I became a part of American history March 25, when I took to the streets of San Jose, Calif., along with 15,000 other people, most of them young. We marched to protest the anti-immigrant proposals welling out of the Congress, but more importantly, we walked to honor our parents who came to this country as if it were truly the promised land.
I am 25, a Salvadoran immigrant, and I pay taxes while pursuing a green card. And I think Americans need me as much as I need America.
The people who marched last month seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. For me, the march began at the Mi Pueblo Super Market in the middle of a sea of taquerias and a few blocks from the Mathson Middle School, where 75 percent of the student population speaks Spanish.
Men, women, young children and elders walked to Cesar Chavez Plaza and then back again, for a total of 16 miles without flagging. One man walked, holding his toddler in his arms the whole time, yelling with all his might, "Si se puede" - yes, we can. His arms would not give out.
People seemed to pour onto the street, alerted by cell phones, radio stations, word of mouth. Unlike the civil rights protest marches of the 1960s, we didn't have leaders walking with linked arms in the front. Instead, we all had to be leaders.
When people's legs began to get tired, a young girl reminded the group that only lazy people get tired quick, and we were not lazy, so we kept marching with no complaints. As thousands of people marched together, hundreds of cars cruised by the group. A sea of flags rose in the air telling where we were from, mostly Mexican, but also Honduran, Guatemalan, Salvadoran Ð and American.
As I looked at the protesters' faces, I thought about our common stories. We carried stories of leaving our families behind to find opportunity in a foreign place. Ours were the stories of growing up without hope for a better life and of not having enough to eat, of hard work in America and little pay. I thought of my father, and wondered how many of the young people in the moving crowd were there in honor of the hard work our parents do.
Seeing mothers reminded me of my own mother, and how it's been 17 years since my father and I left El Salvador to find opportunity, while she stayed behind.
When I was a kid, my father, who worked as a car painter, told me that I would never understand what hard work really means. He's probably right, just as most people in positions of power will not understand what struggle really means. That must be why they can create and support policies that target the struggling people of this country.
Humility radiated from the group as we walked. It was raining, but we marched through the rain and the cold with our heads up, not asking for anything more than what we deserve. We weren't marching for better pay, for land, for equality, or even for ourselves. When other protesters were asked why they were there, most said, "We're marching for our parents," or, "We're marching for our kids."
As the group entered downtown, we came across a group of African-Americans who cheered us as we passed by. Three women in that group chanted with us, and one of the men stood on top of a bus bench and started shaking the bus stop pole. He seemed glad for us, but it also seemed like he was holding back tears. Perhaps this black man understands our frustration; after all, discrimination is nothing foreign to a black man.
I think America is now in a different place because of the protests. The silent people of America have emerged in unexpected numbers. The world has seen us, and a new civil rights movement has begun.
Hector Gonzalez is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He works for Silicon Valley De-Bug, a project of New America Media, in San Jose, California. Kirk Carroway, whose column normally runs in this space, is on vacation. His column will return next week.