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Black America, Social Movements, USA

Elvira Arellano is NOT the New Rosa Parks

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For a year, Elvira Arellano, a Mexican immigration activist and illegal immigrant, has been given sanctuary in a church, protesting her impending deportation and illuminating the political situation faced by many illegal immigrants in the US.

“From the time I took sanctuary the possibility has existed that they arrest me in the place and time they want,” she said in Spanish. “I only have two choices. I either go to my country, Mexico, or stay and keep fighting. I decided to stay and fight.”

On Sunday, August 19th, 2007, Arellano left the church and was promptly arrested and deported. Many consider her arrest and deportation unjust, calling her the new Rosa Parks.

Cindy Mosqueda at loteria chicana had this to say:

–“I’ll admit, many comparisons to Rosa Parks are flat out offensive and even comical… However, Arellano was doing something similar. She was openly defying this nation’s laws that she considered unjust and unfair. Her defiance of these laws was dangerous. Crossing the border is not easy and we know that being held in one of the ICE detention centers can be hazardous – even deadly – to your health. She’s part of a large movement considered by many as this nation’s newest Civil Rights Movement and is president of the organization La Familia Latina Unida and her right to take sanctuary in a church was supported by prominent national civil rights organizations like National Council of La Raza and League of United Latin American Citizens. Oh yeah, and she’s a Christian.”

For those of you who don’t know, Rosa Parks was the Black woman who refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955. Historians have determined Parks’ act of political defiance, an act for which she was arrested and fined, the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

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To call Elvira Arellano the new Rosa Parks is not only offensive, it is completely ignorant of the history of Black Americans and the political struggles faced by our people from slavery to Jim Crow and beyond. Elvira Arellano’s political journey, and the political history of her people in this country, can in no way be compared to that of Rosa Parks and African-Americans.

While I do believe that struggle is relative, and I’m sure Elvira and her family is suffering, her act of defiance is simply not comparable. Her act was not the defining moment of a political movement; in fact, the illegal immigration movement has lost steam in the past years.

Elvira Arellano is not a citizen of the US and does not have the right to demand that laws pertaining to immigration be dissolved because she deems them unjust. On the other hand, Rosa Parks was a citizen of the US and the Jim Crow segregation laws were in direct violation to our Constitution.

When it comes to immigration in the US, I tend to be down the middle politically. I recognize the important contributions immigrants have made to this country, and value diversity in all its forms. However, I believe that the immigration conversations held in this country completely leave out blackness; from the plight of Black immigrants, the toll illegal immigration takes on the employment of the native born Black population, the anti-Black sentiments expressed and acted upon by non-Black immigrants, and the preferential hiring practices of employers choosing unskilled, low wage illegal immigrants over Black people. Even the word immigrant conjures up images of brown Mexican and Central American people, making the plight of Black immigrants invisible.

This talk about the comparisons between Elvira Arellano and Rosa Parks reminds me of this job I had many years ago at the Columbus Metropolitan Museum of Art. My supervisor at the time was asking me what my goals in life were. I told her I wanted to be the next Toni Morrison. She looked me in my eyes and said, “Why don’t you be the first Kym Platt instead.”

Why do people feel the need to draw comparisons between Arellano and Parks? It’s culturally insensitive, historically inaccurate, and completely unnecessary. Latinos living in the US need to create their own political leaders and icons, instead of piggybacking and appropriating the political achievements of African-Americans. It’s one thing to be inspired by and learn from the Civil Rights Movement, but to hijack it and gentrify it will only weaken the legitimacy of immigration movement, but it also makes it all the more difficult to build African-American and Latino political alliances.

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14 Comments

  1. Kai

    I agree that nobody can be “the new Rosa Parks” (or “the new Toni Morrison”, hehe), though I believe most people who say this simply mean that Arellano has become a symbol whose civil disobedience has galvanized a movement.

    Obviously the mainstream discourse and propaganda on immigration in the US is terribly constricted because it is intended to divide the working class and pit communities of color against one another. The ruling class is good at that.

    One point I want to make sure I understand: do you believe that Blacks in America have endured a more traumatic, historic, or unrecognized struggle against white supremacy than the indigenous people who were here before Columbus?

