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Esther Cepeda: A pilgrimage for tolerance

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Esther Cepeda
Wednesday, June 29, 2016

CHICAGO -- It was scorching—in the high 80s, but feeling more like low 90s in the sun and choking humidity—as Father Jose Landaverde, an activist Catholic priest, took my call on the road.

This was Sunday, one week since Landaverde and a group of 10 people had set off from the South Side of Chicago, attempting a 350-mile walk to the site of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. It’s their peaceful protest against the anti-immigrant sentiments swirling around the event.

Landaverde reported his fellow walkers, at the time traversing LaGrange, Indiana, were tired after the first 100 or so miles and suffering from bleeding, blistered feet and dehydration. Landaverde, who can be seen on Facebook treading in his black clerical clothing and collar, sounded worn but in good spirits as he walked and talked, cars whizzing by at high speed.

“People have driven past us, honking their horns,” he said, straining in the midafternoon sun. “Some of them have cheered us, some have yelled insults, like ‘Wetbacks go home.’ We had a cop roll up and say to us, ‘I don’t know what you guys are doing here, I’m a Trump supporter,’ but that’s OK. It’s balanced by our supporters who are driving out here, some all the way from Chicago, to bring us food and water, and by those who stop and really want to understand what we are doing out here.”

What they are doing is suffering symbolically, carrying the cross of brown skin and Hispanic surnames down country roads, hoping that their sacrifice will be noticed.

They’re doing it in the name of those affected by our nation’s inability to come up with some sort of humane and reasonable compromise for the country’s 11 million unlawfully present immigrants. And they’re doing it also for their legally present and U.S.-citizen Hispanic peers who are lumped in with them by xenophobes.

In Chicago, an immigrant-friendly church near Landaverde’s own neighborhood recently reported having swastikas painted on it along with the message “Rape Mexico,” but that’s almost the least of it. In the last six months, there have been countless reports around the country about fliers inciting violence against Latino immigrants, about high school students building mock border walls to intimidate Hispanic students and similar ethnicity-based bullying in communities where Latinos are an often-voiceless minority.

It so happens that Landaverde and his walkers were about a third of the way to Cleveland after a week that saw the Supreme Court deadlock on the issue of whether to allow President Obama’s deferred-action immigration plan to go into effect, basically torpedoing the program. But that only bolstered the crew’s determination.

“We think it’s possible to halt the deportations, pass immigration reforms and stop the demonizing and racism against all of our immigrants, and that means the Syrians, the Asians, the refugees and all the others who suffer what our community suffers. That’s what inspires us,” Landaverde said.

“We will keep walking because we see how the system keeps not recognizing our immigrant communities, especially in the separation of families. … The decision of the Supreme Court leaves millions of young people and their families without hope, without the dignity of being able to work, to contribute to our communities, to contribute to the whole United States,” he added.

“But the other side of it is the sin of what the politicians have done to stir hatred against immigrants, to inject racism into the debate. We’re walking to the convention and we don’t know how we’ll be received, but we don’t think anyone else has walked 350 miles as a group and we’re hoping that will get us in to talk to party leaders so we can ask them to stop the racist discourse that is hurting our immigrant and Latino community so badly.”

But Landaverde and his fellow pilgrims aren’t just walking against the terrible things that are happening in their communities. They are hoping their effort will bring attention to the power that people have to change the current reality.

“We don’t have to simply accept living in desperation, we have to keep struggling,” said Landaverde, calling on supporters to take action. “You don’t have to walk 350 miles—you can work for change in your town, in your community. Unite with others who also care about the dream that someday the immigrants can be reunited with their families and live without fear. And please, please, if you are eligible, please go out and vote in the coming elections in November.”

 

 



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