SARATOGA SPRINGS & SCHENECTADY — A Native American folk song resonated from a single wooden flute as hundreds of people silently converged on Congress Park in Saratoga Springs.
Many held colorful signs saying “All Are Welcome Here” in several languages, while others carried homemade posters with messages like “This is a land of immigrants,” “Saratoga thanks its migrant workers” and “Don’t blame immigrants when the billionaire class steals our wealth.”
Natalya Lakhtakia, a daughter of immigrants, carried a sign that read “Ningun humano es ilegal.
“It says, ‘No human is illegal,’” she said, translating the Spanish message.
The 32-year-old Saratoga Springs woman chose Spanish because it was her mother’s first language, but also because “many Spanish-speaking immigrants are specifically targeted,” she said.
Her father moved to the United States from India and her mother is from Argentina.
“I’m a first-generation American,” she said. “The idea of immigrants coming to this country is very personal to me. But on top of that, I know what people are leaving behind … and I welcome them to my country.”
The “All Are Welcome Here” walk and vigil was hosted by the Saratoga Immigration Coalition, which combines civic groups, faith communities and citizens from across the Capital Region. It was planned in the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the threat of a Confederate statue’s removal spawned riots by white nationalists, members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis.
It also followed the arrest of about 30 undocumented immigrants, mostly Mexican, by federal agents in the Spa City earlier this summer.
“Over the past several months I have felt consumed by anger, but today, together, we made a different choice, and we chose a different voice,” event organizer Maxine Lindig Lautenberg told the crowd, which arrived in the park at about 7 p.m. after walking there from three locations. “We made a choice for peace and a choice for love. For the affirmative. The positive rather than the negative.”
Lautenberg said the walk to Congress Park started in different places because “we all come from different places.” But the locations — Union Avenue near the entrance to Saratoga Race Course, Beekman Street and Broadway, near the City Center and Temple Sinai — were chosen for specific reasons.
“The track is home to immigrant backstretch workers, Beekman Street was once a hub of Italian and Irish immigrants; and Broadway signifies the impact immigrants have on our daily lives, be it through their direct contributions to the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the music we hear and so many others,” she said.
The candle-light vigil included spoken word and musical performances, with Joe Bruchac, a Native American author who descended from the Abenaki tribe, playing the flute while wearing a traditional headdress. Once the crowd had congregated, he played a drum and sang.
“The first sound every person heard was the sound of their mother’s heart beating,” he said. “When we hear the drum, it should remind us, we’re all children of one mother … Remember that no matter what we look like on the outside, on the inside is that same music of life.”
The vigil was the sixth gathering Lakhtakia had been to in the Capital Region since Donald Trump was elected president, “all for different causes,” she said.
“This is definitely the loveliest one,” she said. “It’s very welcoming. It’s very peaceful.”
SCHENECTADY COMMUNITY DISCUSSION
Meanwhile in Schenectady, about two dozen people gathered at the YWCA in the Stockade to discuss their reactions to the events in Charlottesville, and to consider how to address those feelings moving forward.
An Aug. 12 white nationalist rally, where three people died and dozens were injured, has prompted an outpouring of community forums calling for unity, including a vigil last week hosted by area clergy members.
Thursday night’s gathering sought to focus the outpouring of energy and community activism in the aftermath of the Charlottesville rally and the president’s response, and turn it into a workable action plan for community improvement.
“After last week’s vigil, it was important for us to open our doors and have a discussion on race, inclusion and diversity, and come up with some action items,” said Kim Siciliano, executive director of the YWCA.
Cora Schroeter, the YWCA board president, added that the event’s focus paralleled the organization’s core mission of ending racism and empowering women.
Attendees included residents, local religious leaders and a few representatives from the Schenectady Police Department, who said they were hoping to gauge public reaction to recent events and learn from it.
Community members sat in a rectangle and simply shared how recent current events made them feel. Frustrated, scared, angry and embarrassed were among the most commonly mentioned words.
A few people said they’d been feeling helpless lately and wanted to know what they could do to make a difference on a local level to promote unity. Others said they felt anxious that by staying at home, they’d be contributing to the current climate where acts of racism is becoming more visible again.
Toward the end of the discussion, attendees were asked to write down issues they found in the city and county that they felt needed to be addressed. That list would then be used to create a tangible action plan for future gatherings.
The most commonly mentioned concerns about the area included racism, lack of community investment and lack of diversity among local leadership, particularly within the school district.
“These issues are nothing new,” said Brian Wright, one of the attendees and a former Schenectady County Human Rights Commission leader. “Ultimately, it comes down to action.”