    Peace.

  2. I wonder if it might be useful to think about the comparison not as a violent act of appropriation but as a way to create cross-cultural dialogue. If, for example, I compared a Kenyan activist in the US to Wangu wa Makeri, it would make little sense to most US residents. But invoking Rosa Parks provides a frame of reference and, hopefully, a way to think through the relations between law and race.

    We might also take the view that such comparisons have been central to many diasporic struggles and encounters. The Civil Rights movement drew from anti-colonial struggles, for instance, just as ongoing fights for rights in other countries draw from the Civil Rights movement here.

  3. Keguro,

    We could consider it a way to create cross-cultural dialogue, but the socio-political relationship between the African-American community and the Latino community, specifically Mexican, isn’t really a friendly one.

    The immigration struggle in the US hasn’t drawn much support from the African-American community because Latino groups have pitted themselves against us, using racist political mottoes like, “immigration laws should be overlooked because WE do work THEY won’t do”, all the while ignoring the stratospheric unemployment rates in the Black community and preferential hiring practices of employers who profess that Latino immigrants are harder workers and more docile (meaning less likely to organize) than Black Americans.

    Also, you’re talking about comparing black political movements with black political movements. One movement “bleeds” into the next, with Black people seeing hope and inspiration in the political achievements of other Black communities.

    Would a (black)Kenyan activist who defied oppressive laws in much the same way as Rosa Parks be called the “Kenyan Rosa Parks”? Probably not, because Black people see themselves in each other’s struggles. If Latinos (non-Black) saw themselves connected to Black political movements, there would be no need to re-racialize a Black political hero. The fact that Arellano is being called the Latino Rosa Parks is not because Latino activists are paying homage to the Civil Rights Movement, it is because the political interests of Black Americans are being displaced and co-opted by Latino activists in a way that is offensive and hostile.

  4. I disagree with Kym. There’s nothing wrong with drawing comparisons. Martin Luther King often drew comparisons btw. Black struggles and biblical figures. He also learned a lot from Ghandi and the movement in India, and drew comparisons there. Harriet Tubman was called “Black Moses”, Bob Marley, Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela all took quotes from, drew comparisons with and drew inspiration and strength from the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. What’s wrong with the immigration movement doing the same thing? Nobody said Allerno WAS Rosa Parks, it’s really just a figure of speech, to evoke the image and to compare/establish solidarity between two similar points in history. It’s like saying, “Bush is the new Hitler”

  5. elle

    I agree, there’s nothing wrong with making these kind of comparisons. But the comparisons should be apt. In Arellano’s case, the comparison doesn’t work. She’s not an American citizen fighting for civil rights in her own country. She’s an illegal alien fighting for rights she’s not legally entitled to. It’s like someone breaking into your house and fighting for the right to stay. What right is that?

  6. Pierce,

    I disagree with you! Bush is evil, but I wouldn’t call him the new Hitler. That would be insulting to Jewish folks who lost 6 million of their kin. GW has committed crimes against humanity, but nothing close to that level. Some comparisons are sacreligious.

  7. Okay, perhaps “Bush is the new Hitler” is too inflammatory, but you didn’t address any of my other examples. What about MLK/Ghandi, or Tubman/Moses?

    I know that Parks was a citizen and Arellano is not. King was not an Isrealite, nor was he an Indian. That did not stop him from drawing comparisons with Moses and Ghandi. It’s just a comparison, which draws upon similarities between two historical moments.

    I disagree with your claim that drawing this comparison is “appropriating the political achievements of African-Americans… (making it) more difficult to build African-American and Latino political alliances”

    When I say “Nat Turner was the American Tousiant Louverture” am I appropriating the political achievements of Haitians? No, I’m evoking the memory of the Haitian Revolution to suggest that there was a new revolution going on in the US, inspired by the activity of rebellious Blacks in Haiti. I’m building bridges, not burning them.

  8. Also, Elle-

    you say Allerno was an illegal alien “fighting for rights she’s not legally entitled to.”
    So was Parks. She was (technically) a citizen, but she was fighting for rights that the majority thought she was not entitled to. It’s only today, POST Brown v. Board that we can claim Parks was “entitled” to sit in the white man’s chair.

