Protesters back to work after rally

YAKIMA – Ernesto Gonzalez and his four employees were back at work at his construction company Tuesday, a day after they joined thousands of people rallying in support of immigration reform.

Across the state, in cities big and small, students returned to their desks and businesses reopened their doors following the daylong economic boycott.

The total impact of the boycott in Washington state remained unknown, but organizers praised the effort by the Hispanic community to show its economic clout, and promised more of the same if the message isn’t heard.

“If we have to do this again, I wouldn’t hesitate. I wouldn’t even think for a moment about shutting down my business for a day, or two or three if necessary,” Gonzalez said. “We need to send a message.”

A crowd that organizers pegged at more than 30,000 people turned out for a rally in Seattle. In central Washington’s Yakima Valley, an agricultural hub that relies heavily on migrant labor to harvest crops, an estimated 8,000 people traveled in a convoy from Grandview to Yakima. Another 5,000 turned out in Pasco. Similar rallies took place elsewhere.

As a result, absenteeism was extremely high at some school districts. In far north-central Washington, more than 75 percent of the roughly 900 students in Brewster didn’t show up for school. The district is about 77 percent Hispanic.

Similar absences were recorded in communities across central Washington. Students largely returned to school Tuesday.

Tyson Foods’ meatpacking plant in Pasco also was closed for an annual cleaning that had already been scheduled, freeing up workers to attend festivities. Several large fruit packing companies shut down for the day or rearranged schedules to make up for missed work.

“We have had large marches before, and these were some of the biggest, but never before have we seen such participation in the Latino community in an economic boycott,” said Erik Nicholson, Pacific Northwest regional director of the United Farm Workers of America.

“People did not go to work. People did not shop, did not participate actively in the economy,” Nicholson said. “It was significant.”

Farmers felt little impact from the boycott, in large part because they have not yet begun to harvest crops. In addition, many farmers have not yet begun to hire seasonal workers, said Dean Boyer, spokesman for the Washington State Farm Bureau.

Gonzalez, owner of Gonzalez Construction and president of Yakima’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, estimated his losses at as much as $3,000 for closing Monday. But he not only relates to immigrants’ concerns, he feels them, he said.

Gonzalez came to the United States from Mexico illegally in 1980 in search of a better life. He received amnesty several years ago.

“There’s nothing different, there’s just that the times have changed,” he said. More and more, Hispanics are contributing to the economy, he said.

“I’m all back to work today, but I’m following the news,” Gonzalez said. “Hopefully we will have a positive response to it.”

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