Peace, peace, peace! Children greet antiwar pilgrimage

OAKLAND, Calif. — All morning, it was the same. At each schoolyard stop through Oakland’s Fruitvale district, groups of children and teachers gathered outside their classrooms, waiting eagerly to greet the marchers who had walked so far to bring them a message of peace, respect and justice.

It was an especially poignant moment for Fernando Suarez del Solar, who with fellow peace leaders Pablo Paredes, Camilo Mejia and Aidan Delgado, had begun the walk in Tijuana, Mexico, two weeks earlier. March 27, the last day of La Peregrinacion de la Paz, was also the third anniversary of the day his son, Marine Jesus Suarez del Solar, was killed in Iraq at the age of 20. He was one of the first U.S. soldiers to die there following the U.S. invasion.

At each stop the children responded enthusiastically as Suarez del Solar told them, “I would not like to think any of your parents would have to mourn your death in a war. You all deserve and have the right to live in a world where there is peace and social justice,” he said. “But to get there, we all have to learn how to respect and love everybody.”

“Peace, peace, peace!” they chanted when he asked them: “What do you want?”

Inspired by legendary Indian nonviolent resistance leader Mohandas Gandhi’s 241-mile “Salt March” 76 years ago to oppose British imperialism, Suarez del Solar and his companions had conceived their journey to make sure the Latino voice of opposition to the war would be “heard loud and clear” throughout the Americas.

All had earned positions of leadership in the antiwar movement. Suarez del Solar had begun speaking out soon after his son’s death. The other three were military resisters. Pablo Paredes refused to board his Iraq-bound ship in December 2004. Camilo Mejia served one tour in Iraq before becoming a National Guard resister. Aidan Delgado served at Abu Ghraib and now tours with slide shows of the prison abuses.

Their march began in Tijuana, Jesus Suarez del Solar’s birthplace. It wound through Escondido, where Jesus was recruited and is now buried, before going on to Camp Pendleton where Jesus was trained, and then to La Paz, Fresno and San Francisco, where the group would join thousands of immigrant rights protesters before holding a moving closing ceremony.

“In general the response has been beautiful — we have had a few problems with the recruiters,” Suarez del Solar said when asked about people’s reactions along the way. “A lot of young people have joined in the march. For me that is the most important. When young people listen, I hope I save one life. I hope these young people, in the next three years, five years, will change the system away from war.”

Pablo Paredes pointed out that responses have been built locally, with thousands joining in Watsonville and Salinas, and marchers numbering 30 or 40 on other days. “One of the big things is the support we get from the communities, coming by, honking horns, waving peace signs.” All along the route, “Good Samaritans” brought the group water, Paredes said, while community centers and religious groups provided housing.

“It’s been about changes,” said Camilo Mejia, citing the warm welcome from the schools in Oakland. But, he said, in other places “school principals gathered the kids into the gym to keep them from seeing us walk by, and sent security officers to surround the school to make sure we couldn’t reach the children.”

Mejia told of one community in the mountains where the marchers’ arrival was announced by a town leader standing in the plaza with a bullhorn. “They didn’t know we were coming until about 30 minutes before we got there,” he said. “And the next thing you know, we had this warm welcome, which in terms of numbers was very small, but really empowering to see people come together on such short notice and receive us with such warmth. People opened up their homes to us, local businesses opened their doors and gave us free food.”

“The main reason I’m here is because I’m grateful for my son still being home,” said San Gabriel resident Lupe Lujan, who with her husband marched the whole way. “He’s studying, he’s in college, and Fernando Suarez del Solar doesn’t have his son anymore. I wanted to be able to support Fernando in his march for peace.”

“There are lots of people out there who feel war is not the answer to our social or economic problems,” Lujan said. “A lot of people feel that peaceful means to solve problems would be more productive for the environment and for people. It’s time our society changed,” she added. “What we have right now is not good.”