    In the 50’s someone could have easily said, “It’s like a nigger jumping onto OUR bus and demanding to sit in your seat. What right is that?” Well, it wasn’t a right the struggles of people like Parks MADE it a right.

    So maybe 50 years from now, (post immigration-reform act of 2009) people will look at Elvira Arellano as “ahead of her time” instead of someone who “weaken(s) the legitimacy of immigration movement”

  9. Sokari

    Kym @ I agree with Keguro’s point that it does provide a frame of reference. I believe we must do all we can to move beyond our own back yards into a wider space and engage in dialogue with others in struggle — cross the borders, break them down. One excellent example of was reported at the USSF plenary on the Gulf Coast where

    “The plan to set the Latino’s against the African Americans has failed because the two communities are building links and working together against the common enemy of capital with it’s developers and their allies the local, state and national governments with Bush at the helm.”

  10. Heith

    I disagree…Rosa Parks is overrated…so what shes a good person…they both her….shes the new mexican rosa parks….you guys arnt so special

  11. elle

    Sokari:

    I didn’t mean to suggest Arellano has no rights. We all have human rights.

    But in context, Arellano is an illegal alien. Fact. And what legal rights an illegal alien has to DEMAND citizenship in America escapes me. But I’m willing to be better informed. And if there
    is a legal right, it certainly doesn’t seem to work for the Haitians entering this country illegally.

    Furthermore, to compare an illegal alien fighting to stay in America, with an American citizen (Rosa Parks) who was fighting for her rights to be enforced,
    is a weak comparison at best.

    I’m not opposed to historical comparisons. But I am opposed to misappropriations. If Arellano were in her country of origin fighting for her legal rights to be enforced, and by extension the rights of others, under the threat of death and imprisonment then yes, she would be the Rosa Parks of that movement. But that is not the
    case here. The only thing Arellano is fighting is the threat of deportation. Elvira Arellano is no new Rosa Parks.

    I wouldn’t raise a formal protest if Arellano is allowed to stay in America. But I am tired of the misrepresentations and false comparisons that are easily wrapped around this immigration issue.

    I hope it’s true the African American and Latino communities are working together down on the Gulf Coast.
    Maybe some of that togetherness will filter up to other areas of the country. Because right now, there are a lot of African Americans feeling pushed aside and less than appreciated. And those
    kind of feelings do not make the heart grow fonder.

  12. Sokari,

    I agree that we must move beyond our own backyards, but it seems to me, an African-American living in the US interacting politically with Mexican/Latino peoples/groups, that that movement is very one-sided. And, if you look at the anti-Black sentiments in Mexican/Latino cultures and then understand the process of assimilation into US culture by non-Black immigrants (hating Black people is the first rite of passage!), you will understand the contentious relationship held between Blacks and Latinos.

    Sure, we must connect the dots and understand that, to some degree, Blacks and Latinos are being pitted against one another and fighting over paltry resources, but Latinos need to decide not to participate in this racist structure and align with other communities. The political consciousness can’t flow one way!

    Having said all that, I have to say I agree completely with Elle. It’s not about denying an illegal immigrant human rights, it’s about first extending human rights to the folks in your own backyard! Black Americans have fought long and hard to achieve the flimsy political position we now enjoy, and it’s insulting when a group of people, who have no desire to recognize the human rights of Black people, parasitically appropriate Black political icons for their own movement. I am willing to bet $100 USD, that not only does Elvira Arellano not know who Rosa Parks is, she doesn’t call one single Black person among her friends.

  13. Joan Kelly

    So, hm. I saw this post a few days ago and felt I wanted to respond but was not sure how to articulate how I feel. I hope I can do it today without being insensitive to anyone.

    I feel like everything that bothers you, Kym, makes sense to me for it to bother you. I think it has to be okay to talk about prejudice, to whatever extent it goes on, between Latin@ and Black communities in the US, and it sounds like you are reacting to an experience of that.

