My anger brewed as I absorbed my professor’s analysis of the activist framing strategy during the famous 2006 immigration rights protests. I sat patiently as she explained the historical context that had brought about the large-scale protesting—the late 1990’s and early 2000s saw an increase in anti-immigrant legislation, ranging from Proposition 187 in California to the House Bill 4437, which both would have criminalized aid for those who were undocumented. House Bill 4437 was indeed the very catalyst for the 2006 immigrant rights protests, the largest mass protests in United States history.
Throughout immigration reform debates, media pundits have depicted criminalized notions of the undocumented community, pitting them as extraneous to families and communities. In response to these popularized conceptions, much of the 2006 activist messaging was dedicated to reminding the public of how deeply ingratiated into social fabrics the undocumented community was, as parents, members of churches and community centers; slogans such as “I am not a criminal” were among the most popular. My professor’s claim was that the activist community was perpetuating the efforts of people of color to pit themselves as different from, and thus better than, the Black community. Aware of the real pitfalls and difficulties of racial coalition building, I knew of the importance of shedding light on unproductive political movement messaging. I wasn’t quite sure that this fit the bill, however, and so I questioned.
When I commented that I had never before heard of such intentionality in the activist messaging, my professor informed me that her theory was not based on the explicit intentions of the movement’s leaders, but was based on the implicit meaning that could be garnered from their framing. Why would an academic impose such a counterproductive framework to the 2006 moment? What is the responsibility of knowledge producers to respect the intentions of the activist efforts they document? Moments such as these perpetuate the idea that Black-Brown solidarity cannot be an antidote to hateful discrimination, that it must be a project that reproduces the ails both movements are trying to overcome. I have more faith in the potential for justice to believe this to be true.
A lesser-known history of Black-Brown coalition building demonstrates a capacity for allegiance that arises from shared struggle between Black and Latino/a communities. Dating as far back as 1546, when a coalition of indigenous rebels and Black slaves rebelled against slave owners, Black-Brown solidarity propelled efforts to quell injustice. In 1855, Mexicans residing in Texas aided over 4,000 Blacks escape from slavery. When Mexican authorities refused to cooperate with the United States government’s demands to bring back those who had escaped, it sent over nearly 20% of its army. Mexicans continued to aid Black slaves escape, anyway. 1967 marked the year in which the Poor People’s Campaign was unveiled, an effort to widen the solidarity net cast by the emerging civil rights movement and Chicano rights movement. Martin Luther King reached out to leaders of the Chicano movement such as Corky Gonzales and Reyes Tijerina, wanting to expand the network of participating coalitions. Corky Gonzales led the Southwestern contingent of the March on Washington the following year. When Corky Gonalzes passed away in 2005, Black Panther Lauren Watson led a march of remembrance in Denver, Colorado.
Our interests have intersected and continue to be intertwined—increased incidents of police brutality, stop and frisk, disproportionate rates of incarceration, and a striking educational opportunity gap, to name a few examples. Though overcoming difference, whether perceived or real, is always a formidable barrier in coalition-building, the foresight to envision unity based on shared struggle is necessary in order to strengthen the political power of Black and Brown communities. Given a history of understanding and cooperation, and a fight that has not ended, the future holds possibility for the growth of a Black-Brown movement.