¡Presente!: A Day Without Immigrants and the Politics of Absence (Part One)

Periodically, I like to share outstanding student papers that I feel address topics which will be of interest to my readers. The following paper about an imaginative campaign for immigrant rights emerged from a PhD Seminar I taught last spring on Participatory Politics and the Civic Imagination.

¡Presente!: A Day Without Immigrants and the Politics of Absence

by Emily Rauber Rodriguez

“How do you make the invisible visible? By taking it away.”

—  Lyla Rod (Yareli Arizmendi) in A Day Without a Mexican

On February 16, 2017, workers at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum removed all art from display that had been created or donated by immigrants, marking nearly a fifth of the collection. The same day, restaurants across the country—humble corner taquerías, quick-service joints inside the Pentagon food court, high-end establishments run by celebrity chefs—closed their doors. Typically overcrowded classrooms sat empty, with some school districts reporting attendance rates that day dropping by 30 to 40 percent (Robbins and Correal 2017). These disappearances mark just a few examples of the Day Without Immigrants, a planned period of general strikes and boycotts designed to contrast the United States’ dependence on immigrants with increasingly vocal anti-immigrant sentiments. For one entire day, immigrants and allies encouraged each other to stay home from school and work, and to not spend any money—generally making their absence apparent. With no official organization founding the movement, the citizen (and non-citizen) actors themselves fueled much of the event’s spread, creating and remixing Facebook event pages, digital flyers, text messages, and personal conversations to promote the cause.

In one sense then, the Day Without Immigrants attempted to foster awareness by causing a noticeable disturbance in the daily life of people who might not otherwise care about immigration issues, or may not even realize who in their lives were directly affected by them. A colleague missing from work or school, a favorite barista absent from the coffee shop, a regular bus driver replaced on her route—while most people might not normally catalogue the immigration status of every person they meet, this event was designed to call attention to that largely invisible attribute, and emphasize how integrated and essential immigrants are to American society. As an extension of Ethan Zuckerman’s Cute Cat Theory (2013), the Day Without Immigrants might be cast as evidence of a parallel “Delicious Taco Theory”—just as people might not care about government censorship until it blocks them from viewing cute cat photos on Facebook, so too might they begin caring about deportations if it prevented them from easily acquiring tacos. At the same time, the larger framework of the action necessarily realized a vision of the very future proposed by anti-immigrant legislation; to avoid making that vision a permanent reality, the Day Without Immigrants’ risky ideological maneuver was to enact it temporarily. Though the action did not cause any immediate legislative successes or major scale shifts in political discourse, its strategic, theoretical grounding offers a fascinating entry in the discussion of how to increase political visibility for a population who is often deemed politically and culturally invisible.

An eerily similar vision of this future had appeared years earlier in a 1998 satirical mockumentary short called “A Day Without a Mexican,” directed by Sergio Arau and written by Yareli Arizmendi, which Arau and Arizmendi later remade into a feature-length film under the same title in 2004. In both versions of the film, Californians wake up to discover that all Latinos[1]have disappeared (including immigrants as well as American-born Latinos), while the borders of the state have also been enveloped in a thick fog that prevents communication with the outside world. The premise is primarily mined for comedy, especially in relation to Latinos’ vital but often unappreciated role in the service industry, and the films poke fun at the hapless non-Latino characters who are suddenly forced to make their own food, do their own laundry, and raise their own children. Despite the comedic overtones though, A Day Without a Mexicanmakes a serious point about Latin American immigrants’ simultaneous visibility and invisibility: though they are frequently invoked as political pawns, they are often taken for granted and ignored on a personal level. Ultimately, the non-Latino characters—even the overtly racist ones—realize their daily lives are worse without Latinos, and they wholeheartedly embrace them upon their return.

An earlier “Day Without an Immigrant” strike, officially known as the Great American Boycott, had occurred on May Day 2006, closer to the feature film’s theatrical run and initial spread on home video. Sasha Costanza-Chock, who covered the 2006 protest and its spread via social media and Spanish radio in Out of the Shadows, into the Streets, notes that organizers had promoted the May Day action “as ‘A Day Without an Immigrant,’ a direct reference to the 2004 film A Day Without a Mexican” (2014, 23). However, because the film made only $5 million domestically, and played in about 100 theaters, it is doubtful that the majority of people participating in this protest—millions across the country—did so because they were fans of the film. The high-concept nature of the story, though, meant that audiences could easily imagine the basic idea even without seeing the film; that same quality, when applied to proposed political activism in turn, is similarly valuable, as the idea of enacting a “day without immigrants” is also, more or less, self-explanatory. The action had a low barrier of comprehension, both in terms of the reasoning behind it and its potential effects, as well as in understanding how to participate. Again, although that protest did not achieve (nor set out to achieve) a direct result, the widespread participation shows the importance of clear and easy messaging, as particularly aided by drawing on speculative fiction.

