Life Is Tough for Day Laborers in Laguna

Ganahl Lumber sits off Highway 133 in Laguna Canyon, about 10 miles southeast of UC Irvine.
The glaring sun bakes the shrubs on the dull, rocky hills as the highway snakes through the canyon, diffusing sand into the early afternoon air.
Across from Ganahl Lumber sits a small, cream-colored shack with dark brown trimming under a slanted wooden-planked roof. Next to the shack are several porta-potties, one of which has a sign posted on its door: ‘LAGUNA BEACH POLICE WARNING. It is a crime to hire day laborers and not pay them for services rendered.’
About 40 Latino day laborers casually converse around the shack. They are penned in by a fence and hide under the meager shade of three naked trees. To occupy themselves, they take turns at Rayuela, a game in which a box is drawn in the sand, and whoever throws a coin closest to the middle wins.
As a green Honda CRV pulls over to the opposite side of the street and into Ganahl Lumber, the group waves and whistles frenziedly. They look both ways for traffic on the highway. As soon as traffic clears, about 15 of them dash over and fiercely bang on both windows of the CRV.
The teenaged Asian couple inside shake their heads in fear and wave ‘no.’ They are overwhelmed and intimidated by the sudden swarm of people. The workers cross the street again, this time in a less hurried manner and with heads hanging in disappointment.
The couple exits the car after a few moments and hastily walks hand-in-hand into Ganahl Lumber.
They are not interested in hiring the men. These men are day laborers, or ‘jornaleros,’ in search of handyman jobs. When they see a car drive up to them, they flock to get a feel for the people inside. Are they safe? Will they pay? Will they turn me or my friends into the INS? Together, they evaluate the employer and advise their friends whether to go.
‘You’ve got to watch them [people who hire day laborers],’ said Rolando Ventura, a day laborer at the pen. ‘If we sense a bad guy, we say to our friend, ‘Hey, don’t go with that guy.’ We have to watch out for each other.’
Ventura has a thick, black mustache and a round face. He wears a bandana over his head. He is 32 and has a 7-year-old daughter, but his wide, bold eyes, framed by thick, long lashes hold the optimism and adventurism of a 20-year-old. He has been in the United States longer than anyone else in the pen—six years.
‘I thought they were going to jump us, but, you know, they were just looking out [for each other],’ said Jonathan Lee, the Asian driver in the CRV. ‘I was thinking, ‘Damn desperate Mexicans, I can’t even get to a [lumber] store.”
The laborers mostly take the bus here. Some drive. All arrive at the shack by 5 or 6 in the morning. By then, there are over 100 workers.
‘They don’t bother us,’ said a female employee from Ganahl Lumber on her lunch break. ‘They are real friendly people. They come over sometimes and talk to us. They’re here by the time I come in, and they’re still here by the time I leave, which is around 5. They’re hard workers.’
Currently, there are approximately 117,600 day laborers in the United States. About 49 percent are employed by homeowners or renters, while 43 percent are employed by construction contractors. The occupations are primarily construction work, gardening, landscaping, painting, roofing and installing drywall.
Day laborers are overwhelmingly Latino and predominantly Mexican; 77.5 percent are from Mexico, and 20.1 percent are from Central America. They are young, and many have recently (less than one year ago) arrived in the United States, though some have been in this country for a while (10 years or longer).
In Los Angeles and Orange Counties, there are at least 97 day laborer hiring sites like this one and an estimated day laborer population of 20,000.
The laborers who sit on the side of Highway 133 are organized by the women who work in the cream-colored shack, the hiring hall. These women decide what men will be hired by what employers for the morning. They protect the laborers by ensuring that they only go with safe and trusted employers.
In the morning, the women are able to organize about 60 or more men to work. By early afternoon, the women leave and don’t usually come back until the next morning, leaving the rest of the laborers to search for jobs on their own. The laborers wait for a car to pull up. A person in the car will pull a laborer in and immediately drive off again, leaving the pen in the dust.
