Paolo Friere Hits LA's Mean Streets
by David Bacon
LOS ANGELES, CA (10/5/98) --
I'm going to sing you a story, friends
that will make you cry,
how one day in front of K-Mart
the Migra came down on us,
sent by the sheriff
of this very same place
The thumping bass strings of a bajo sexto punctuate a simple two-four rhythm as a couple of old guitars and a plaintive accordion carry the familiar chord changes of a Mexican corrido. Seven mournful voices ring across the parking lot on St. Andrews Place, belting out the Spanish words in traditional style.
Surrounding the singers, dozens of men dressed in work clothes listen intently, crowding under a blue awning or standing out on the black asphalt, sweltering in the sun. The musicos proceed with their cautionary tale:
We don't understand why,
At the end of each verse, the listeners shout, or whistle, their encouragement. It's obvious that almost everyone knows the story, and that many have had the same kinds of experiences.
The song relates the history of a famous 1996 immigration raid in the City of Industry. On a rainy winter morning, Border Patrol agents charged into a street-corner clinic where 40 day laborers had lined up to be tested for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. One worker, Omar Sierra, had just taken his seat at the examining station, where a clinic worker had tied off his arm and inserted the needle for drawing the first blood sample. As agents of the "migra" swarmed across the street and sidewalk, Sierra jumped up, tore off the tourniquet, pulled the needle out of his vein and ran.
Sierra escaped and made it home. Shaken by his experience and determined never to forget his less-fortunate friends, he committed their fate to music. Returning to the corner three days later, he sang his song to those who remained.
With this verse I leave you,
Omar Sierra's song is not just a history; it's an anthem. The seven singers in the parking lot - Sierra, Pablo Alvarado, Jesus Rivas, Julio Cesar Bautista, Paula de la Cruz, John Garcia and Omar Garcia - are more than a group of friends performing for their own pleasure and profit; they're the day-labor band Los Jornaleros del Norte. And singing Sierra's "Corrido de Industry" is no casual social event; it's a new way of organizing Los Angeles' mostly-immigrant day-labor force.
"What do we do while we're waiting for work on the corner every morning?" asks guitarist Alvarado. "We're learning to live with each other, telling jokes and stories, playing games, arguing about football - a hundred interactions. We're learning to organize ourselves to the rhythm of our happiness and sadness. We're creating a culture of liberation."
It's hasn't been easy for the Jornaleros del Norte to survive as a band. All its members - except Alvarado, who's a full-time organizer for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles (CHIRLA) - earn their daily bread from the curb every morning, at any of more than 200 day-labor sites across Los Angeles. None of them owns a car, so getting together to practice is hard. And taking time off to perform doesn't help pay the rent at the end of the month.
But when they are able to play, their audience recognizes itself, not just in the words and music, but in the clothes, the mannerisms and the hundred details that make it plain that these musicians earn their living on the streets. The band is a living, singing demonstration that solidarity among day laborers is not just a possibility, but a reality.
Organizing people who work on the streets in L.A. requires more than a sing-along and a common culture, however. At six on a gray morning beside the Home Depot parking lot at Sunset Boulevard and St. Andrews Place, a grittier reality shows its face as Alvarado and another CHIRLA organizer, Mario Martinez, approach a group of 20 men strung out along the sidewalk. The workers are wearing plain trousers and cheap workshirts. Some leaning against a cinderblock wall in small groups, talking quietly and smoking; others sit on the curb itself. They're all waiting for the contractors to pull out of the Home Depot parking lot.
At this time of the morning, a steady stream of small trucks drives in and out of the lot, hauling out building supplies. As the drivers load up and start to pull away, Alvarado hands each of them a leaflet showing the location of a new day-labor pickup site CHIRLA has opened in a parking lot a few blocks away.
The workers on the curb aren't happy about the leafleting. Every truck that goes to the new site represents a job lost to them. A group of half-a-dozen men forms at the corner of Sunset. Two or three are in their 20s; the others are middle-aged. As they move angrily toward the driveway, their voices get louder. Soon Martinez, who's walked over to meet them halfway, is faced with a wall of hostile faces shouting questions and threats: "I have a family to feed!" "Who's going to buy school clothes for my three kids?"
Alvarado joins Martinez, and the two organizers patiently try to convince the workers to come to the new site to look for work, instead of standing on the corner here. A couple of workers say they've tried to get work there, and that there weren't enough jobs.
"The site's just starting up," Alvarado explains. "It will take a little time to convince the contractors to use it. That's what we're doing with the leaflets. But if we all go over there, the contractors will come too. They'll have no choice." The new site, Martinez tells them, has free coffee and plastic chairs for the workers to sit on while they wait. There's a blue awning to provide relief from the sun, or shelter from the rain. And it has one other big plus: no raids.
