Published on Tuesday, December 10, 2002 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Activists Prodding Latinos to Speak Out Against War
Fear of un-American label keeps many quiet
by Joe Garofoli
Guillermina Arias is the mother of four sons between the ages of 17 and 23. Even though there's no draft, she worries that there could be -- and that she could lose her sons -- if the United States goes to war with Iraq.
Arias hears the same fears when she talks to other mothers in her predominantly Latino neighborhood in Pittsburg about opposing the war. It's the fear of mothers everywhere, only more so in neighborhoods where they feel their children will be the first to go to battle.
Mainstream peace groups hope to tap that sentiment to broaden a movement often seen as the province of middle-class whites -- but as Arias has learned, selling protest isn't easy, especially in communities that harbor fears of being branded as un-American and have plenty of day-to-day problems already.
"I always hear people say, 'We don't want the war. But if I say something, what are they going to do to me?' " Arias said.
Arias paused. Even her husband wonders why his Mexican-born wife speaks out against the war as part of the social justice volunteering she does with her church. "He says, 'One of these days I'm going to lose you because you are always opening your mouth,' " she said.
With protests scheduled for today in Oakland, Sacramento and across the country, anti-war activists are hoping that more Latinos are willing to join Arias in speaking out.
The outreach is still relatively small. And while activists are trying to recruit Spanish-speaking people, some critics say they've largely overlooked Asian communities.
Yet, as Arias knows through her volunteer work, trying to get people to care about a not-yet-started war halfway across the world can be difficult. This is especially true for folks worried about more pressing needs, such as putting food on the table, their brother's immigration status or safety in their neighborhood.
Plus, many new immigrants fear that speaking out against war will brand them as un-American.
"War -- that seems so out there to a lot of immigrants," said Salli Fune of the Northern California Citizenship Project. The San Francisco nonprofit just finished working with 14 groups on a three-month project that emphasized the value of protest, among other tenets of citizenship, to more than 22,000 Bay Area immigrants.
'THE VALUE OF SPEAKING OUT'
Fune said immigrants who attended the workshops, classes and other events showed organizers that "if you can connect (war) to their daily lives, they can see the value of speaking out."
California Peace Action, the state's largest peace organization with 35,000 members, is leading the drive to recruit Latinos to the anti-war movement. Other anti-war organizations, like International ANSWER and Global Exchange, are stepping up their door-to-door outreach in Bay Area neighborhoods, handing out leaflets everywhere from BART stations to outside a recent Mission District screening of the movie, "Fidel: The Untold Story."
Community outreach workers at Arias' Pittsburg parish, St. Peter Martyr, are running a small item in the church bulletin that's tailored to its Latino congregation. If war comes, the item reads, borders will be tightened, and many will be called to fight.
"There will be more mistrust. Jobs will be threatened," the notice reads. "Pray for peace."
Aside from the moral issues, the immigrant recruitment drive is about politics and numbers. With 32 percent of Californians identifying themselves as Latino in the 2000 Census -- and eight congressional districts sporting a voting-age Latino majority -- peace activists need their support to bend a few ears in Washington.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus overwhelmingly opposed the White House- backed resolution that gave President Bush the authority to attack Iraq if diplomatic efforts to disarm Baghdad fail, but the measure passed easily.
LATINO VOTER TURNOUT LOW
While Latino voters are twice as likely to vote Democratic than Republican, they don't necessarily vote in big numbers. By some estimates, Latinos made up as little as 10 percent of the electorate in last month's elections.
"Latinos are part of the traditional Democratic base, and we need to have them in the fold if we're going to convince Democrats to challenge the administration on foreign policy," said Peter Ferenbach, executive director of California Peace Action, based in Berkeley.
Ferenbach admits that the 10-year-old organization has been "spotty" in the past about even translating all its leaflets into Spanish. Not only is that changing, but California Peace Action is hiring staff to do more recruiting and outreach in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods in Southern California, and possibly later in Northern California.
It is also consulting with Latino community leaders on how to make its peace appeal more culturally sensitive and politically powerful.
"It's a population that's so busy with sheer survival on a day-to-day basis that it's going to be very difficult to recruit them," said Ignacio Castuera, a Los Angeles pastor and longtime activist who has advised California Peace Action.
Castuera suggested paraphrasing Martin Luther King's rallying cry against the Vietnam War. "We need to tell people," Castuera said, "that every bomb dropped somewhere else is bread off of our table. It means not enough schooling for people who are not schooled enough anyway.
"Unfortunately," Castuera said, "there isn't someone in the Latino or black community like Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King to deliver that message."
RELIGION A BIG FACTOR
Then there are the cultural challenges.
"Latinos are very religious," said Rosa Penate, a San Francisco organizer with International Action, who has worked in the Latino community since 1990. "They put everything in the hands of God. It's hard to break through those beliefs."
Arias, the Pittsburg mom, hears that all the time, too.
"They say, 'God will take care of me. We do not want a war, but we think God will take care of me,' " she said.
Others wonder why such outreach efforts aren't being made into other communities of color, like the Asian community.
Even though 32 percent of the San Francisco population is of Asian descent, few peace organizations are planning to increase outreach there. With limited funds, Ferenbach said, he can't afford to court voters who may be too conservative.
Privately, another peace organization leader said, "We'd like to, but we don't have many contacts in that community."
"They're just not trying hard enough," said David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voter Education Committee. "If you're an activist and trying to build a broad base of support, you can't just keep talking to the same people.
"I would urge (activists) not to accept the stereotype that Asian voters are all conservative. This is a community that is very receptive to human rights concerns. And that's what (activists) can tie their message to."
Even if their message connects, activists must still overcome the fear factor in immigrant communities. Many organizers say new immigrants -- and even some newer citizens -- don't want to be perceived as being un-American, especially in the post-Sept. 11 era of suspicion toward some immigrant communities and the federal government's broadened surveillance and search powers under the U.S.A. Patriot Act.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle