Two hours into Saturday's ConAgra Foods-sponsored citizenship-application-processing session, Clarissa Martínez, director of immigration and national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), was hard at work making sure everything moved swiftly in her well-oiled volunteer machine.
“The [citizenship] form is pretty involved, so we need to recruit, train and screen them,” she said. By the end of the day, her crew had helped process 175 applications. In California, it is estimated there are 2.3 million people eligible for citizenship that have not yet applied.
“Antagonism is growing in their communities, and they want to stand up and change that. The response we have gotten today clearly demonstrates that people are stepping up and navigating through the process.
“Young people have gotten engaged in advocacy and are encouraging their parents to apply,” Martinez added.
That was the case with mother-daughter team Josefina and Aida Pavón. Acapulco native Josefina is in her 60s and has mobility problems, and although she's been a legal California resident for the last 11 years, she was intimidated by the system and had failed to apply for citizenship. “I pushed her to come,” Aida said with a smile as her mom nervously waited for her name to be called out in the waiting area.
The citizenship application workshop was the most subdued spot at NCLR's 40th annual conference in the San Diego Convention Center. It was either ironically or intentionally set up on one side of a curtain that separated it from the conference's noisy main event: The Latino Expo USA, a bustling, corporate Technicolor fiesta, where dozens of the country's most profitable companies marketed to this increasingly sought-after demographic with attractive young representatives, contests and lots of swag.
On the topic of Latino pride, Chicano comedian George Lopez says it best: “Proud is one thing; flamenco is another.”
And flamenco it was. A row of low riders lined up along the north wall of the Convention Center's Hall D, leading up to the stage where a mariachi band performed. Blaring announcements from the PA system followed: “All you beautiful Latinas make sure to stop by the Sí TV booth for your free makeover and glamour shots,” followed by, “You have five more minutes to sign up for the Dancing for Diabetes salsa competition.”
Government agencies and all branches of the U.S. military joined in the swag fest (the free sticky notes available at the CIA booth totally trumped Homeland Security's United States-shaped magnets). Over at the Marines station, attendees who completed 20 or more chin-ups received a free T-shirt. A Mexican zarape blanket adorned the AARP display, and a Coldwell Banker agent approached passers-by, asking, “Are you from San Diego? It's a buyer's market right now,” while a Countrywide specialist gave away fortune cookies (the little paper fortune urged people to call them for all their home-loan needs) and folks won ConAgra Foods logo-emblazoned aprons for demonstrated skill at shooting baskets.
Wachovia bank opted to attract new customers with one of the those wind capsules with fake money blowing around, which seemed to be saying: “In America financial prosperity awaits; all you have to do is grab it.” Participants who accumulated 800 points could win a new iPod. Bank of America employees wore crisp white guayabera shirts as a way of relating to the crowd. There's something unintentionally funny when a Caucasian man in a Cuban-inspired shirt engages you with a confidant “¡Hola!”
If Speedy Gonzales and Willy Wonka teamed up to put an expo together, this, no doubt, would be the result.
Had sponsors worn ceremonial feather headdresses to a Native American Association conference, or staged a booty-shaking contest for an NAACP summit, there would be outrage. Here, folklore was not only tolerated, but encouraged. And an event that bordered on the cartoonish really got animated when someone in a large Dora the Explorer mascot-like get-up entered the room.
All that was missing was an instructional demo on how to properly fold a bandana, or a symposium on prison tattoo shading.
For the little bandidos, Lowe's home-improvement center had a station for assembling little wooden racecars (hydraulics-free, surprisingly enough). There were soccer balls courtesy of Western Union, and bright red and yellow Ronald McDonald footprints stuck throughout the event's blue carpet led to a Passport to Play Funzone. Once kids were done frolicking, parents were rewarded with a $5 Arch Card. Ironically, one set of bicolor footprints led to the American Diabetes Association booth.
Outside in the lobby area, activist Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers of America, was ambushed Britney-style by people wanting to take a picture with her.
“Oh, I think it's great!” she said of the event before being whisked away to the upstairs conference area, where seminars and panel discussions on such weighty topics as housing, education, healthcare, the labor market, activism, women in politics and youth and the media were being held and where Sunday's Home Clinic offered free counseling and pro-bono legal advice to more than 300 people.
Back inside the expo hall, pandemonium erupted when TJX Companies (owners of Marshals, TJMaxx and six other off-price retailers) raffled off a $100 gift card good at any of their stores. The Padres Friar danced to reggaeton, and the DJ at the Chevy area played “La Bamba” on what felt like a never-ending loop.
“Don't forget to stop by the Starbucks for your afternoon pick-me-up,” a woman's voice suggested over the PA. The FDIC stand was deserted, but a line 30 people strong formed by the neighboring Seattle-based coffeehouse cart. Who cares about the future of non-brokered insured deposit accounts when there are free samples of yummy mint mocha frappuccino to be had?
After getting her coffee on, preschool teacher and San Ysidro resident Ivonne Dueñas patiently waited for her picture to be taken in the Ford Motors area, where attendees could get a personalized 3-D holographic keychain. “You should get one done—they're cool,” she told me. “Ready?” the photographer asked, “¡Lista!” Dueñas replied as she set her plump goodie bag aside. “I've had potato chips, cookies and ravioli today, so make sure to take 10 pounds off,” she joked.
Back at the citizenship-processing session, Josefina Pavón was making her way through the last step of the two-hour process, an interview with a quality-control attorney to look over her forms.
“I am now going to have a voice and a vote,” she beamed.
In the adjacent expo, members of the Mariachi band on a break from their set, sat down with a Bank of America representative and applied for credit cards; they, too, want piece of the American dream.
Meanwhile, Dueñas, the woman who was so excited about the 3-D Ford photo, was free-sampled out and taking a breather in the Miller beer garden. She opened up a bag of pretzels she'd picked up earlier and sipped on her gratis grog.
“Now, this is what I call a conference,” she said.