Tuesday, May 02, 2006 | The gravel roads of deepest Otay Mesa were devoid of the usual crunch of car tires Monday morning. The chain-link fences of the dealerships and tow yards were locked tightly shut. The wail of the ice cream van was missing. Only a stray dog sniffed around for a bargain.

A few miles down the freeway, the grass of a field in San Ysidro was being churned to mud by thousands of feet. A mariachi band played politically-charged anthems that flapped in the breeze with thousands of American, Mexican and other assorted flags.

As one of many marches in San Diego protesting proposed immigration laws got underway, grown men could be seen crying. Fierce young machos took off their shirts and led the way for a column of people that at one point stretched halfway across the border town. Children trotted along, confused but enjoying the adrenaline that floated on the air like an intoxicating, almost dangerous mist.

The San Ysidro protest began by the discount malls that stretch north away from the border. On the Tijuana side of the crossing, angry young men and middle-aged women were trying to stop the cars from crossing into the United States. They needn’t have bothered – there was barely a trickle of northbound traffic anyway.

As the march got underway, it was clear that the San Diego Police Department wasn’t going to tolerate any deviations from the etiquette of peaceful protests. The crowd was kept tightly packed, and side roads along the route were blocked by menacing lines of cops that meant “don’t even think about it.”

But despite its pre-planned trajectory and the show of force by the authorities, the protestors at the San Ysidro march let fly with everything they had. Almost everyone had some kind of prop: A banner, a quirky T-shirt, a drum, and even one papier-mache’d costume of the Statue of Liberty. In between the messages of unity, this was also a chance to do what Californians do best: show off.

Later, at another rally in Balboa Park, the ostentatiousness of occasion would also be seen in full flow. Because this is Southern California, cars played a big part in the protest. Indeed, the crowd was most vocal in spraying its songs and theme anthems across the four-lanes of traffic crawling up and down Sixth Avenue, most of which were honking their horns in either support or derision. The crowd didn’t really care, as long as they got a reaction.

And getting a reaction was what Monday’s protests were all about.

What anger there was present at the two marches was so swamped, so dissolved by the overwhelming sea of camaraderie and pacifism, that it was almost imperceptible. The message the thousands of protesters seemed to be trying to get across was “Yes we can,” and if Monday had a theme tune, it was the simple, monotonous chant of “Sí se puede, sí se puede, sí se puede,” that followed up almost every speech or performance.

But what remained less clear was exactly what it was that the throngs of people could do. While many of the protestors carried placards reading “Today we act, tomorrow we vote,” the essence of the gatherings seemed to be far more about mere recognition than about political change.

“Who will pick your strawberries,” read one sign.

“No immigrants = No burritos – think twice America,” read another.

Indeed, many of the protestors said they were not marching or chanting to foment legislative change. Instead, asked why they had braved the morning heat in San Ysidro or the evening cool in Balboa Park, the protestors offered only a vague representation of their feelings.

“I’m here to support the immigrants,” said George Khaleghi, whose Middle-Eastern surname belied his red hair and the Shamrock tattoo on his neck. His father is an immigrant, from Tehran, Iran, while his mother’s families have been here for generations.

Asked if he thought the demonstrations would make a difference, Khalegi grew a little cagey, but sounded positive.

“Yeah, I think so. If this should come to, like, a ballot or something, I’m sure people who are American, who aren’t of Latin heritage are going to support these people,” he said.

Khalegi’s recognition of the value of the Latino community to San Diego was exactly why people like Kristian Becerra were at the Balboa Park demonstration.

His voice somewhat muffled by the silver-sequined lucha libre wrestler’s mask that he coupled with a thrift-store tweed jacket, Becerra told of how his father and mother brought him to San Diego as a young boy. For him, the crowd of mostly Mexican and Latino protesters represented something far more significant than dissent over a few laws.

“There’s strength in numbers; there’s always a sleeping giant somewhere,” Becerra lisped through the slit in the mask.

In the faces of the middle-aged men who pumped their fists and shouted like schoolchildren; in the collectivism of the throngs of young Latinas who, together, found the spirit to jump and sing as a group, there was something far greater than anger or a demand for political change.

More than anything, the demonstrations that so moved San Diego’s Latino community were an illustration of a segment of society that seemed to have suddenly found its voice, that seemed to have suddenly realized that yes, it can.

Please contact Will Carless directly at

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