REFUGEES WITH HUNGER FOR JUSTICE
WASHINGTON POST, April 26, 1997
Protesters Seek Residency for Immigrants
By Alona Wartofsky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Maria Bishop Williams has come to Washington for a singular vacation. Every morning she gets up,
carefully applies her makeup and then rides in a van to Lafayette Square, where she fasts, waiting for the van to return at sunset.
“I got a camera to take pictures of the people I meet," she says. "Maybe also a picture of the White House."
Bishop is one of seven protesters on a hunger strike across from the White House. They want the government to grant permanent residency to an estimated 260,000 Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees whose temporary protected status in this country has expired and who must apply for political asylum.
Bishop, 57, the only member of lithe group who is a U.S. citizen, (came here from Peru when she was 20. Now she's a cosmetologist in Long Beach, Calif. Several weeks ago, a neighbor told her about the planned hunger strike.
When she got home, she told her husband she wanted to go. "I said, Honey, you know what? I want to go to Washington. I'm tired of working day after day on hair.' He said, "Okay, but what about your customers? I said, ‘I want to take a vacation.' "
The weather here has been colder than she expected. She has started to get headaches in the morning, and her back hurts. As of last Sunday, the seventh day of the strike, she had lost 13 pounds. "Honey, my stomach goes like this," she says, and then makes a noise that sounds like Donald Duck.
Bishop laughs a lot. She's the oldest in the group and also the cheeriest. "Maybe this is no vacation," she says with a chuckle.
She has never attended any kind of political demonstration before, but she gets upset when people she knows get in trouble with the authorities "immigration picks up Spanish people, and they punish them like they are criminals. I see that many times in California," she says. "People are prejudiced about black people, prejudiced about Spanish people."
And so she is starving herself. Bishop is drinking water, and when the headaches get too unbearable, she'll have coffee. She's not sure when but she'll go home soon.
“I don't want to die because I have a family. My family needs me, too," she says. Her son is in the Army, stationed in North Carolina.
"We all work hard," she says. "We never get welfare or food stamps, never in my life. I love America, I give America all my heart."
Luis Hernandez, the strike organizer who heads the Association of Salvadorans in Los Angeles, says that their permit dictates that the protesters should stand, not sit. They take turns sitting for 20 minute intervals. They hold up a banner that reads "FAST FOR JUSTICE." Today will be the 13th day.
Every afternoon, a nurse from Clinica del Pueblo in Adams-Morgan comes by to check on the group. Other people visit, too. One of them, Oscar Munoz, a Guatemalan living in Adelphi, joined them April 18.
Hernandez hovers protectively around the group. He's not fasting. He's got to remain clearheaded to organize various meetings and send out press releases. Because he's so busy, he doesn't really have time to eat--but he doesn't feel much like it, anyway. “I can't really eat in front of them," he says.
Carlos Estrada, 32, leans forward on a bench, his head in his hands. He says he feels all right--just a little weak, a little sleepy.
He's wearing Brut after-shave, but his mind is so hazy he can't quite remember putting it on "It smells nice, doesn't it?"
Back home in Los Angeles, he has three kids and two part-time jobs. He delivers pizza and translates for people who have interviews with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Estrada came here from El Salvador when he was 19. Not long after he got here, he applied for political asylum. His status is still pending. Just before he left L.A., his girlfriend, who is a U.S. citizen, begged him not to go to Washington. "She said if I married her. I don't have to beg for a green card," he says. "But I had already made a decision that I would come."
After spending the day together, the fasters hold nightly meetings before going to sleep at the National Institute for Latino Development, in a residential area off Georgia Avenue. Hernandez tells the group that he doesn't want any martyrs. Estrada replies that he is willing to starve himself to death. “I think this is a great
reason to die," he says.
Estrada says he has fasted before for health reasons, but this time is much harder. He must stand for hours at a time, and the days are frequently boring. “You’re looking at the same guys all day long," he says. “Mostly, we talk about food."
Sometimes the tedium is interrupted by sympathetic visitors. Other passersby aren't so compassionate. "One guy walked by and said, 'Go to hell.' Another said, “You piece of [expletive] wetbacks, go back to your own country,” Estrada says, and then shrugs.
"People come out of their offices to eat their lunch in this park. They come out here and eat
and they're looking at us. They probably don't know we are fasting," he says.
He's drinking water and. also Pedialyte, a re-hydration fluid for infants with severe diarrhea. It was bubble-gum flavored.
It reminds him of his kids. If he is deported, he's not sure what would happen to them--
they are American citizens. He calls them frequently, but is never sure what to say. "I just told them I'm just gonna be here for a while, and that I bought them presents," he says.
One of Lafayette Square's more assertive squirrels approaches. it is alarmingly close, just inches from his feet. Estrada looks down and smiles sympathetically. "He's hungry," he says. And then he puts his head back in his hands.
Photo by James A. Parcell -- the Washington Post
Maria Bishop Williams, Jorge Angel, Fernando do Andrade and Pedro Mateo, at
Lafayette Square protesting on behalf of Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees