May Day in Milwaukee

Three mile march focuses on immigrant rights and representation

Voces de la Frontera gather alongside allies in Milwaukee for a massive May Day march from the Hispanic and Latinx south-side, to the federal courthouse downtown. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Voces de la Frontera gather alongside allies in Milwaukee for a massive May Day march from the Hispanic and Latinx south-side, to the federal courthouse downtown. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Members of Voces de la Frontera Action, Souls to the Polls, Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES), The Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and many Milwaukee  residents marched on Saturday, May 1 showing support for essential and immigrant workers.

This year’s annual celebration of May Day particularly focused on the plight of essential workers, immigrant families and the Biden administration’s promises to reverse punitive Trump administration policies. A Voces press release noted that “two-thirds of all essential workers in the United States are undocumented and have been risking their lives and health, and that of their families, while keeping others safe and fed. They deserve to be treated as the heroes they are.”

Primitivo Torres speaks as Voces de la Frontera gather alongside allies in Milwaukee for a massive May Day march from the Hispanic and Latinx south-side, to the federal courthouse downtown. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Primitivo Torres speaks as Voces de la Frontera gather alongside allies in Milwaukee for a massive May Day march from the Hispanic and Latinx south-side, to the federal courthouse downtown. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Beginning as a community block party with music and snacks near Voces de la Frontera’s new Milwaukee office, the event served multiple purposes. Community members were invited to get a COVID-19 vaccine with no line at a nearby vaccination site. Voces de la Frontera partnered with the Milwaukee Health Department to provide the vaccine site, which administered the Pfizer vaccine.

Pastor Greg Lewis of Souls to the Polls spoke to the crowd before the march commenced. “We want to send a strong message to our Sen. Ron. Johnson. And we want to let him know: You don’t just represent ‘some people,’ you represent all of us. And then, we want to send a strong message to those essential workers that you don’t have to fight alone. You have all kinds of people ready to fight with you. Don’t worry! We’re going to fight with you! Black, brown, all of us!”

Lewis then led a brief prayer, as the crowd prepared to transition from the block party phase of the event to the march. “We pray that you talk to the heart of Ron Johnson,” Lewis said. “We pray that you talk to the heart of Tammy Baldwin. We pray that you talk to the heart of those who treat us like less-than. And we pray that we better ourselves together, and be strong united.” Primitivo Torres, speaking for  Voces de la Frontera Action in English and Spanish, called immigrants “the motor of this economy.” He added, “They deserve the same recognition and respect as anyone else.”

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Shortly before the group left for the federal building, a young activist with YES shared a piece of poetry with the crowd: “The little that I am, the little that I hope to be/ I owe to the people’s movement/ It has taught me my ideas and my ideals/ My values and my convictions/ Lessons that I would not barter for all the world’s luxury/ and all of its material goods/ Lessons from which I have found purpose/ Purpose I otherwise would not have found in this life/ A purpose of serving complete strangers/ As if they were my brothers or sisters.”

Milwaukee police officers also mingled with the crowd, and eventually helped escort the march to the federal building. As they marched for three miles under sunny blue skies, different sections of the protest joined in different chants. One phrase occurred frequently:  Sí Se Puede!, “Yes We Can!”

Police escorted the march and blocked roads. At the federal building, police horses and a black unmarked squad car stood by as the event wrapped up. The May Day marchers remained in high spirits as various speakers took the stage.

Organizers chose the federal building partly to send a message to Sen. Johnson and other Wisconsin politicians. “Both Republicans and Democrats failed us,” said Sarai Melendez, who focused on the state law that has made it impossible for undocumented people to obtain driver’s licenses since 2007. “From then until now we have been fighting to restore drivers licenses. In the last legislative session, we were able to convince some Republicans to support restoring drivers licenses for the undocumented. Drivers licenses are an economic issue — not just for people without licenses, but for businesses where the undocumented work.” The Department of Transportation has estimated that extending eligibility and identification cards to undocumented individuals, under Gov. Tony Evers’ recommendations, would increase revenues by $2.9 million in the first year, she pointed out.

Organizers and speakers also called on Baldwin to use her position in the U.S. Senate to push for pro-immigrant policies as part of federal pandemic relief. The day of action ended with a traditional dance ceremony. Clad in colorful traditional Aztec clothing and elaborate feathered headdresses, the performers took turns dancing and playing the drums, which echoed loudly in the city. The dance began and ended with the wail of a conch shell horn, before buses ferried the marchers back to where the block party began.