If a movement can be judged by its treatment at the hands of local headline writers, then the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who marched through downtown Chicago on Monday May 1 just may be the most earnest bunch of demonstrators ever to hit the city’s streets.

“United they march,” read the Tribune’s larger and cheerier-than-normal banner headline on Tuesday May 2, the paper’s stodgy reserve surfacing only in its subtle grammatical differentiation between “us” and “them.” The Sun-Times, in typically populist fashion, let the demonstrators speak for themselves, using single quotation marks to humanize their implicitly judicious cause: ‘We are America.’

But the one paper that really nailed the demonstration’s feeling of sincere patriotism and cautious exuberance was actually printed before the march even began. On the cover of this week’s La Raza, a Spanish-language weekly with a circulation of about 200,000 that hit newsstands on April 30, there is an image of almost comic sincerity: in front of a map of the United States, colored in by a billowing American flag, a single white dove stretches its wings and takes flight.

Above, in a bold, plain font, the Spanish headline “Que sea en paz,” doesn’t so much provide the reader with any news content as it does offer a kind of prayer: that the demonstrations, and the demonstrators, go in peace.

As it turns out, La Raza’s prayer was answered. By the time the march wrapped up in the late afternoon, the Chicago Police Department hadn’t reported a single arrest among what it estimated to be some 400,000 marchers. But, perhaps more importantly, those of us there got the feeling that La Raza’s visual treatment of the event, a bird taking flight, was an apt one.

Monday’s throng of striking cooks, construction workers, teachers, gardeners, and hooky-playing students made it hard not to feel like you were in on the beginning of something big.

One group of marchers, organized by the long-winded but comprehensive Coalition of African, Arab, Asian, European and Latino Immigrants of Illinois, began gathering in the square at the six-cornered intersection of Ashland, Milwaukee and Division at around 9:30 a.m. Across Milwaukee, from a flat-bed truck adorned with balloons and speaker stacks, a wedding deejay from the South Side named Leslie Richmond set the tone by spinning old soul jams.

“I tried to do all the protest songs, but I didn’t do any of the real radical ones,” Richmond said, correctly gauging the amiable but insistent mood of the protestors.

By the time 26th Ward Alderman Billy Ocasio took the stage after 10, Richmond had worked his way through a couple of songs from Marvin Gaye’s socially conscious catalog, and the crowd had swelled to a couple hundred or more.

Within the hour, the last of the speakers had directed the demonstrators to begin heading south on Ashland to join the beginning of the citywide march at Union Park. As they began moving away, Richmond put on a slew of early ’90s hits, most notably MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” Idiosyncratic, maybe, but the mishmash of different music and flags and languages that a visitor to the square heard as the demonstrators began to stream down Ashland seemed, if anything, appropriately American.

At Union Park, where the crowd swelled to hundreds of thousands around noon and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama spoke to the few close enough to the stage to be able to hear him, first-generation Mexican-American and Internet systems analyst Guillermo Vzquez held the corner of a flag: an enormous 25-by-15-foot stars-and-stripes that doubled as protection from the light mist that had begun falling.

The flag, Vzquez explained, was an attempt to show the rest of the world that Hispanic immigrants were just as patriotic as anybody else. More directly, it was a response to the criticisms of talking heads like Bill O’Reilly and Lou Dobbs that the marchers in the first round of demonstrations had unpatriotically suffered true Americans to look at-gasp!-Mexican flags.

“I thought, well, who is the target audience? The target audience is politicians and middle ground Americans,” Vzquez said. “Not conservatives, not liberals, but middle-grounders, and the flag is a symbol that means a lot to them.”

As the crowd pushed forward, talking became difficult. To maneuver the flag past the truck, Vzquez had to get all his volunteers to rotate 180 degrees, and to do so he had to shout.

By the end of the day it would have been hard for anyone not to know there are immigrants in Chicago. As the marchers began to move down Randolph Street, you began to feel hopelessly small in the crowd, pushed around like a molecule of water in a rushing stream.

By the time the crowd reached the downtown El tracks at Jackson and Wells, a kind of electricity ran through the demonstrators.

But it was at Grant Park, after turning down Columbus, that I began to get a sense of proportion about how many people I’d just walked with. The park quickly filled up and turned into an ocean of people. But more than that, it turned into a celebration.