Give us tacos and roses

January 18, 2019

Diana Macasa and Alex Schmaus explain how the Tacos for Teachers campaign has built on previous solidarity efforts and added a crucial new element: immigrant pride.

EVERYTHING ABOUT the strike of 33,000 Los Angeles teachers has been a big story. Even the tacos they eat.

CNN, USA Today, La Opinión and the Los Angeles Times are among the major media outlets that have covered the Tacos for Teachers campaign to support striking educators on the picket line.

Initiated by the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and California Educators Rising (CER), the all-volunteer campaign set an initial goal of raising $1,000 to feed striking members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).

But that fundraising goal and the next one were quickly surpassed as money began streaming into a Go Fund Me page that has now raised over $35,000 from more than 1,200 donations. As ISO member Clare Lemlich, an organizer of the campaign, said:

Thanks in large part, I think, to the red state teachers’ revolt last spring, people understand the need for working class solidarity. Support has poured in from all around the country, but the enthusiasm we’ve received in California is really a testament to how firmly the community here stands with their teachers.

Tacos for Teachers on the picket line in Los Angeles
Tacos for Teachers on the picket line in Los Angeles (International Socialist Organization - Los Angeles | Facebook)

Tacos for Teachers fed the strike at several school sites this week, including El Sereno Middle School, North Hollywood High School, Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, Theodore Roosevelt High School and Venice High School.

Campaign organizers are planning to expand to as many picket lines as possible as the strike looks likely to stretch into a second week.

English and history teacher Mari Quepons enjoyed the nopales tacos and the carne asada tacos. “They were surprisingly delicious, I like the cilantro,” Quepons said. “After a long day of walking, it feels good to eat something warm, I’m not as heavy.”

Special education teacher Garrett Elliot was revivified. “Standing in the rain yesterday, we did what we needed to do, but getting home, we were exhausted,” he said. “Today, I feel nourished.”

Elliot added that it wasn’t simply the calories that were nourishing, but also “the idea that eating tacos donated from our community shows we’re not the only ones fighting this fight.”

TACOS FOR Teachers organizers were inspired by the campaigns to send pizza to striking educators during the wave of strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and other so-called “red states” last spring.

It started when Lita Blanc, then-president of United Educators of San Francisco, initiated a campaign to collect donations to send pizzas to West Virginia during the early days of the teachers’ strike. “It was a very concrete thing we could do to help,” Blanc told the West Virginia Gazette. “For the people on the ground, how many are going to stick around if there isn’t any food?”

The West Virginia pizza solidarity campaign raised over $20,000 from more than 700 donations — enough to send 700 pizzas and 800 bottles of water. Surplus funds were divided between the West Virginia Education Association, West Virginia Federation of Teachers and West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.

The pizza solidarity campaign did more than fill depleted bellies and union treasuries. As strike leader Emily Comer explains in journalist Eric Blanc’s new book about the strike wave:

The pizza solidarity came at a time when morale was really low...people were getting sick. The night before, I had burst into tears, thinking about the students...It was incredible, there was a sea of pizza, representing solidarity from all over the place. It showed that we weren’t in it alone. I think people saw the pizza, and people started feeling like the whole country was with us, and that we could really win this.

As the red state rebellion spread to Oklahoma and Arizona, so did the pizza solidarity campaigns, feeding strikers and providing a way for people in cities and towns across the country — and around the world — to express solidarity with the strikers and help them expose the crisis in our public schools.

Socialists in Los Angeles wanted to build on that model of solidarity, but to pick a cuisine more suited to their city. As ISO member and human-taco-for-a-day Victor Fernandez explained to the Los Angeles Times, “It’s L.A. What else are you going to bring?” Fernandez added: “It’s tacos. Nobody hates tacos.”

That may be true, but Fernandez and the other socialists behind the campaign know very well that there are people in powerful places whipping up hatred against the people who gave tacos to the world.

In that sense, Tacos for Teachers is both a union solidarity campaign and an embrace of Mexican and Chicanx cultures and of a Latinx immigrant community facing accelerated assaults — not the least of which being an ongoing federal government shutdown to force funding for a racist border wall.

By partnering with the largely Latinx Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign, which recently won a long battle with City Hall to decriminalize sidewalk vendors, Tacos for Teachers is also making small contribution toward strengthening the organization of embattled Los Angeles taqueros and loncheros.

THE AUTHORITIES in charge of the Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD) are mostly Democrats who don’t engage in Trump-style racist demagoguery, but this strike is very much a battle for the hearts and minds of the city’s Latinx population.

Almost three-quarters of the 700,000 students in LAUSD are Latinx, and a major part of UTLA’s contract campaign consists of anti-racist “common-good demands” like ending the not-so “random” police searches in schools and establishing a legal defense fund for undocumented students.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who now carries water for the billionaire charter school backers, denounced the strike as “just wrong” last Saturday and echoed the LAUSD’s false claims of poverty despite sitting on almost $2 billion in reserves.

In response, the anti-charter community group Eastside Padres Contra la Privatización responded on Facebook by calling Villaraigosa a liar and a “vendido,” or sellout.

Héctor Rivera, an ISO member who has been volunteering with UTLA to reach out to Latinx families during the strike, described some of the dirty tricks being deployed by the district to intimidate Spanish-speaking families.

“Throughout the first days of the strike, Spanish-speaking parents reported that they received robocalls that told them that their children would be in trouble if their student missed classes,” Rivera says. “These robocalls sowed confusion and parents immediately took to social media to criticize LAUSD and the Board of Education “

“Latinx families enthusiastically support the strike despite fearmongering and disinformation tactics,” Rivera says. Indeed, a poll released by Loyola Marymount University on Tuesday found that an astounding 82 percent of LAUSD parents support the strike.

But with LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner refusing to negotiate, the strike looks likely to drag on into a second week. Pressures will grow on working-class families, and it will be crucial to continue organizing the city’s Latinx community to throw its full support behind the teachers.

For Lemlich, Tacos for Teachers is an obvious Angeleno way to express solidarity, but also a perfect response to the racist comments of Latinos for Trump founder Marco Gutierrez, who warned during the 2016 presidential campaign that if Trump lost the election, there would be “taco trucks on every corner.”

In an echo of the lyrics of an old labor song, “Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too” — made famous in the 1912 Lawrence textile strike that united immigrant workers across dozens of nationalities — Lemlich offers a reply to those who seek to demonize immigrants and divide the working class today: ”We’d like to see a teachers’ strike in every state, and a taco truck on every corner.”

Danny Katch contributed to this article.

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