Immigration protesters march through the West Loop on May 1, 2016, during a May Day rally. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Tony BriscoeContact Reporter
Chicago Tribune
May 1, 2016

Hundreds of people demonstrated for workers' rights and immigration reform across the city Sunday in solidarity with labor unions and human rights organizations throughout the world for May Day, the international labor holiday that traces back to Chicago.

Dozens of protesters gathered at Lincoln United Methodist Church in the city's Heart of Chicago neighborhood reciting chants in English and Spanish aimed at stopping the deportation of immigrants in the U.S. illegally, and a number of people blasted Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump.

"Trump says 'make America great again,'" the Rev. Emma Lozano said as she grabbed flags to distribute. "We're going to make America Mexico again."

The group, made up of older activists and refugee children from El Salvador and Honduras, wore brown bandannas and carried Mexican and American flags.

Among them was Elvira Arellano, a Mexican woman whose yearlong stay in a Chicago church made her a lightning rod in the nation's immigration debate. Arellano must meet with a parole officer every six months while she fights deportation. And while her residency in the U.S. remains in limbo, her son Saul Arellano, 17, said he would like to become "the new Martin Luther King for immigration."

"Seeing all the little kids and teenagers who are really into it makes me proud because they have family members who are going through the same thing," Saul Arellano said. "One person can't do it. But all of us can make a difference. For me it's been like 12 years of struggle. We have to keep going."

The group marched to a drum line of teens banging sticks on construction buckets as they made the 21/2-mile walk to Union Park, where they met up with other groups and marched toward Trump Tower.

Representing a hodgepodge of organizations and numbering in the hundreds, protesters were stopped at Wacker Drive and Wabash Avenue by the Chicago Police Department's mounted unit and two other lines of officers on bicycles. The diverse group of people, which included colorfully garbed Cinco De Mayo parade participants decked out in hats and feathers and carrying musical instruments, was dispersed.

Many activists carried signs that looked like stop signs and read "Stop Deportations." Other props were directed at Trump, including a papier-mache version of the businessman turned politician, whose stance on immigration has been condemned by many Latinos.

Earlier, more than 100 people, many belonging to various unions, organized at Randolph and Desplaines streets around the Haymarket Memorial, a bronze statue of a wagon that served as a speakers' platform during a labor meeting in 1886.

The banner for Sunday's event read "Immigration rights are workers' rights."

"In some ways, not so much has changed," said Larry Spivack, president of the Illinois Labor History Society. "The struggle in America was a struggle of immigrants. And there was a fight against immigration by native-born Americans. Low wages, poverty, discrimination. ... The fight for labor has often been against deportation. It's complicated. It's the same fight today."

Today the memorial is a shrine to labor and the historic Haymarket Affair, the origin of the May Day holiday.

On May 4, 1886, a bomb was thrown during a labor rally in which eight police officers and at least four civilians were killed.

Authorities quickly rounded up eight radicals, four of whom were hanged. One committed suicide before he could be executed. Death sentences for two others were commuted and one was sentenced to prison. The three surviving Haymarket defendants subsequently were pardoned by Illinois Gov. John Altgeld, who concluded they were all innocent.

Three days before the bombing, on May 1, 1886, tens of thousands had marched on Michigan Avenue in a campaign to reduce the customary 10- or 12-hour workday to eight hours. In the wake of the Haymarket executions, the anniversary of that march became known as May Day and remains a workers' holiday in most nations although not the U.S.

Nerissa Allegretti, the Midwest coordinator of the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns, said the Haymarket riot has worldwide influence, as evidenced by the Kilusang Mayo Uno, or May 1 Movement in her native Philippines.

"When Filipino workers celebrate Labor Day, we educate others of the May 1 protest held 130 years ago, as well as the Haymarket Square bombing that followed days after," Allegretti said. "The story behind these two events is familiar to Filipino workers because we face similar challenges to this day."

Spivack said International Workers' Day, as it is also known, was largely suppressed in the United States when President Grover Cleveland moved Labor Day to September, which historians believe was because of the historic Pullman strike of 1894 on the Far South Side.

"This is the epicenter of international labor," Spivack said.