AN EMPTY SHOP

Shared Bond Stretched to the Limit

Rafael Cartagena, 32, and Jose Martinez, 43, right, mechanics at Empire and DC Flyer Cab Co. in Southeast, took the day off to go to the rally.
Rafael Cartagena, 32, and Jose Martinez, 43, right, mechanics at Empire and DC Flyer Cab Co. in Southeast, took the day off to go to the rally. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By N.C. Aizenman and David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Jose Martinez, an immigrant from El Salvador who was about to walk a mile to yesterday's rally on the Mall, wore a new T-shirt with an American flag on it that he bought from Sears. He wore a new red cap with an American eagle on it and was empty-handed only because the dollar store he likes to shop at was sold out of American flags.

Mohammed Butt, an immigrant from Pakistan who wasn't walking anywhere, wore his usual workday clothes: blue jeans, an old dark T-shirt and a denim coat that could absorb oil and grease stains from broken-down taxicabs.

Martinez, 43, who works for Butt repairing those cabs, gathered outside with his brother and three friends as the time for the rally grew near. "This shirt I will keep forever," he said in Spanish. "I will never wear it again because it's going to be a memory of this day."

"I'm going to shut down," Butt, 32, said in English inside a shop suddenly empty of all its mechanics, where the clock said it was just after 3 p.m. "We're supposed to close at 7."

"This march -- there will be no comparison to it," Martinez said, beginning to walk toward the Mall with a group of Salvadoran friends that included a U.S. citizen, a permanent resident, a temporary resident and an illegal immigrant.

"I hope they get better, these people who are going," Butt said, preparing to head home in the opposite direction of the Mall. "We will survive. Let's see what they do."

Two immigrants. One rally. Two versions of what yesterday's gathering on the Mall meant at a taxicab repair shop in Southeast Washington called Empire and DC Flyer Cab Co., where the view from the front is of the Capitol dome.

The View for the Owners

On most days, Mohammed Butt and his older brother, Imran, can be found in an office decorated with photographs of their family back in Pakistan. A dozen years after entering the U.S. on tourist visas, both are permanent U.S. residents who share a four-bedroom house in Northern Virginia and co-own a business that is utterly dependent on Latino workers.

Every one of the six mechanics they employ is a Latino, and as all six made plans last week to go to the rally and shut down the business for at least part of the day, the two brothers sat in the office, bewildered.

"I don't understand why they are doing this," Imran said. "I swear I don't."

At the far end of the shop, meanwhile, Martinez was working on the mangled chassis of a Chevrolet Impala. Twenty-five years after he entered the U.S. illegally, his life is a one-bedroom rental and this little corner of another immigrant's business. He owns his tools and a 1994 Nissan Altima, but that's about it for his possessions, other than the radio that is always on and tuned to a Spanish station where, as yesterday drew closer, the talk was increasingly about the rally.

Martinez paused from his work to listen to yet another advertisement urging listeners to attend. The announcer ended with a favorite chant of Latino demonstrators: "El pueblo, unido . . ." -- The people, united. Martinez grinned and chimed in with the rest: "jamás será vencido!" -- will never be defeated! Then he gave a self-conscious laugh. It feels at once exhilarating and a little scary, this new role as a political activist.


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