Sunday, May 1, 2016

May Day! May Day!

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Felicidades trabajador!  For many around the world, May 1st marks International Worker’s Day or May Day.   In the Americas, the day is known as El Dia Del Trabajador or El Dia Del Trabajo.   Most countries, from Argentina to Venezuela to everything in between, observe the day as a way to commend the struggles of working people worldwide. 

While laborers around the world take the day off on May Day, in the United States, May 1st is just another regular work day.   The US, is one of the very few countries that does not recognize International Worker’s Day on May 1st, which is quite ironic, because the roots of the holiday start here. 

On May 1st, 1886, thousands of workers nationwide took to the streets to rally for shorter work days.   You think you work long hours now?  Think again.  In the nineteenth century, it was expected for employees to work anywhere from 12 to 16 hours a day in unsanitary, unregulated and just outright dangerous conditions.  Adopting British social reformer, Robert Owen’s, slogan “Eight hours’ labour, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hours’ rest”, the workers boldly demanded an eight-hour work day. 

A few days later, on May 4th, a riot broke out at a rally organized by the anarchist political organization “International Working People’s Association” (IWPA) in Haymarket Square in Chicago.  In what started off as a peaceful protest, a bomb went off and police opened fire.  Even though there was no evidence to prove their culpability, eight men were charged with murder, four of them subsequently hanged.

In 1889, the International Socialist Conference acknowledged May 1st as an international holiday in order to promote worker solidarity and in remembrance of the events of the Haymarket affair.    In an attempt to distance itself from socialism and anarchy, the U.S chose not to adapt the holiday, instead opting to celebrate Labor Day in September.  

Go to any Latino country, however, and “May Day” is in full effect. 

In Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Uruguay and Venezuela, the day is a national holiday and it is known as El Dia Del Trabajador. In Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay and Peru the day is also a public holiday, and it is known as El Dia Del Trabajo.  Regardless of what is called, however, the holiday has been recognized all throughout Latin America and the Caribbean for over a century. 

In, Argentina, for example, workers have been celebrating since 1890.  The holiday specially gained momentum in the late 1940’s under the presidency of Juan Domingo Peron, who as a big proponent of the working class endorsed celebrations of the holiday throughout the country.   Bolivians have been celebrating since 1906 and in Chile, then President Carlos Ibanez Del Campo made it an official holiday in 1931. 

In Costa Rica, celebrations commenced in 1913, however the 8 hour work day was not passed to law until 1920.  In Cuba, El Dia del Trabajo was celebrated for the first time in 1890, and ever since then, it has been a huge event characterized by big marches throughout the country. 

In Mexico, Worker’s Day has been celebrated since 1913.  The date is also used to remember la Huelga de Cananea (Cananea strike) of Sonora in 1906.  In 1906, workers at the Cananea Consolidated Copper Company in Sonora, Mexico tired of earning 3.5 pesos a day, while their American counterparts earned 5 pesos a day for the same job, went on strike.  The protest quickly became violent, and although the company rejected the demands of the workers, the event remains a key fixture of Mexican History, recognized by many as a precursor to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. 

In Uruguay, the holiday has been celebrated since 1890 and since 1997, laborers have made it a tradition to gather at the main plaza in Montevideo.  Venezuelans began celebrating in 1936.  Between 1938 and 1945, the country celebrated on July 24th, however in 1945, under the presidency of Isaías Medina Angarita, the date was changed back to May 1st.

Like many other Latino holidays, the day also has religious undertones.  For many in the catholic religion, May 1st also marks the Feast of St. Joseph the worker, or San José el Obrero.  As per the scripture, Joseph was not wealthy and worked as a carpenter.  Many in the faith look to him as the patron saint of the working class.

Today, people all over the world use the first of May to honor the working class and their contribution to society. Keeping true to its roots, however the day is also utilized to bring attention to the worker rights issues and concerns currently plaguing modern day workers.  In 2006, for example, Latino immigrants in the US took to the streets to march for immigration rights.  The rally was nicknamed “A day without Immigrants” and many were encouraged to leave their jobs for a day in order to draw attention to their significant, and often undermined, contributions to the American workforce. 

Originally published in LatinTrends Magazine, May 2016