Jornalero: Being a Day Laborer in the USA

Jornalero: Being a Day Laborer in the USA

by Juan Thomas Ordonez Ph.D

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The United States has seen a dramatic rise in the number of informal day labor sites in the last two decades. Typically frequented by Latin American men (mostly “undocumented” immigrants), these sites constitute an important source of unskilled manual labor. Despite day laborers’ ubiquitous presence in urban areas, however, their very existence is overlooked in much of the research on immigration. While standing in plain view, these jornaleros live and work in a precarious environment: as they try to make enough money to send home, they are at the mercy of unscrupulous employers, doing dangerous and underpaid work, and, ultimately, experiencing great threats to their identities and social roles as men.

Juan Thomas Ordóñez spent two years on an informal labor site in the San Francisco Bay Area, documenting the harsh lives led by some of these men during the worst economic crisis that the United States has seen in decades. He earned a perspective on the immigrant experience based on close relationships with a cohort of men who grappled with constant competition, stress, and loneliness. Both eye-opening and heartbreaking, the book offers a unique perspective on how the informal economy of undocumented labor truly functions in American society.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520277854
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/01/2015
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #34
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 9.00(w) x 6.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Juan Thomas Ordóñez has a PhD in medical anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, and is Professor of Anthropology at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, Colombia.

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Being A Day Laborer in the USA

By Juan Thomas Ordóñez


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95996-5


La Parada de Berkeley

The Berkeley informal labor site is a seven-block corridor in the western part of the city, near the freeway and marina. All along Hearst Avenue, from Ninth Street to Second Street, men stand on the curbs in small groups waiting for potential employers to drive up and offer them work. The site is only a block to the north of University Avenue, one of the city's main streets. La parada begins to suggest itself several blocks east of the site itself, on San Pablo Avenue, the main thoroughfare that brings the men to work from Oakland. Mixed into the diversity of the street, which is full of ethnic markets and visited by a diverse population, the jornaleros only really stand out when they walk into the residential areas to the north of University Avenue. Yet on Hearst Avenue toward Ninth Street, they materialize suddenly as a group, standing or sitting on the curbs, chatting, drinking coffee, and eating breakfast from microwavable noodle cups and ready-made wraps bought at local gas stations or from one of the informal food sources that cater to the corner. Day laborers spread out, mostly along the south side of Hearst. Some men seem barely teenagers, while others are much older, even beyond middle age. The odd man out might even look like he is well into his sixties, and I have heard rumors at other sites of seventy- and eighty-year-old men standing along with everyone else.

La parada transects a popular commercial district that has grown through it in the last decade or so (Worby 2007). Between Fourth and Sixth Streets, the jornaleros who stand on the curb are constantly passed by motor and foot traffic directed to and from the upscale shops and businesses. The physical space here is thus not isolated from everyday, mainstream passersby (as is the case with many other sites in the Bay Area and other parts of the country) but is rather smack in the middle of one of the city's main commercial streets: West Berkeley's "Forth Street Shops" that include stores, a bank, and several offices. Few jornaleros venture into the commercial district, which comprises about three blocks along Fourth Street. Thus, patrons of the shops and restaurants a block away from the labor site are unlikely to see the dark, short bodies clad in jeans and sweatshirts that predominate on Hearst Avenue.

Between Sixth and Ninth Streets, la parada enters a residential area with parked cars, leading most groups of men to concentrate on the corners where employers can easily see them. Their presence here is more recent and contested by neighbors who feel intimidated by the dark, apparently grungy bodies of men whom residents claim watch them, urinate in the street, litter, and supposedly drink alcohol and consume drugs. The general consensus among the jornaleros, however, is that these activities usually happen en las vías—at the train tracks—between Third and Fourth Streets, where one can find homeless alcoholic men who either have ceased working or work only when they are moderately sober. Many of these borrachitos—little drunks—live under the freeway underpass nearby and in empty lots on San Pablo Avenue. In fact, this area (specifically from Second to Fourth Streets) was the only part of la parada officially designated "white zones," where soliciting work was allowed by the City of Berkeley.

