On Scene: The Marchers Gather in Chicago

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By 9:15 a.m. in Chicago, the catering trucks were starting to pull up alongside the vans hawking flags from just about every Latino country stretching from Mexico south, the mothers with large grocery bags to keep their kids well fed during a long march and a long day, and the dozens of media trucks parked around Union Park on Chicago’s Near West Side. Some had been here all night; some were just rushing to join friends and strangers.

A woman spills coffee while juggling a cup of fruit. Park District workers tidy the large park, and police officers, mostly chatting among themselves, keep a careful eye on a crowd that is quickly swelling. The people here — mostly Hispanic, but whites and blacks as well — wear serious faces, but there is a sense that this is as much an event as a rally, as busloads of kids, large trucks and ordinary drivers whip by honking approval for a gathering that police expect to grow to some 300,000 in Chicago alone. Newspapers carrying the headline "Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote" in Spanish are read by dozens in the crowd as they wait.

“It’s this that we’ve been waiting for,” says one man here for the protest. “People need to take notice.” And notice they will. Despite grey skies warning of strong showers later in the day, the crowd gains bulk. Old, young, some tired from a night or weekend spent in the park to get ready for the march, which will take this crowd a few miles east to Chicago’s Grant Park. “This is the way that America was built,” said Ivan Miller, 43, a criminal justice student at Westwood College near O’Hare International Airport. “I’m a black man, and I don’t take offense that the spotlight is on this one population. That’s what America’s about — people coming together, struggling together from all different cultures.”

Miller and classmate Keith Trevino, 28, were at the rally to write a paper about the immigration issue, yet it clearly pulls at the latter's heart. One of five children, Trevino is the only one of his siblings who was born in the United States. The others were born in Mexico, from which Trevino’s family came in the 1970s. Ten years later, under the amnesty granted many immigrant workers in the 1980s, the whole family became citizens.

“I didn’t go through this fight, but my parents did, coming here,” Trevino said. “So it’s a tough call. You have to look at the big picture. You have to understand what the government is going through, but you have to understand what these people are going through. I’m glad I’m not the one making the decision. How do you come up with an answer that fits both sides? It’s impossible.

Closer to 10 a.m., the crowd was pushing through the park, numbering a few hundred as they wait for the march to begin around noon. But not everyone was taking the day off to protest. Manuel Escelante, 46, a Honduran and Chicago Park District worker, was busy cleaning the very park that the organizers were using as a rallying point. “I can’t leave my job,” he said, pointing to a line of leaves and rubbish left just outside the park’s wrought iron gates. “This looks terrible. I’m with them, my heart, but I have a job to do. I have work to do.”

Similarly, Mario Perez, a Mexican with his green card who is trying to become a citizen, couldn’t skip class at Malcolm X College, a community college a few blocks from Union Park. “I have an English test. Maybe I’ll go over there later, but this I have to do,” said Perez, 62, who has been in the country for about 40 years. “That’s what I’m doing. I’m bettering myself. I want to go up.”

Others couldn’t resist skipping a day’s classes. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Rocio Michquiri, a 17-year-old student at Steinmetz High School. “There’s more learning out here. So not today, not school.”