    I think the hitch for me in the way Arellano is framed here is that I feel like some things that are also true are not in the picture. It’s maybe trite for me to mention the way the white supremacist culture wants everybody to fight each other instead of it. But it’s also true that it’s not just about trying to pit people against each other right now for resources that are presented as finite and paltry. It is also about supression of a history of alliance between Mexicans, for instance, and Africans forced into slavery. That history is not only *not* taught in schools to kids, it is not taught really anywhere that most people would have access to hearing about it. I’m 39 years old and I went to a couple of different colleges that considered themselves “leftist,” and I had no fucking idea that Mexicans not only gave safe harbor to Africans who escaped slavery back in the day, they also actively helped people get free. There are generations-old communities of Black Mexicans in Mexico to this day. A guy named Ron Wilkins is slowly and insistently getting schools here in L.A., one at a time, to let him come in and talk to Black and Latin@ kids about what he calls the suppressed history of Black-Brown alliance. Yeah there was a lot during the 1960’s, but it goes back beyond that, and continues beyond that today.

    Arellano and many undocumented workers are not treated the way they’re being treated because they’re “illegal.” That’s what is hard for me to set aside when listening to your frustrations. Undocumented workers are not tolerated, they are necessary in this country, they are necessary for the wealthier folks to get and stay wealthy. The “crackdowns” and whatnot are, from where I sit, simply a form of doublespeak, even while representing some very straightforward hatred towards brown folks (wherein treatment of undocumented workers once “seized” is brutal and sometimes deadly). The doublespeak is in the fact that people cannot come out and say “We want a servant class of workers!” because hopefully everybody would kill them where they stand. But they can get the endentured servants they want by refusing to pay legal wages to American citizens, while yelling about how something MUST BE DONE about the illegulz who are screwing up this economy for everybody and sometimes coming here not even for a hard day’s work but just to murder people!!, according to various propaganda.

    To me, the comparison I would think of in terms of experiences of Black Americans and Latin@ immigrants (as well as folks from other places) is that African slaves were much-desired and depended on by those who got rich off their labor, and the spectre of a violent rebellion/”takeover” was also a source of terror for white people, even those who weren’t slave holders. And that terror inspired much brutality and murder – for fuck’s sake it still does. Latin@ immigrants are coveted as an exploitable work force, and depended upon, and although I don’t include you in this group, Kym, many folks who are angry and want “them” to “go home” are worried that these brown folk who have been fucked over in so many ways, long before the current trend of “raids” and deportations, will become powerful enough to kick whitey to the curb.

    I would not have thought of Rosa Parks when thinking about Arellano, but it seems to me like something people do a lot, the whole “so-and-so is the new whoever-it-was,” soundbyte thing, in all kinds of situations.

    What you said here:

    “If Latinos (non-Black) saw themselves connected to Black political movements, there would be no need to re-racialize a Black political hero.”

    – struck me, I think because it makes a subtle and provocative point, but also because I feel like I am more aware of Latin@s who express connectedness with many political movements involving people of color, so what you expressed is not something that rings true for me, personally.

    I guess it’s that I don’t think you are wrong to talk about lack of connectedness where it exists and the anger around that. I know it’s not a race-for-most-oppressed, but I do know that there is a pretty blatant culture in this country where the browner you are, the more you can go fuck yourself according to the dominant powers. It seems like a bottom rung is always required, and that Black people, especially Black women, are always on it. I would just say that the subject of, say, a Mexican person being prejudiced and unjust towards a Black person, is a different subject than whether or not a person from anywhere on the planet has a right to protest a system that makes her economic subjugation compulsory and then punishes her for participating in it.

  14. Contumacious

    Elvira Arellano Spanish For Rosa Parks

    When it come to non-whites caucasians are always looking for a pretext to treat them disdainfully.

    The Chinese were deported in the 1860’s even though there was no evidence that they were an economic burden, that they were deceased or criminals.

    The blacks were discriminated against based on their skin color. On one occasion the Supreme Court ruled that they were not even US citizens.

    And now Hispanics are discriminated against because they are “illegals” which is , of course , an euphemism for brown skinned.

    Ms.Rosa Parks correctly asserted that there was no legal or factual basis to discriminate against blacks. And Ms. Arellano feels the same way about Hispanics.