The labor site is also a product of the time of day, its social topography dwindling as the morning advances. La parada proper only exists between sunup and about three in the afternoon. Anyone passing later might not even notice the stragglers who remain down toward las vías and who, in most cases, look like dirty men loitering on the street, a scene not uncommon in many areas of the city. The men thus refer to the corner in terms of shifts—turnos—the first lasting until about one in the afternoon, when most "serious" day laborers have been hired or have gone home, followed by the segundo turno—second shift—that lasts the rest of the afternoon and sees a few men slowly giving up hopes of work and just hanging out and sometimes drinking beer or liquor in paper bags.

Jornaleros usually come to the site every day, weekends and holidays included, but Saturdays and Sundays see less men hanging out in the afternoon. As Michel de Certeau (1984) has masterfully shown us, space and time are intrinsically linked to the comings and goings of urban living, generating and then dissolving the social spaces where jornaleros spend their time in apparent destitution, talking, telling each other stories, giving each other advice, and waiting long hours for work. This space is unbounded and expands and contracts during the day, and from one day to another, depending on a wide rage of factors that can include weather, perceived harassment by la migra and the police, or the downward spiral of the country's economy.

The proximity to the freeway, along with the commerce associated with nearby businesses, also makes la parada an incredibly noisy place; trucks come and go, stopping for deliveries, and for some reason big rigs coming off the freeway drive by constantly. This noise becomes deafening at times, and a casual conversation is likely to end abruptly or turn into a screaming match as huge trucks attempt to make complex maneuvers in the small streets, often resulting in fender benders with parked cars. Thus, to stand on the corner is to stand amid the constant hum of motors that becomes so ingrained in conversations that you forget how loud it is until you strain to hear recordings made there.

The Berkeley esquina is a place of convergence that jornaleros travel to from distant parts of the vast metropolitan area in which it is located. Few men on the street actually live in the city of Berkeley, or even near it. They usually live in distant parts of Oakland, some even two hours away by bus, although most men spend between thirty and sixty minutes on public transportation each way. I even met jornaleros who live in Richmond, El Cerrito, and Orinda and some who come across the bay from San Francisco. These other places have their own informal labor sites, so coming to Berkeley is a conscious choice—one that entails a monetary investment in transportation. Jornaleros have chosen the site because word on the street is that wages there are higher and there are fewer people to compete with, better employers, and less police harassment. That the esquina is in a sanctuary city, however, does not seem to play into the decision. In the first place, few men actually know what a sanctuary city is, and, as I will show later, jornaleros generally feel that no place is exempt from the influence and surveillance of la migra.

Most men wear old and stained clothes, usually jeans, sweatshirts with hoods, and baseball caps. No matter the season, the early passerby will see jornaleros standing or sitting with their hands in the front pockets of their pants or sweatshirts, hunched over with their faces covered by hoods or caps. The faceless, thug-like effect of this pose makes the men look "shady" and distinguishes them from the scantily clad joggers who use the street in the morning, as well as the elegantly dressed business people who work in the offices and stores nearby. Although most men look like they are wearing work clothes, some look quite disheveled, as if they had slept on the street. Among some of the younger crowd, US inner-city youth culture has influenced their style, and one might see what at first seem to be teenagers in baggy pants, tennis shoes, and even flashy jewelry.

Early in the morning, between the railroads and Fourth Street, a food truck known as La Lonchera stops and raises its side panels to sell coffee, sodas, tacos, chicken dishes, and sandwiches. There are actually several loncheras, whose occupants are usually other Latin Americans, but in the case of the lunch lonchera also Asians—invariably referred to as chinos—speaking Spanish with heavy accents. Coffee is taken with milk and lots of sugar, and at fifty cents is more than a dollar cheaper than anything else nearby. By 8:30 or 9:00 a.m., the morning lonchera is gone, leaving food provision to several individuals who drive by in their cars selling tamales and assorted tidbits for a dollar. When the loncheras are absent, most jornaleros go to either of two gas stations on University Avenue and Sixth Street, where they can buy soft drinks, coffee, junk food, phone cards, and other items.

