Sonoma’s ‘day without immigrants’

It was not quite as easy as usual to locate an open restaurant yesterday. The reason: large numbers of Sonoma Valley employees elected to stay home from work all day, and the owners of several affected dining establishments decided to join them. Simultaneously, an estimated one-third of all Valley school children were no-shows as well. Taken all together, from the schools to the restaurants and beyond, the absences were very definitely noticed.

Which was obviously the point.

As part of the nationwide, grassroots political action known as “A Day Without Immigrants,” a number of local businesses – with emphasis on those that employ high numbers of immigrant workers – chose to join the day-long Feb. 16 labor strike. Hand-written signs and notes, posted on business doors and windows, were a common sight across the Valley – particularly in the Springs area, which contains a large concentration of Hispanic families.

One such notice, posted by owner Karen Waikiki at the entrance of her normally bustling El Molino Centro restaurant, simply stated, “We are closed today. I was kindly asked by my employees to allow them to participate in the protest for A Day Without Immigrants. Hope to see you soon.”

The messages were even more to the point on social media sites.

“My staff and I are in support of ‘Day without immigrants,’” proclaimed Teresita Fernandez, owner of La Michoacana Natural Ice Cream, posting the statement Wednesday on the Springs Community Group Facebook page. “I invite the rest of our Springs Community to participate,” she said, adding, “Together we can make a difference.”

Fernandez owns and operates two ice cream shops, one in Novato and the other in Boyes Hot Springs. Taped to the window of Fernandez’s Sonoma shop was a large sign reading, “We believe immigrants make America.”

According to Juan Hernandez, director of nonprofit La Luz Center, plans for “The Day Without Immigrants” began a few weeks ago on Facebook and other social media sites, then quickly spread across the country.

“People are plugged in,” he said. “They are concerned, and they want their voices to be heard.”

The day-long protest – which barely preceded today’s planned General Strike, a more widely focused show of disapproval regarding the new administration’s first 30 days of action – was initially designed as a protest of President Trump’s promised deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants. But the strike was also envisioned as a vivid illustration of how many businesses currently depend on immigrant labor – documented and otherwise – and view immigrant employees as critical to their day-to-day operations.

Hernandez was extra-busy yesterday, as La Luz opened early to accommodate an anticipated rush of visitors seeking services, information, and a gathering place to share their sense of community.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world right now,” said Hernandez. “It’s important for people to have a way to express how they really feel. The government under this new President is causing a lot of insecurity all the way down, from the country’s immigrant communities and millions of immigrant workers, all the way to the business owners who employ those workers. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”

Other local business closures included the Breakaway Café, the Reel Fish Shop & Grill, Picazo Café, Taqueria La Hacienda, El Brinquito Market and El Molino Centro. Joining them were a number of others in Sonoma County, including La Texanita in Sebastopol, Rancho Mendoza Super Mercado in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, and Comacho Market in Santa Rosa.

A number of Sonoma Valley businesses who had elected to remain open – such as Glen Ellen Star and Sweet Scoops Ice Cream – found a different way to support local immigrant workers by pledging 50 percent of their Feb. 16 revenues to La Luz Center.

“We’ve been informed that those businesses will be donating half of their earnings from the day,” said Hernandez, “and we’re considering using that money to start a fund to help people who are affected by all of these coming changes.”

The Day Without Immigrants extended to the area’s schools, which reported a 33 percent absenteee rate for the day, the vast majority of the vacant desks belonging to immigrant children.

Sonoma Valley Unified School District Superintendant Louann Carlomagno said she’s in “absolute support” of parental rights, but wanted to stress the importance of school attendance.

“Parents, as always, need to do what they believe is best for their children,” said Carlomagno.

Carlomagno said that the district is continuing to develop ways to support immigrant families, including the children of undocumented workers. According to Hernandez, such support could be increasingly necessary in the months and years to come.

“A lot of people may not be directly affected by these concerns,” he said of the wider Sonoma Valley area, “but with actions like today’s, they will get a sense of how many members of their community are genuinely frightened, worried that their families could be split up, that they could lose their livelihoods.

“When that happens to one part of the community, it pretty quickly affects the entire community.”

Email David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.