Paolo Friere Hits LAx92s Mean Streets


David Bacon


 

I’m going to
sing you a story, friends
(Voy a cantar compañeros)

that will
make you cry,
(algo que da compassion)

how one day
in front of K-Mart (un dia frente a la K-Mart)

the Migra
came down on us,
(nos cayo la migracion)

sent by the
sheriff
(manda por el sheriff)

of this very
same place
(de esta mismita region).


 

The thumping
bass strings 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 musicians proceed with their cautionary tale:


 

We don’t
understand why,

we don’t
know the reason,

why there is
so much


discrimination against us.

In the end
we’ll wind up

all the same
in the grave.


 

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,

I’m tired of
singing,

hoping the
migra

won’t come
after us again,

because in
the end,

we all have
to work.


 

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. Singing Sierra’s “Corrido de Industry” is no casual social event;
it’s a new way of organizing Los Angeles’s 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 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. Taking time off to
perform doesn’t help pay the rent at the end of the month.

But when they
are able to play,  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 LA requires more than a sing-along and a
common culture, however. At 6:00 AM on a gray morning beside the Home Depot
parking lot at Sunset Boulevard and St. Andrews Place 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 workshirts. 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-dozen men forms at the
corner of Sunset. 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 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.

Alvarado
learned the techniques of popular education, a way of teaching designed to
organize the poor, developed by the 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.

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 jobs 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 LA’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 workclothes 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 by name,” 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 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 demand
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 LA basin where people line up 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

because I
felt I had to,

so I could
defend myself     from an angry Anglo.

There where
I worked

they tried
to cheat me

because of
the damn English

I didn’t
know how to speak.

That white
man told me

in his angry
English words:

You wetback
don’t understand

what you are
supposed to do.

You wetback
don’t understand

what you are
supposed to do.

(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, Austin Moncada was still waiting.

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 LA, with wage minimums established by the workers.

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. In Topanga, 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. The Day Labor Union is still a long way
from their goal. But it has an attitude towards politicizing its members
reminescent of the CIO’s left-wing activists. “Through organizing on a local
level, workers learn to become good political analysts,” Alvarado explains.
“They grow politically and intellictually, and start to influence others. We
want to develop organic leaders, as Gramsci described 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.”                    Z


David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer.