By the time Memphis Police Department officers were called inside of a Wal-Mart in Southeast Memphis to escort Cosecha Memphis out of the building, the members of the immigrant rights advocacy group had already made their point.

Saturday’s demonstration — a Salsa “Dance-In” — occurred at a carefully selected store. Most customers were people of color, many of them Spanish-speaking.

So, when Cosecha member Yuleiny Escobar shouted “Boicotear Wal-Mart, boicotear Wal-Mart!” down aisles of cheaply priced housewares, many customers knew what she meant — even if they didn’t understand why she was saying it.

Luckily for any confused yet curious shoppers, members of Cosecha followed behind Escobar while shouting additional clarification over Salsa music blaring from a boombox.

Community organizers from the Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens were present to assist the 10 Cosecha members by serving as marshals and police liaisons.

“Wal-Mart makes money everyday by locking us up,” yelled Roberto Juarez in both Spanish and English. “The money you spend here helps them continue to lock us up!”

With little time to explain the connection between the private prison industrial complex and Wal-Mart before police arrived, Cosecha members followed Juarez and Escobar handing out flyers with more information.

Minutes after a Wal-Mart employee noticed the dance-in, Memphis police officers arrived to escort the Cosecha members out. Photo by Micaela Watts

Wal-Mart profits heavily from private prison labor. Much of the federally subsidized inmate labor occurs in prisons run by the rebranded CoreCivic — formerly Corporate Corrections of America.

“So many of the undocumented people of color shop at Wal-Mmart because of the affordability,” Escobar explained ahead of Saturday’s action. “The same people that earn money when they shop also earn money again when they are held in detention before being deported.”

Much of Escobar’s knowledge of the Wal-Mart-CoreCivic connection came from her job working for an immigration lawyer in Memphis. What she knows about families torn apart by a member’s deportation she learned firsthand.

Escobar’s family comes from Guerrero, the second poorest state in Mexico. Escobar, who was born in the United States, is a citizen. Her father is too. But Escboar’s mother was not naturalized when her father was, despite petitions to the U.S.

Furthermore, Escobar’s mother is not allowed in the U.S. In 2007, she was banned from the country for 10 years as a result of illegally entering and being deported back to Mexico twice within a decade.

In the 10 years since her mother was banned, Escobar has traveled back and forth from Memphis to Mexico where she lived with her mother.

“The pain of families being separated… I know what that feels like and it’s really hard,” said Escobar.

According to Escobar, it’s hard to lure undocumented immigrants out for a march or a demonstration in the post-Trump era.

The president’s promises to deport every person in the U.S. illegally, and build a wall between U.S. and Mexico were popular promises among his voter base. Since President Trump’s election and subsequent administrative orders, like the travel-ban from seven majority-Muslim countries, immigrant communities are living in fear.

“It’s very much the case now that you go to work, come home, stay home, and keep to yourself,” said Escobar of undocumented immigrants in Memphis.

“If we say, ‘protest’ or ‘march’, then yeah… many people are not going to show” said Escobar. “We choose to dance because it’s a peaceful way of letting people know something is happening.”

The Memphis metro area is home to more than 66,000 — roughly five percent of Shelby County’s population — residents, according to the latest numbers from bipartisan think tank, The New American Economy.

The same data also shows that in Tennessee alone, immigrants wield $12.3 billion in purchasing power. New American estimates that if every undocumented person was deported from Tennessee, the immediate result would be $3.8 billion in lost economic activity and $1.7 billion in lost gross state product.

And though Saturday’s action targeted a mere sliver Tennessee’s immigrant consumer group, Escobar is hopeful that small actions such as the dance-in will inform Memphis’ immigrants of their combined purchasing power bit by bit.

“We need to show people that undocumented people have power, the power of consumption,” said Escobar.

Larger pro-immigration demonstrations have been occurring in Memphis and nationally in rapid succession since Trump’s inauguration.

Carlos Torres blows into a conch shell to draw attention to Cosecha’s demonstration at a Memphis Wal-Mart. Photo by Micaela Watts

In February, immigrant-rights grassroots group Comunidades Unidas en Una Voz hastily organized a thousands-strong protest in downtown Memphis shortly within two days of Trump’s travel ban.

On May 1, Cosecha organized the national “Day Without Immigrants” strike to drive home the point of immigrant purchasing power and labor.

Comunidades member Veronica Marquez noted that public demonstrations like Cosecha’s remind Memphis’ immigrant communities of the power in numbers.

Marquez believes that these reminders are critical now more than ever, and can help offset the anxiety that stems from the uptick in arrests from ICE agents.

“In the end, there is an increasing perception of Latinos as defenseless,” she said. “A big part of this perception is helped by the constant siege to which our community is subjected on a daily basis.”

“We are here to stay,” said Marquez. “We contribute to this society with our work, with taxes, with our spending. We deserve to be treated as here as human beings.”

This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.