In this paper, I will first discuss how centering the action around the axis of visibility and invisibility had special significance for the Latino and Latin American immigrant population, which ultimately made it easier for the concept to spread. I will then discuss the film and protest itself, arguing that the imaginative transitive properties of high-concept speculative fiction make it an especially fitting framework for political action.

Absence/Presence: Latinos and Protest in the United States

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey, the United States contains, as an official estimate, 43.3 million immigrants, accounting for 13.5 percent of the total U.S. population (Zong and Batalova 2017). Hundreds of millions more are the children or grandchildren of immigrants. Yet the country’s self-ascribed mythology as a nation of immigrants—which already disserves the narratives of Native Americans and African Americans—has also conflicted with increasingly restrictive immigration policies throughout the 20thand 21stcenturies. As populations shifted and earlier disdained waves of immigrants, such as the Irish and Italians, became enveloped within the boundaries of American whiteness, other groups became the focus of these anti-immigrant sentiments. Today, the largest groups of immigrants to the United States come from Latin America, including Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and Asia, including India, China, and the Philippines (Zong and Batalova 2017). As with previous generations, opposition to immigrants is largely focused on these ethnically racialized groups—rather than towards white immigrants from England or Canada—thereby conflating the immigration problem with the parallel issue of racism in America.

Historically, that conflation goes back as far as the concept of citizenship itself, originally as a right granted only to whites[2]and only later yielded to other races. As part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which ceded former Mexican territory in the Southwest to the United States, those existing Mexican residents would be eligible for US citizenship. However, as Natalia Molina has argued, the fact that this right to citizenship was based on nationality, rather than race, became “the Treaty’s Achilles’ heel, providing an opening for those who sought to make Mexican ineligible for citizenship for decades to come” (2013, 45). That’s because, officially, American citizenship was still only a right granted to whites. After 1868, the 14thamendment allowed for African Americans born in the United States become citizens; when submitting the paperwork though, naturalization officers could still only describe the applicants’ race as “white” or “black,” as Native Americans and Asian Americans did not yet have the right to citizenship. Thus, the perception of Mexicans and their racialization became largely dependent on their context. In the southwest, officers were more likely to process Mexicans as white, but in the Midwest, they might be assumed to be Native American and thus denied (Molina 2013, 47). As such, Latinos have historically operated outside both legal and cultural understandings of ethnicity in the United States—which hinge on a binary, one-drop formation of race—often making them difficult to position and trace across different locales and eras.

Latin Americans have also been rendered invisible by necessity, due to the fact that they make up the largest percentage of undocumented immigrants. Though exact figures are only estimated, most undocumented immigrants in the United States come from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. As a whole, undocumented people must often behave in ways that minimize their visibility, as they face the risk of deportation if apprehended (Costanza-Chock 2014; De La Torre III 2014; Heredia 2016). This leads to working under-the-table jobs, practicing caution in crowds, and avoiding behaviors that might focus undue attention on them. For instance, if ICE is rumored to be conducting raids outside schools or on Greyhound buses, undocumented immigrants may stay home, leaving classrooms and kitchens empty in a similar way to the staged protests. By engaging in this semi-voluntary practice of self-absenting, they are able in one sense to negotiate their absence as a form of agency. The impulse of the Day Without Immigrants worked in much the same way, by allowing immigrants to purposely stage their absence on their own terms on a mass scale.

