrants, and he wants them to be able to participate without fearing for their jobs. Closing also makes good financial sense.

“I could lose more money if I literally let them go and hired new people and trained them than if I close that one day,” he said.

Valdivia visited his father recently in Mexico, and he said seeing the economic situation there makes him grateful he grew up in the United States.

“Seeing the standard of living here compared to the standard of living there, I can understand why (Mexicans) come here,” he said. “I’m glad they’re organizing a protest.”

Maria Ramirez, who owns Taqueria El Rodeo with her husband, Luiz, is closing the restaurant for the day as well. Although she doesn’t think that Columbia’s Hispanic population is large enough for the boycott to have a significant impact here, she said it’s important to support the national call for immigration reform.

“I was an immigrant when I came here, and I know how much my parents suffered,” she said. “This is giving back a little bit.”

Lazaro Gonzalez, who came to the United States in 2000 from Michuacán, Mexico, organized a demonstration extending beyond the protest’s purpose of invisibility. Although he won’t be clocking in at the Tyson Foods plant in Sedalia, he and 50 other immigrants there are organizing a march that is scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. He expects more than 1,000 people to participate, Hispanic and non-Hispanic alike. The purpose, Gonzalez said, is to show the country how many immigrants live and work in this country, “and the good they do on a daily basis.”

“I don’t agree with what the government is trying to do with us, treat us like we’re criminals,” he said, referring to a proposed House bill that would make it a felony to be in the United States illegally.

Some in the Hispanic community are finding ways to support the boycott without walking off the job. La Casa Grande in south Columbia will remain open for business today, but employees will dress in white instead of their usual black.

“White is the color of peace,” said Maria Bravo, owner and manager of the restaurant. “With much love and respect, we are asking Americans to accept us.”

Bravo, 48, has lived in the United States for 37 years, and in Columbia for the past eight. She said that diversity is necessary in the United States, and that Hispanic immigrants, legal or otherwise, are an integral part of that diversity.

“America is made of different colors, like a quilt, and the colors are Asians, Mexicans and Americans,” she said. “We need the color brown for it to be firm.”

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