Southern Hospitality

Not to be self-referential or anything in attempting to deal with the single most significant political event I have witnessed in the city of Dallas in almost three decades of reporting, but the next morning after last weekend's monumental immigration march downtown I went to the mirror to see what on earth was wrong with my face. I thought I was looking at a beach ball in a bathrobe.

From standing outside all day Sunday covering the march, I had one of those extreme white-people sunburns where the tips of my eyebrows had turned sort of translucent green. "Oh, perfect," I said to the mirror. "You spent all day feeling like a Martian in your own city. Now you look like one."

The entire experience of the last week, beginning with the spontaneous student walkouts over the immigration issue, culminating in Sunday's flawlessly organized march, has been eerily otherworldly for me. This is a city whose main political tradition has always been somnambulism. And now everything is different.

Surging down Ross Avenue Sunday in the center of that immense chanting mass--350,000 to half a million people in white shirts waving the American flag--I looked up at the buildings and thought, "These streets have never seen anything remotely like this before."

The march reminded me of the recent floods--a great natural force welling up suddenly, shoving aside all the social contraptions and political conventions we had imagined to be the reality. It makes so much of the Washington debate on immigration feel hopelessly loopy and out of touch: Does somebody up there actually think we're going to kick these people out of the country?

The hundreds of thousands of people around me in the streets on Sunday were happy, confident, organized at both social and family levels, brimming with hope, determination and the sheer fun of the American democratic process.

They ain't going nowhere. They're here. They're us.

It was the same thing I thought I saw a week earlier in the spontaneous Latino student walk-outs--thousands of kids suddenly in the streets waving flags, streaming into downtown and coursing through City Hall in a flood. I was especially fascinated by that endless loop on one of the television stations--the kid running around the edge of the reflecting pond on City Hall Plaza. That was exactly what my kid would have done at that age--goofy, exuberant, a little bit defiant, a little bit wild on the juice of the crowd. That kid is here. He's American. For better or for worse.

And now the conservatives in the Congress have brought about what has never been accomplished before by even the most intense efforts of Latino leadership: By insulting the mothers and fathers of these kids, the nativists in the Congress have awakened them politically.

It took a long time to find the right button. Everybody else kept working the abstractions--cries of "La Raza!," appeals to the duties of citizenship and a million other things no iPod-wearing techno-kid would ever really get or care about. But finally the meatheads in the House of Representatives found the hot spot. They came up with something you could get across in a text message: telling these kids that their immigrant parents who sneaked into the country and cleaned toilets to send them to junior college are going to be labeled felons.

Yup. That did it. Insulting their moms and dads, that was the ticket. Spontaneously and on their own, self-organized with cell phones and MySpace messages, they exploded out of the schools and into the streets and gave their parents the courage to follow them downtown a week later in last Sunday's history-making march.

Between the two events, I stayed in touch with Gustavo Jimenez, a junior at Duncanville High School and one of the ringleaders of the walk-outs. He told me he and his friends will work intensively in the months and years ahead to see that the energy of these weeks is channeled into voting.

"That's our main focus," he said. "People have been asking me, 'Well, after the march, what are you going to do?' We have a slogan: March today, vote tomorrow. We're going to reach out to all the people who are unregistered voters, especially in the Latino community, and tell them they should start voting. They should let their voice be heard every time, not just this time but every time."

The Latino population of Dallas is now being estimated at more than 40 percent of the total population and growing. Voter turnout by Latinos in city elections is often in the low single-digit percentages of eligible population. But black turnout can be equally execrable; whites only vote big in the last bastion districts far north; if Gustavo Jimenez gets even a part of his wish, the balance could turn quickly here.