"Before the new site, there were three big sweeps by the Hollywood Division here, with a lot of arrests," Martinez reminds the workers. "They came out here with guns drawn and made everyone lie face down on the sidewalk. They put handcuffs on people. What will happen if they come again and arrest you? What will happen to your children then? Think about it."
A few heads nod in grudging acknowledgment. Some of the workers who have been yelling at Mario remember the raids. The memory is bitter and humiliating.
CHIRLA started organizing this corner more than a year ago. Once a core of workers had formed the committee that voted to organize a new site, CHIRLA persuaded Sears to donate the use of an old parking lot behind its store, and the city provided some funds for staffing it.
Located off the main thoroughfare, it's not an ideal location, but it's the best CHIRLA could get. The workers who committed to finding work at the new location were frustrated, in their turn, when contractors continued to pick workers up on the curb across from Home Depot. The curbside workers were taking their jobs. They put pressure on the CHIRLA organizers to do something.
"They had the same desperation at our site that these people have here on the corner," Martinez explains. "They confronted us, and we all decided go out and leaflet the contractors. Last Saturday, 43 people found work at the new site. Only two were left at the end of the day."
"I felt this competition for work when I first came here," Alvarado remembers. A stocky Salvadoran in his early 30s, he arrived in Los Angeles in 1990, and went out to the corner to find work.
"I got my jobs at Vanowen and Canoga," he recalls. "I didn't understand what was happening on the corner. When the police came down on us, I just thought they were repressing us like in El Salvador. I just wanted to work."
Like each of the thousands of immigrant laborers who get jobs on the curb every morning, Alvarado arrived in LA at the end of an arduous physical and psychological journey, one which started in the country hamlet of El Nispero. There Alvarado grew up, the son of a farmer in a region of El Salvador controlled by revolutionaries.
In the sixth grade, he saw his own teacher killed by the army. After that, no teachers came to the village, so he became a literacy volunteer in the hard-fought region.
Alvarado learned the techniques of popular education, a way of teaching designed to organize the poor, developed by the great Brazilian educator, Paulo Friere. It relies on relating to the personal experiences of the students, teaching politics while tackling the alphabet. "We call it teaching the word through teaching the world," he explains.
Helping poor farmers learn to read in war-torn Central America was no more neutral than teaching slaves to read in the old South. "Popular education teaches subversive questions," Alvarado says. "It asks -- why is there a war going on? Why are some people rich, and others poor?"
After the revolutionaries' 1989 military offensive, his younger sixteen-year-old brother, an urban guerrilla fighter, was threatened with death. Alvarado was assigned by the family to take him north.
"The journey wasn't bad," he remembers. "But once I was actually here, it was a different story. I had no money, and no friends. Looking for work was humiliating. The employers would get out of their pickups, and come over and touch me to see if I was strong. Each time I got a job, I felt I was taking bread from the mouth of a man with a family."
He recovered his humanity finding a use for the skills he'd brought from home. He started teaching coworkers to read, and went on to hold classes, first at the YMCA in East Los Angeles, and then with the Institute for Popular Education for Southern California (IDEPSCA).
That was the beginning of the day labor organizing project.
It's no accident that CHIRLA starts literacy classes at all its organized day labor sites. It's another way, like the day labor band, of organizing and teaching immigrants how their new world works.
The longest-organized CHIRLA sites in the city are those in North Hollywood and Harbor City - the original hiring halls set up by the City of Los Angeles in 1989. Today, they provide a vision of what finding day labor job can be like. The North Hollywood site, off Sherman Way, has a drive-through area where contractors can pull up to do their hiring. Farther inside the big triangular lot, an open area with an awning shelters workers as they play checkers, talk and drink coffee. A portable building provides space for literacy classes and a tiny office with computers.
Rows of cabbages and onions, extending for nearly 100 yards, hug the fence at the edge of the property. Chile seedlings poke through the light-brown soil. A few men in work clothes stoop among the plants, picking weeds and spraying with hoses. Many of L.A.'s day laborers were farmers, and this garden is eloquent evidence of their love for the land.
On a recent morning, a blue pickup truck with a rack of two-by-fours on the back pulls into the lot. A young white man in paint-spattered work clothes gets out. Some of the waiting laborers point to a counter under the awning, on which sit two plastic jars. In the jar with the yellow plastic lid, every worker has put an orange ticket bearing his name. In the other jar, with its green top, are the names of the workers who speak English. After taking a name from each jar, the contractor asks the site manager about the expected wages. He's told to talk to the workers whose names he's pulled. After a brief discussion, the contractor agrees to eight dollars an hour and the laborers climb into the back of his truck.
Gone are the days - at this and other CHIRLA sites, at least - when workers crowded around the contractors, clamoring for work. "If the contractor already knows who he wants to hire, we let him ask for specific people byname," explains Victor Narro, the CHIRLA staff member who manages the day-labor programs. "Also, contractors can request specific skills, like carpenter, welder or painter."
While the day laborers' first priority at the North Hollywood site is finding work, they find other things there as well, beginning with friendships and a sense of community. When it took over the city-funded hiring operation two years ago, CHIRLA brought more than additional resources and building materials (for the portable structure in which English classes are held, for example). Instead of just helping a few people get jobs, Pablo Alvarado, Victor Narro and other CHIRLA staff viewed the day-labor program as a means to unite the workers. Once they were organized, the workers themselves were able to take the steps (e.g., learning English)that can lead to the increase in earning power.
It wasn't an easy transition for the existing staff, who had administered the two city sites for years. "There's nothing wrong with the service philosophy in itself," explains Juan Carrillo, a veteran of the Harbor City site, "but I believe you also have to find a way for people to exercise more power over their own lives."
Carrillo reached back to his own experience working in Latino theater groups as a student at UCLA. Such teatros, he reasoned, could be another tool for organizing. A year ago, he helped set up the first day-labor theater group. In the program's first production, The Curse of the Day Laborers, which grew out of improvisations by the workers, a hostile resident in a neighborhood near a pick-up site puts a curse - in the person of a real-life sheriff notorious in Agoura Hills for hassling day laborers - on the workers. Finally, a curandera (an old woman who heals sickness) finds a way to drive out the demon.
"We don't have a script with lines," Carrillo explains. "We have ideas we want to get across, but no written dialogue." When the day laborers first become actors, they start by telling stories of their own experiences on the corner. Then, when they perform, they move among the workers in the audience asking questions. "We don't want people to be passive observers," he says. "If you can demanding your rights from an employer in a play, then you can do it in life."
Today, the theater is moving beyond its original function as a forum of self-expression. The goal now is to take the show on the road, to all the corners and curbs and parking lots across the L.A. basin where people lineup for work.
"I think this is the big change," Carrillo says. "The teatro has begun now to work toward forming the union."
I went to study English
That white man told me
(from "La Frasesita")
On the corner of Pomona and Atlantic in East Los Angeles, Agustin Moncada describes how he was cheated of over half his wages just a few weeks ago.
"I got picked up by a roofer at one o'clock on a Friday," he recalls. "As we were driving away from the corner, I asked for $8 an hour. I've worked as a roofer, and I know what I'm worth. The contractor said 'OK, I'll see how you work.'"
Moncada worked five hours Friday, and then nine hours daily for the next three days. On Sunday, he was paid $100, less than he'd actually earned. On Monday, he told his boss he was disgusted with the job's unpleasant conditions, and that he wasn't coming anymore. But when the contractor dropped Moncada off that evening, he told him he didn't have enough money to pay the rest of his wages. He agreed to meet Moncada on the corner the following day.
At the end of the week, Moncada was still waiting.
Agustin Moncada is 53 years old. It's not his youth that gets him work on the corner, but his experience and skills. His family still lives in Durango, in central Mexico, where he had a trucking business until he came north a few years ago.
"Originally, I thought I might bring them north," he says, "but life is too difficult here. My wife is sick of having to be both mother and father to our kids, and she's afraid I'm finding a much more comfortable life here with a gringa. I'm going back at the end of the year."
This spring, CHIRLA began organizing the day laborers at this intersection. After spending weeks on the corner, organizer Mario Lopez, convinced the workers to form a committee.
In the popular stereotype, people who get jobs on street corners are transients. They're here for a little while, and then they move on.
But on this corner, like many others, people have spent years getting jobs. Jose Valencia and Jorge Aboites, two friends who sit smoking while waiting on the curb, have been coming for five and ten years respectively. Another veteran, Antoli Garcia, has spent the last nine years here providing a living for his family.
Garcia, who was elected to the site committee, sees two reasons for getting organized: "First, we need to put ourselves in order. We used to have a lot of trouble from the sheriffs, mostly because our people were drinking while they were waiting for jobs. Second, we need better pay and a way of avoiding the competition for jobs."
The committee met with the sheriffs and the surrounding residents to negotiate a set of rules for people seeking work. A stretch of curb was designated as an official pickup site, so contractors wouldn't cause traffic problems as workers gathered around their vehicles. Other rules ban drinking or pestering people who are just passing by. A final rule was an agreement to insist on a $6/hour minimum.
On corners in Los Angeles that have been organized for a while, their committees' powers of persuasion are sufficient to win cooperation from most workers. In East Los Angeles, however, the day laborers have only begun to organize. Sometimes still a worker will ignore the site's boundaries, or take a job at a lower wage.
"One of the first steps we take is to set up a soccer team," Alvarado says. "It's something that the workers do anyway, playing while they wait for work. We come in and organize the matches, encouraging cooperation even in this very competitive environment.
"In the morning," he continues, "the atmosphere is tense. The workers see each other as rivals. By afternoon, after soccer practice, the atmosphere has changed. People are talking to each other about what's happening on the corner." CHIRLA now runs a full-blown soccer league with ten teams.
In September 1997, street-corner committees across the city sent delegates to an Inter-Corner Conference, to begin writing the first bylaws and principles for the Day Labor Union. While it's a non-traditional union in so far as its purpose isn't collective bargaining, it does attempt to set uniform standards for wages. Individual sites set their own standards- there are now $6, $7 and $8 corners all over L.A., with wage minimums established by the workers themselves.
Starting in Agoura Hills in 1989, southland communities have passed ordinances prohibiting the workers from getting jobs on the street. Since then, ordinances have been passed in Costa Mesa, LA County, City of Industry, La Mirada, Malibu, Laguna Beach, Pomona, Glendale, and Gardena. Although CHIRLA sets up organized sites, it believes looking for work on the street is a human right.
The union is increasingly the workers' voice in debates over the ordinances, while it negotiates with the police and sheriffs over law-enforcement and public-relations issues. When the workers act in an organized way, they dramatically transform the their relations with local businesses and residents.
In Topanga, for example, locals greeted the first proposal for an organized day-labor site with hostility, turning out for town council meetings to flaunt banners that read, "No Hiring Site." Residents argued that clearing Topanga of day laborers was critical to protecting neighborhood security.
Then the 1995 fire swept through the hills, and those same day laborers stood on the roofs of houses along with property owners, putting out the sparks with garden houses. Topanga residents learned that cooperation with the workers was not only possible, but beneficial.
It was a transforming experience. Last summer, when a Topanga deputy began to roust the workers, homeowners besieged the local sheriffs station with calls demanding an end to the harassment.
In nearby Agoura Hills, however, sheriffs from the Lost Hills substation have been accused of systematic harassment. According to CHIRLA attorney Victor Narro, last year in May and June, workers on Agoura Road were chased by deputies yelling racist insults, and even using helicopters. In a protest to Captain Bill McSweeney, Narro says "the force of the helicopters lifted them off the ground, causing them to lose their balance and fall down the side of the hill." McSweeney, responded that "the law is clear and we are obligated to follow it."
Meanwhile, the county ordinance prohibiting the solicitation of work on the street has been challenged in a recent lawsuit brought by CHIRLA and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Asserting the right to work doesn't mean accept the street's extreme insecurity and exploitation as inevitable, however. Curbside shapeups are as old as capitalism itself, and an integral part of the economic system -- the reserve army of labor. In a U.S. economy stratified by race and immigration, street corners are the entry-point into economic life for immigrants and racial minorities.
But it was only 65 years ago that dockworkers also competed for jobs in a morning shapeup on the waterfront. And just as day laborers are stereotyped today for urinating on the sidewalk and harassing passersby, in the 1920s longshoreman was a word used interchangeably with bum and drunk. Today, west coast longshore workers have one of the highest wages in U.S. industry, having organized one of the country's most militant and political unions, and winning control over their work.
The Day Labor Union is still a long way from that goal. But it has an attitude towards politicizing its members reminiscent of the CIO's leftwing activists. "Through organizing on a local level, workers learn to become good political analysts," Alvarado explains. "They grow politically and intellectually, and start to influence others. We want to develop organic leaders, as Gramsci described them -- people who come from the community and decide to stay there. We see day laborers as the historical subject, as we call it in popular education, people who are capable of acting for themselves."
CHIRLA's Day Labor Union has created stability and developed leadership in a situation in which every worker has to find a new job every day. But day labor is only the most extreme form of a problem faced by the millions of Californians who no longer have a secure relationship with a single employer. Economic and demographic changes in the state have presented a new set of questions about how to organize casual labor.
In Los Angeles, it's the "invisible" day laborers who have begun to suggest answers, as they discover how a shared immigrant culture can act as a powerful tool in their efforts to articulate their own experiences and needs, and build an organization from the grassroots up. Major U.S. labor unions should pay heed, as they look for ways to unite a work force that is, in general, more diverse - and less secure - than ever before. Their continued existence may depend on their success in following CHIRLA'S lead.
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