I was asking one of the laborers why he came to the United States when Eduardo Martinez, another laborer in the pen, tapped me on my shoulder.
I spun around, surprised. Though he is only 37, Martinez’s face exhibits the wrinkles of a man in his late 40s. He is well-built, nearly bald and wears a pair of sunglasses missing one earpiece, so the glasses rest only on his left ear and the bridge of his nose. But even with the funnylooking glasses, he held a certain air of wisdom about him, and seemed to impose an unspoken authority over the crowd. I realized that when he had risen, everyone grew silent and gathered around.
‘Let me ask you,’ Martinez said.
‘Where are your parents from?’
‘Why did they come here?’
‘So they can establish a better future for themselves and their children. For me.’ Martinez’s eyebrows rose. ‘See? And that is why we are here.’
A day laborer is able to earn up to $15,000 a year, ranging from $1,400 in peak months to $500 during bad months. Thirty-six percent of day laborers are married. Seven percent live with a partner. Sixty-three percent have children, and 28 percent of these children are United States citizens.
Other laborers work to support the families they left behind in Mexico. Workers earn in one day what they would earn in two weeks in Mexico. The average day laborer in 1998 sent remittances back to Mexico an average of seven times each year. The average sum of each remittance was $2,360. The average is definitely higher by now.
‘After some years, you learn if they [hirers] are good or bad. You feel when someone is good,’ Ventura said, hunching over under the weight of his backpack and patting his heart to punctuate the ‘feel.’
Ventura always wears a backpack, even during the interview; he never knows when an employer will drive up, when he will be pulled into a car and where he will end up. Ventura was picked up by a van a few years ago. The driver promised good pay, but the job was in Stockton.
‘Man! You know how far that is?’ Ventura exclaimed.
Stockton is a city about 350 miles north of Laguna. The job was two weeks long, and Ventura agreed to go. After two weeks of intense labor, it was time for him to return. When he asked for payment, his employers told him, ‘You don’t have papers. You can’t do nothin’.’ They abandoned him, and Ventura had to find his own way back.
‘They need help, but they don’t want to pay you,’ Ventura said.
In the Western United States, 44 percent of day laborers have experienced nonpayment of wages, 28 percent have been abandoned, 46 percent are not given food or breaks, 17 percent have experienced violence and 24 percent have been insulted.
Seventy percent of day laborers nationwide do not know where to report instances of employer abuse.
‘To me, it is a shame … when society is willing to accept the labor and the benefit of people that you don’t want working illegally,’ said Leo Chavez, professor of anthropology and the director of the Chicano/Latino studies program at UCI. Chavez has spent over 10 years studying undocumented workers, especially in the San Diego County area.
Over the past few years, there has been a lot of controversy over the presence of the day laborers on Highway 133. On Jan. 12, dozens of members from anti-illegal immigration groups such as the Minutemen and the California Coalition for Immigration Reform came to Laguna as a part of the ‘Stop the Invasion National Protest Day’ that spread across 19 states. Protesters said that their concerns did not arise out of racism, but out of support of federal law.
Pro-immigrant groups such as the Orange County Minutemen Watch Network showed up to counterprotest, chanting, ‘Racists go home.’ ‘The Minutemen, I think, are confused, in that sense,’ Chavez said. ‘If you create a million jobs, but you only have 200,000 babies, what are you going to do? … That’s where the undocumented workers come from.’
As the United States’ economy expands, new jobs are being created and the demand for labor increases. Chavez said that the anti-immigrant groups and the government do not understand that the American economy needs immigrant workers just as much as the immigrant workers need the money, and that however much security at the border is tightened, immigrants will find their way into America somehow.
As I was speaking with Ventura, a car filled with teenage boys drove by and yelled, ‘Go back to Mexico!’ before speeding off in a cloud of dust. When the laborers turned around, the boys were gone.
‘It happens a lot. Sometimes they do this,’ Ventura said, demonstrating an act of mooning. ‘All I can do is this.’ Ventura demonstrated raising his middle finger and waving it ferociously. ‘A lot of racism. I just want to make a decent living.’