The parallel to these intentional absences, of course, is the looming threat of involuntary disappearance for the undocumented. Undocumented people regularly performinvisibility in order to avoid some forms of disappearances, such as deportation. Yet at the same time, that invisibility also makes them more vulnerable; because undocumented people often operate outside the formal state system, they can be at added risk of anonymously slipping through the cracks. For instance, migrants crossing the border might travel with no identification on them, or have it stolen or removed. Programs like Operation Identification, out of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State, exist solely in order to identify the bodies of migrants who have died crossing the border and inform their families. The process can take months, if ever solved, meaning that their families have no knowledge of what has happened to their absent loved ones in the meantime—an unexplained disappearance. Additionally, since undocumented people often can’t contact law enforcement for fear of endangering themselves, they are also vulnerable to labor violations, human trafficking, or worse; serial killer Juan Corona targeted Latino farm workers in the 1960s, and murdered 25 before he was caught by chance in 1971. In a country where personhood has often been linked to citizenship, people who are unable to participate within the formal system are effectively rendered invisible. In turn, their actual disappearances may also be expected, ignored, or unknown.

Historically, the major Chicano and Latino protests have also drawn upon concepts of invisibility—particularly through the use of strikes, boycotts, and walkouts. Importantly, these types of actions draw on the principles of 1960s non-violent protest movements, which used presence, and the withholding of violence, to highlight the violence being used against them. In the Delano grape boycott in the 1960s, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, the workers on strike withheld their bodies from their labor, and asked for the community to support them by notbuying products from farms with unfair labor practices. While protestors did walk picket lines, which put them in immediate bodily danger, the strikes and boycotts allowed simultaneous participation from more vulnerable populations, as well as allowing privileged people to show their allyship without significant effort. Since they were effectively asking people to do nothing, they were likely able to amass many more supporters than they would have if they had asked people to commit time or money. Chavez’s hunger strikes could also be considered an act of withholding, in that, again, he was drawing attention to his cause by notperforming a normal action, as well as physically diminishing himself through weight loss. Similarly, the East LA high school walkouts of 1968 called attention to school curriculums that did not support the large Chicano student populations by, in turn, removing those students from the classroom in protest. In both cases, these protests removed the presence or products of Latino workers, activists, and students, and forced those left to imagine what a world without them would look like.

The Day Without Immigrants built on many of these concepts, helping its message to spread easily to those with familiarity of activist histories. The protest fundamentally played on the duality of absence and presence, a particularly resonant theme for Latinos and undocumented immigrants in particular. The action was also organized almost entirely online via social media, making it safer for politically vulnerable populations to spread the message without putting themselves at immediate risk. Furthermore, although there were corollary marches, the viral concept of the Day Without Immigrants only required one’s absence to partake, meaning that people could participate without danger of retaliatory violence, jailing, or deportation. Participants did face the hazard of getting fired for not going to work, which would have been particularly threatening for this economically vulnerable population; indeed, some protestors did lose their jobs (Zoppo 2017). However, this effect was in part due to the fact that participation in the protest was limited and voluntary, and not universal. If all 43 million immigrants in the United States did disappear, the country would face a devastating labor shortage that would severely impact the entire American economy, and workers would be high demand. One of the challenges the Day Without Immigrants faced, then, was a theoretically solid concept that nonetheless could not be applied perfectly in practice.

Importantly, the 2017 boycott took place less than a month after the inauguration of Donald Trump, who had run a campaign fueled by racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric directed particularly at black, Mexican, and Muslim populations. As such, the Day Without Immigrants was frequently characterized in the media as a direct response to his proposed immigration policies, including the border wall and the travel ban (Robbins and Correal 2017; Stein 2017). Similarly, the 2006 Great American Boycott had been formed in direct response to a proposed congressional immigration reform that year (Costanza-Chock 2014). While that reform did ultimately fail, in the decade that passed, immigrants’ rights activists had witnessed continued deportations, bombings, and seizures even under the comparatively liberal president Barack Obama. Heading into 2017, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agencies had nearly doubled, private immigrant detention centers swelled to capacity, and reports of hate crimes continued to rise (Chishti, Pierce, and Bolter 2017; Federal Bureau of Investigation 2016; Lucas 2017). Although, as of February, Trump was still months away from making new policy legislation, the discursive shift had resonated enough with immigrants to make the action seem urgent even without an immediate legislative foil.

[1]The use of “Mexican” in the title references the perception that many Americans, especially in California, assume all Latinos are Mexican. 

[2]To be specific, white, land-owning men—thus conflating not just race with citizenship, but also class and gender.

Emily Rauber Rodriguez is a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies at USC School of Cinematic Arts. She previously earned an MA from USC in Cinema and Media Studies, and a BA in Film Studies and Psychology from Barnard College, Columbia University. Emily’s research interests include the depiction, participation, and fandom of Latinxs in speculative fiction film and comics. She tweets at @vintagecameos.