There are also weekly food rituals like the monjitas, Catholic nuns of the Missionaries of Charity order founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who come every Wednesday and hand out pastries, hotdogs, and coffee in exchange for a few moments of prayer and Catholic doctrine. "Praying for hotdogs," as I referred to it on the street, attracts jornaleros from all along the strip. Saturdays sometimes see Jehovah's Witnesses do the same, but, unlike the soggy hotdogs of their Catholic counterparts, their fried chicken is excellent and highly regarded. On hot days the paletera—the popsicle lady (from the Spanish for "popsicle," paleta)—might walk up and down the street before going to the local school. The jornaleros are good clients and take turns treating each other in the small groups. Other people come by every so often and hand out food, water, gifts, and even money (especially around the holidays).

While I was on the corner there were free lunches, English classes, and sometimes, vocational training at the Anglican church on Hearst and Ninth Street on Fridays. All of these were organized by the Multicultural Institute, an NGO contracted by the City of Berkeley as a liaison between the jornaleros and the community, which also provides help with access to health services, mercados—groceries—and sometimes second-hand clothes. Watching the men shuffle through the boxes of donations, it became clear why so many of them seem to wear clothes that are too big and why UC Berkeley sweatshirts are as prevalent as on the campus a few blocks up University Avenue.

Like NGOs at other Bay Area sites, the Multicultural Institute (MI) mediates between the ever-increasing number of jornaleros and the area's residents and businesses. During my fieldwork, the MI outreach programs Jornalero in a UC Berkeley sweatshirt on the Fifth Street corner. were tied to the county health services, which included a health truck that delivered general checkups once a month and referrals to the family clinic across the street from the gas station. Along with these county programs, members of the institute also helped people file claims at the California Labor Commission, contacted problem employers, and referred special cases to other NGOs, notably El Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland. The MI also advertised day labor work on its website and in the community, making referrals to employers who called. The onsite members of the outreach program were on the street every weekday and organized the referrals, volunteers, donations, and Friday lunches. For special events like Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, the MI joined forces with a variety of community and religious organizations. Every jornalero that came to the Berkeley site regularly knew the people at the MI and had some idea that the organization might be able to help with information or solving problems. From time to time, other members of the MI visited the site, most notably Paula Worby, whose thesis in public health dealt with alcoholism among the men there (Worby 2007), and Father Rigo, the group's director.

Finishing her research a year before I arrived, Worby (2007: 67) calculated that there were between 80 and 100 men on the street most days at peak hiring times. During the three-year period of her study, the MI registered about 1,000 men that came to la parada The MI calculated that only a third of those registered in a given year were present the next year and that only 75 men were there for the three years. Worby also found that while the site was predominantly Mexican in 2001 (see Worby 2002; Organista and Kubo 2005), by 2006 half the day laborers were Mexican and the other half were primarily Guatemalan, with a few Salvadorans and Hondurans (Worby 2007: 7). Although the dynamics of the site imply a constantly changing population, this distribution reflects the demographics of my own field site, which comprised about 25 men I interacted with closely and another 25 or 30 with whom I had intermittent contact.

Unlike other informal labor sites, the West Berkeley one does not have an inherent distribution of trades mapped onto the corridor. There is no part of the street where painters or masons hang out, for example. In 2008, the Berkeley esquina had a highly regulated minimum wage of ten dollars an hour. Although a few men might agree to work for less, they did so at the risk of heavy criticism from their peers, who came to Berkeley because wages were supposed to be better. Among my friends on the corner of Fifth Street, I never saw anybody go to work for less than ten dollars an hour. This wage was in fact considered low and only appropriate for easy tasks, like taking out the garbage or sweeping. In a few cases employers tried to offer people seven, eight, or nine dollars an hour. In every instance, my friends shook their heads and watched the potential employer drive up the street to the next group of men. Most of the people I know assume that only the Guatemalan indigenous jornaleros—los guatemalas—east of Sixth Street would even consider such a low wage, but in truth, I doubt any jornaleros in Berkeley worked for less then ten dollars an hour on a regular basis.

It is hard to describe the variety of day laborers that came to the Berkeley site. I cannot say I know exactly where each jornalero came from, where he had been, and what brought him there. Although some of the men were related to each other or came from the same place, most groups consisted of migrants from different countries and regions, where some were acquaintances but where most were strangers. On the corner where I was a regular, a small contingent of people from the Mexican state of Veracruz were kin or knew one another in passing. There were smaller groups from Guadalajara and a few from the state of Mexico and Mexico City. There were many Guatemalans at the Berkeley site, roughly divided into two groups who hardly spoke to each other, namely indigenous people from various parts of the country's rural areas and ladinos—nonindigenous "whites"—from the urban centers. Some of the latter had attended institutions of higher education and universities and worked white-collar jobs back home. Salvadorans were also present but to a lesser degree. They tended to have work permits, legal residency, Temporary Protected Status (TPS), or asylum and were in their thirties and forties, which sets them in the context of the war that scourged their country in the 1980s (Danner 1993; Loescher 1993; Coutin 2000).

I spent a great deal of time on the only corner that has a good place to sit, a small wall that is also a bus stop on the south side of Fifth Street. I came to this place after several failed attempts at talking with people along the strip; the men I approached seemed weary of strangers or simply not interested in speaking to yet another student from the nearby university. So I decided to simply appear on the street before the jornaleros and let them form around me. The wall was the least conspicuous place I could be—shortly before sunrise—when people started to arrive. The men who gathered there constitute the main characters in this account, although I discuss people from all along the street. The four corners at the intersection of Hearst Avenue and Fifth Street were the immediate work and social environment. Although we—the men usually at the bus stop—did not know the people on the western two corners or those who stood with us or directly across the street from us, we saw them every day. Thus, when we measured the number of day laborers present on a particular morning, our calculations started with the four corners. After I stopped visiting the site regularly, Luis, for example, would tell me how many people he had counted there in order to illustrate the vast increase of jornaleros since I had left.

Every now and then some men—like Clemente, who constantly kept an eye on the traffic coming his way—would step into the street with a raised arm trying to hail down a car or truck, calling out "Leibor! Leibor!" If someone stopped, the closest man to the car leaned into the widow and briefly talked with the potential patrón, quickly deciding if he would take the job or not. Many times, he shook his head and turned to the others, saying, "He only pays ten dollars"—Sólo paga de a diez—or "It's only for two hours." In these cases there was a brief exchange among the men on his corner, who usually all shook their heads, forcing the driver to continue up the street. The men, however, kept a close eye on the next group the driver approached and laughed if they too shook their heads, or complained if someone got into the car. Unlike the Oakland sites, as many jornaleros pointed out, in Berkeley one was unlikely to see people swarming around cars and fighting to get in. I have witnessed such scenes, however, on mornings when la situación—usually toward the end of the month—has everyone worried about paying their bills. In fact, a common occurrence at the end of the month was that people failed to pay their cell phone bills and lost access to this precious commodity necessary for both work and social life.


Excerpted from Jornalero by Juan Thomas Ordóñez. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

A Brief Note on Language


1. La Parada de Berkeley
2. Friendship and the Ícaro|Ícaro|Ícaro|Inner Workings of Day Labor
3. Abuse and the Absurd Bureaucracy of Small Things

4. The “Other” among Others
5. Bittersweet Nostalgia, Sexuality, and the Body at Risk

6. Belonging
7. Terror and the May Migra Panic


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