Sunday, November 06, 2005

Aliens Among Us... (Part 2)

The upside is that some of these people make it here in America. They are as industrious and smart as everyone else in the world. Just because some are uneducated laborers that doesn’t mean every one of them is too. There are those who see opportunity in the work they do. When I worked as a fence installer, a rival company was owned and run by former day laborers who learned the trade and then bought their own equipment and went out on their own. Landscaping is another trade where this phenomenon happens. Painters, framers and roofers all have turned from illegal unskilled laborers to business owners in a few years. These guys are the success stories and their businesses are generally documented and pay taxes. Sadly, an overwhelming percentage of the laborers never make it above their station.

So why is there this problem in the first place? I don’t have the official socio-economic answers. All I have is my observations and experience. When I was about fifteen I worked my first construction job at a commercial landscaping company. The paving company my mother worked at as an office manager did business with them. Little did I know at the time but when the guy who owned the company asked my mother how hard she wanted him to work me, she replied, “Hard enough that he wants to go to college.” Needless to say that a man’s perverse side takes over in a situation like that and he gladly agreed. His foreman was a tyrant (no doubt tipped off by my mother’s comment) and I was glad when I was on jobs that kept me far from him. Being that I was very young I had no real skills and had to do what anyone else in that situation would do. I worked as unskilled labor. That meant lots of raking of dirt preparing it for seed and moving rubbish around like heavy logs and stones to clear medians and vast roadside areas for the county.

My coworkers were almost all Mexican and Central American. I didn’t understand them. I couldn’t speak their language but somehow we communicated. By gestures and simple words we understood what the other was saying. I felt like the minority then. Even though the employers were of my race and language I was “forced” because of my youth and circumstance to work with those who others saw as necessary evils. Like most contractors at the time in the mid-eighties my company hired a group of Hispanics who mostly returned day after day and season after season for regular work. It was also the twenty years ago so I think the problem, although growing was not out of control yet. A couple of the guys took to me and they helped and taught me the job. Some of the senior guys covered for me when I was too weak to lift or too tired to keep up.

I remember one time falling asleep in the cab of the work truck we were packed into on the way home from a particularly rough and hard job. When we got back to the shop this one big guy I’d worked with all day woke me up gently saying something in Spanish. The only word I understood was “Junior.” He and the rest of the Spanish crew called me “Junior” after that. To these guys I was just some kid, stuck there by the boss to do some work and not to be treated too roughly, by them at least. They understood. They showed mercy when the foreman didn’t. My mother’s little plan almost backfired. I loved the job. The harshness of the dirt and the sun only added to my concept of bonding and brotherhood between myself and those alien people. Despite the fact that I was supposed to not like being “stuck” working with the Spanish guys. I really loved it and I learned that you can bond and respect with those who you don’t understand. They embraced me and I have had an affinity for these Hispanic day laborers ever since. When others bitched and complained I tried, although weakly, to defend their position based on economic necessity.

(To Be Continued)

2 comments:

Neil said...

Out here in Los Angeles, you see these Mexican day workers always hanging out at places like Home Depot. Although their presence brings up many different issues about immigration and such, I never really found that anyone questioned the work ethic of these guys, who are willing to work hard out of necessity.

Interesting series of posts.

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