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
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
"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."
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
"There will be more mistrust. Jobs will be threatened," the notice reads. "Pray
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
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.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle