Sí, se puede! Grand Rapidians march to support immigrants, farm workers in West Michigan

Grand Rapidians took to the streets for the annual César E. Chávez Social Justice March, calling for the respect, dignity and protection of all immigrants and emphasizing the driving force that migrant and seasonal farm workers play in the economy of West Michigan and the country.
Lupe Ramos-Montigny remembers three summers of her childhood, seasons now decades ago, like they were yesterday: the months when she would travel with her parents, Ysidro and Maria, and seven of her nine siblings from her hometown of Weslaco, Texas north to Michigan. There, Ramos-Montigny, now a Grand Rapidian who serves on the State Board of Education, would spend the 10th, 11th and 12th summers of her life harvesting beets in a town at the tip of the Mitten State’s thumb, Caseville, and picking cherries in Old Mission Peninsula, a region just north of Traverse City.

She remembers the temporary housing for the workers, the places without running water or electricity, the long days under the hot summer sun, and the little, but much-needed, pay given to her father, who ran a filling station in Texas when he wasn’t working in Michigan. She remembers the tiny towns, the beauty of the land (the kind of beauty that inspired her to return to Michigan after she graduated from college), the rural roads her father traversed with ease. (“How did he know where to go? We were in these tiny towns, rural places. I have no idea,” she says.)

“The Old Mission Peninsula is beautiful, plain beautiful,” Ramos-Montigny says. “I always wanted to come back because it’s so beautiful. So I came as a teacher; I came to teach the children of migrant farm workers here after college.”

One of thousands of seasonal farm workers who drive the economy in Michigan, and one of millions of seasonal, and migrant, farm workers who support the United States’ now $28 billion fruit and vegetable industry, Ramos-Montigny has forever appreciated, and been inspired by, this community of laborers: the people from throughout the United States, Mexico and other countries who spend exhausting days harvesting the produce that ends up in grocery stores and restaurants around the country. These are the people who feed an entire country.

“We take everything for granted: you go to Meijer, and there’s a lot of produce, whether it be frozen, canned or fresh,” says Ramos-Montigny. “Let’s say, someday, you go and there’s no produce. You’ll say, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I going to do? Many people say, ‘Oh, these people, these farm workers, are taking our jobs,’ but they don’t know what they’re saying. It’s very difficult to harvest; you’re bending down all day. It’s hard work. Other people won’t take these jobs. The farm owners, the growers, they do not want to get rid of the farm workers. The economy altogether will go down.”

Ramos-Montigny knows the sacrifices the farm workers make; she understands the recognition they deserve, but do not receive; she knows the people in the fields, the ones like her father, who was born in Mexico and who had to leave school after the third grade to help his family. He’d go on to educate himself by listening to the radio, Ramos-Montigny explains, and would become a civic leader who would put his daughters and sons through college so they could go on to become educators, nurses and other professions. Ramos-Montigny received her Master’s in bilingual education from Grand Valley State University and worked in Michigan’s public schools for 36 years, with most of her professional career being dedicated to the Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Lupe Ramos-Montigny, right.

“They were such strong role models,” says Ramos-Montigny, whose respect and admiration for the farm worker community would propel her to get involved as the chairperson of the local Committee to Honor César E. Chávez, a migrant worker who became a leading champion for farm workers’ rights and founded the United Farm Workers of America. A local community and collegiate collaborative founded in 2000, the Committee to Honor César E. Chávez aims to promote awareness and educational opportunities in West Michigan’s Latinx communities, including by holding the annual César E. Chávez Social Justice day of activities. This year, the events, including a march and a community gathering, took place on Thursday, March 16.

“Everybody was so happy, and everybody’s spirits were so high,” Ramos-Montigny says of Thursday’s march that ran along Grandville Avenue and concluded with a community gathering at The Potter’s House. “Everybody was so united; it made me feel really, really good. It was a day of pride in who we are — as Hispanics, as farm workers, as followers of César Chávez.

“It didn’t matter if you were there as a farm worker or lawyer or police chief, we were all working towards respect, dignity and protection of all immigrants,” she continues. “This was unity in the community. We had elected officials, presidents of colleges, police chiefs… It was an emotional time. It was therapy for many people because of all the negative things that are being said. It was refreshing; it was emotional; it was a cleansing.”

Marching for justice

“Sí, se puede! Sí, se puede! Sí, se puede!” the children from César E. Chávez Elementary School yell at Thursday’s march, gleefully outstretching their arms to wave at the hundreds of people making their way past them on Grandville Avenue: a crowd made up of farm workers, immigrant rights activists, students, educators, politicians, and other community leaders.

Already energized by the 17th annual César E. Chávez Social Justice March, the crowd echoes the children’s chants as they proudly wave flags from places like Mexico, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba, Argentina, and elsewhere: “Sí, se puede! Sí, se puede! Sí, se puede!”

These words — a Spanish phrase that essentially translates to “yes, one can” — are the motto of the United Farm Workers that Chávez and UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta came up with while Chávez embarked on a 25-day “Fast for Love” in 1972 after the Arizona state legislature passed a bill that denied farm workers the right to strike during harvest seasons. Since then, “sí, se puede” has gone on to become the rallying cry for social justice among labor unions, civil rights organizations and immigrants rights activists. Plus, former U.S. President Barack Obama used a variation of it, “Yes, we can,” throughout his political campaigns, beginning with his 2004 bid for the U.S. Senate.

Now, at a time when U.S. President Donald Trump has demonized Mexico and Mexicans, consistently employed anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric, and implemented policies that could target millions of people living in the U.S. for deportation, this phrase holds increased weight for immigrants and immigrants’ rights advocates in our community — and across the country.

Dr. Juan Olivarez, Lupe Ramos-Montigny, and Dr. Steven Ender

“Two days ago, I signed a letter to Trump, along with hundreds of other college presidents, regarding the 750,000 ‘Dreamers’ in our colleges and universities who are being threatened,” Aquinas College President Dr. Juan Olivarez says at the community gathering following the march. The “Dreamers” to whom Olivarez is referring are young undocumented immigrants who are protected from being deported under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The Trump administration has reportedly been eyeing ways to eliminate this protection.

“These bright and talented young people are working, are studying at colleges and universities, or have enlisted in the armed services,” the letter reads. “Because they now have work permits, they are making immediate contributions to our society and our economy. They are paying taxes, receiving driver’s licenses, and buying cars and first homes, all of which generates revenue for federal, state, and local governments. They are ineligible for federal means-tested welfare benefits, Pell Grants, and federal student loans, as well as health care tax subsidies.

“Unfortunately, many of these young people now live in fear that the program will be rolled back or revoked,” the letter continues. “In order to lift this cloud of fear, we ask that you commit to allowing these productive and high-achieving individuals to continue to work and study while your administration and Congress arrive at a permanent solution.”

Despite the deportation fears facing immigrants throughout our country, the words that were repeatedly shouted throughout the march: “sí, se puede,” are a powerful rebuke of the Trump administration, and a reminder of the strong and resilient Latinx, Hispanic and immigrant communities throughout the country, including here in Grand Rapids.

“We were recognizing and dedicating the day to ‘a Day Without Immigrants,’ a cause that’s affecting our community, especially our farm workers,” Ramos-Montigny says, referring to the Day Without Immigrants, a protest and boycott that took place on Feb. 16 to demonstrate the crucial role immigrants play in our economy, as well as to protest Trump’s plans to build a wall along the Mexican border and mass deportations. Residents across the country participated, including people who marched in Grand Rapids and Wyoming.

“There are many undocumented farm workers,” Ramos-Montigny continues, referring to the estimated 1.2 million to 1.75 million undocumented farm workers in the United States. “If they go, the crops will rot in the fields. They play a vital role in our economy and the American way of life.”

While many of the themes of the day's event have remained the same over the years, Thursday's gathering was dramatically different than the first march in Grand Rapids 17 years ago. At that time, the parade had a humble start, Ramos-Montigny explains.

“The first march was on the sidewalk; we didn’t have a permit, but we knew we wanted to march,” she says. “Before that, we had been going to Saginaw to have a César Chávez day over there, but then we spoke to the city about having it here, and they said, ‘Absolutely, yes.’”

Since then, the march has gone on to draw hundreds of people each year, with such officials as Olivarez, the Aquinas College president; Grand Rapids Community College President Steven Ender; Grand Valley State University Vice President Jesse Bernal; Grand Rapids Public Schools Superintendent Teresa Weatherall-Neal; Grand Rapids Police Chief David Rahinsky, and various elected officials attending the event last week.

Additionally, the event garners major support from community partners throughout the city and region, including Ferris State University, Fifth Third Bank, the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Aquinas College, Davenport University, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., Calvin College, GRCC, the City High School Chorale, Fountain Street Church, Innovation Central’s JROTC, La Tremenda de Michigan, Lazo Cultural Newspaper, United Methodist Women, and WKTV.

Taking place along a nearly one-mile stretch of Grandville Avenue (which also bears the name César E. Chávez Way), from the Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities to The Potter’s House School, the procession takes marchers into the heart of the city’s Latinx community. Latinx individuals make up about 16 percent of Grand Rapids, according to the latest U.S. Census numbers, and that number continues to rise — as does the number of Latinx businesses.

As individuals processed past places like the Hispanic Center of West Michigan, Rincon Criollo Restaurant, Tacos El Cuñado, and Rodriguez Supermarket, many store employees and patrons came out to cheer on the marchers. Photo-snapping parents place cheering children on their shoulders, as the youngest to the oldest participants wave flags, laugh, and link arms with fellow community members. This is no small thing, this show of solidarity: in the face of constant adversity, it is bravery. It is emblematic of the signs drawn by the César E. Chávez Elementary School students: “Stand united,” “change the world to be a better place,” “somos unidos.” And, of course, “sí, se puede!”

Rallying to support the children of farm workers

Following the march, the crowd assembled in The Potter’s House building for the César E. Chávez Community Gathering, which honored two college presidents, Olivarez, of Aquinas, and Ender, of GRCC, for their commitment to providing scholarships to Hispanic students. The Committee to Honor César E. Chávez has in recent years worked with Aquinas and GRCC, as well as other colleges in the region, to honor Chávez by providing annual scholarship to the sons and daughters of farm workers in the community. Last year, the committee awarded five $1,000 scholarships to students.

The committee began its scholarship program at GRCC, where it provides six $1,000 scholarships, and it has given seven scholarships at Grand Valley State University, where they are about halfway through raising money for a $200,000 scholarship endowment. Five years ago, the committee worked with Davenport University to start the four-year "Sí, se puede César E. Chávez Scholarship," and Aquinas launched its four-year Chávez scholarship program last year.

“We think it’s very, very important to raise up all the students,” Ramos-Montigny says.
Olivarez, who began his career in education as a teacher in the Grandville area 45 years ago, stresses during the community gathering that “César Chávez knew unity meant respecting every individual. “There are three levels of unity: acceptance, agreement, and really the best way to unity is through alignment,” he continues. “It is with this alignment that we will create change and create social justice for all.”

As Olivarez did, Ender speaks of deep concerns regarding the Trump administration’s impact on students, and society in general. “I traveled to Mexico last year, and, for the first time traveling there, I felt shame,” Ender says. “I am a patriot; I love the United States of America… so to be ashamed at the present moment is quite troubling.

“But I’m not going to feel shame in my city of Grand Rapids,” he continues. “I can do something in my role in the city of Grand Rapids, and I can certainly do something with the federal situation four years from now.”

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photography by Kristina Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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