When Rosa Saavedra spotted Catholic Sister Kitty Bethea on Monday at the Raleigh May Day march and rally for fair immigration reform, Saavedra looked at her friend in amazement.

“Did you ever think we’d see this day?” said Saavedra, who marched in Smithfield and then joined a caravan of cars that drove to Raleigh for the 5 p.m. event near the Capitol.

“I never thought I’d see this day,” said Saavedra, a Raleigh mother of two who was born to Chilean parents.

Bethea, who, like Saavedra, has been working in Latino ministry for about two decades, has watched the struggle for justice for Latinos move out of the shadows and into the streets. Thousands of Latinos and their supporters joined a May Day workers’ boycott that showed the impact that Latinos have on the nation’s economy. Throughout the Triangle, work sites were quiet as scores of Latino workers took the day off. Another march was held in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Bethea said she cried when she got to the rally, which included several marches around the block from the Capitol to the General Assembly. “They have a voice,” she said.

For years, fear has kept Latinos from speaking out. This year’s move in Congress to pass a harsh law against illegal immigration has produced a backlash that has empowered people. The call for justice for Latino immigrants is similar to the struggle for civil rights for African Americans in the last century. Raleigh-based Black Workers for Justice distributed a flier at the rally calling for African Americans and Latinos to unite in a workers’ struggle for justice.

The flier noted that while slavery was legal in the United States, Mexico banned slavery after it won independence from Spain and offered shelter to slaves who crossed the border in search of freedom.

In Raleigh, many marchers wore white T-shirts with the message “Today we march. Tomorrow we vote,” a reference to Tuesday’s primary as well as a reference to the years to come when many Latinos will see their political power base expand as their U.S.-born children reach voting age.

“This is an immigrant land” was the message on one placard, a message that resonated with Consuelo Kwee, director of Raleigh’s Hispanic Family Center. Kwee said the last generation’s European immigrants faced “the same struggle” as Latinos are facing today.

“They were facing poverty, unemployment–and coming to America, it was a way to seek not only work, [but also] freedom,” Kwee said. “They were looking for the best for their families. They were new here, and now it’s our turn.”

While calls to WPTF-AM, a conservative Raleigh station, portrayed the Latinos and their supporters as criminals, many Latinos were finding compassion from their bosses and coworkers.

Alicia Villegas joined the Raleigh march with her daughter and granddaughter. A Mexican immigrant, Villegas asked her boss at a local grocery store to give her the day off from her job at the deli counter. She says she told him she wanted to join the boycott, and he said yes.

In the war of words over immigration, the humanity of people is often overlooked, Kwee said. The fight for just immigration reform often centers only on economics “without taking in consideration the human rights of the individual,” she said.

Rick Miller Haraway, director of Catholic Charities for the Raleigh region, attended the rally with several Catholic Charities employees.

“Our church calls us to stand in solidarity with all people,” he said. “Our church teaches us to honor the human dignity of all people regardless of where they’re born. The people that are gathered here today are integral members of our society and they help build our houses and our roads and provide us with hospitality.

“We need to have reform in our country that provides a path for legalization for people,” Haraway said. “This is a matter of justice and it needs to be seen as that.”

During the planning stages for Friday’s Raleigh event, Johanna Cabeza, a Latina community organizer with N.C. ACORN, said people didn’t expect a good response in Raleigh, but in the end the event drew as many as 3,000 people. “Everybody felt, ‘Yeah, we can do it.’ It’s a good beginning,” she said.

Saavedra said Friday’s events solidified the reality of the “economic presence” of the state’s Latino workers. “They spend money everywhere they go,” she said. “They make other people money. That’s a presence.”

Business owners she has talked to are behind the effort for legalization, Saavedra said. “They say, ‘We need our workers. We want our workers. Make it legal already; fix it.’”

Racists use the law as an excuse to discriminate against Latinos, Saavedra said. The law is nothing more than “a piece of paper,” she said. “You write it. You change it. You erase it. It has no moral value to it.

“Many things used to be laws,” Saavedra said. “You couldn’t have black people and white people sitting in the same place. That was a law. Plenty of people broke that law, and they should have.”

At one point during the rally, a person handed the microphone attached to a bullhorn to the Rev. Chris Eggleton, a Dominican priest on the staff of Cary’s St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church. “Lead us in a prayer,” the man asked Eggleton, who was wearing his collar and standing in the middle of Edenton Street.

Recited in Spanish, Eggleton said his prayer was to celebrate diversity. Those gathered are “not only one culture, but many cultures, united together,” he said, “and we give thanks to God for this great day and the spirit of peace and justice over us always. Amen.”