I'm here because my parents don't have legal status.... All of us
have to fight for the rights of immigrants ... [and] all of us have
to do our part--Patricia, eighth-grade student, quoted by Soto in
the San Diego Union-Tribune, March 30, 2006.
IT SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN SURPRISING THAT YOUTH WERE CENTER STAGE AS POLITICAL actors responding to the recent attacks against human and civil rights in the United States. Like generations of youth activists before, participants in this movement challenged anti-immigrant sentiment and used powerful methods to ensure that their voice would be heard. Whether they walked out of school, organized sit-ins, conducted educational forums, or contributed to voter registration initiatives, Latina/o youth (1) activists flexed their capacity to politically participate in the ongoing immigration debate. At that time, their concern focused on House Resolution (H.R.) 4437. (2) Combined with deaths at the border, (3) abuse at the hands of smugglers and unscrupulous employers, and the division of immigrant families, this bill was another attack against Latina/o immigrants. It became the rallying cry for many, who mobilized in the spring of 2006. In their own way, Latina/o youth responded to these attacks, concerned about their own futures and those of their friends and family. For Latina/o youth who chose to mobilize, many of whom are children of immigrants or are immigrants themselves, their actions were deeply personal. As one high school student commented to a Washington Post reporter, "this is the beginning of a new life. We're going to fight. If our mom or dad gets deported, we feel that pain too" (Shapira, 2006).
Beyond the legislative debates and mass marches, another central story line emerged during this coverage: Latina/o youth are causing serious unrest and disturbances in communities throughout the country. In one San Antonio newspaper, it was reported that "for many people, the sight of a nationwide phenomenon of students taking the streets is disrespectful, aggravating, and insulting" (Clack, 2006). Adding to this negative portrayal, media depicted youth as "uninformed" about the issue and "acting out" simply to cause trouble and skip school. Research has noted that negative images such as these have strong influential power, often becoming so imbedded in the minds of audiences that they become difficult to contradict (Gilliam and Bales, 2001). Indeed, the media's portrayal of Latina/o youth as "truants" and "troublemakers" recast an exercise of their constitutionally granted freedom of expression into undesirable and even criminal behavior. By associating these negative images and characterizations with the face of Latina/o youth, media outlets essentially racialized (Omi and Winant, 1989) their portrayals and opinions of them. Consequently, any analysis of these manifestations of youth activism must center on race. A race-based analysis affords us a lens to better understand the racialized images of Latina/o youth activism that dominated mainstream media and enables us to better understand the activism itself as an effort to dismantle the type of racist nativism (4) directed at Latina/o immigrants.
This study utilizes a Latina/o Critical Race Theory (LatCrit) framework to understand the central role of race and racism in this Latina/o youth activism. Our objectives are twofold: to give this activism the merit and complexity it deserves and to challenge the negative portrayals of Latina/o youth activists by the mainstream media. Using content analysis of newspaper articles, we argue that the efforts by Latina/o youth activists in the spring of 2006 were multifaceted, conscientious expressions of concern for social justice and human rights. (5) Their actions did not stem from a "desire to skip class," as many media outlets alleged. The activism was oriented toward a more inclusive notion of social justice, (6) defined as the desire and struggle to dismantle the structures of inequality that perpetuate racist nativism and other forms of subordination. …