Herding People

When undocumented workers gather to wait for jobs at the city's first day-labor center, complaints about them should subside. But don't count on it.

When choosing whom to hire, "I go by appearance," Brian says, "and by their ability to speak decent English. If they look shabby, smell, or are overly aggressive, I pass them by."

Hector's English was poor then, Brian says, but he proved himself to be a hard worker. Eventually, Hector moved into a trailer behind the office; it just seemed easier than taking him to and from work every night, and they liked having him around. "Hector's a hard worker, and he doesn't goof off. He's a very organized person and a great leader."

When Hector's family came to join him last year, the living situation changed, but not the closeness. "We've had his family over for dinner; he'll invite me in for breakfast when I come pick him up. You can see it's more than just a working relationship. I don't know what we'd do without him." What he would not do is hire a legal employee and pay taxes and benefits. He'd go back to Bell Road and find another Mexican.

Joe Fendler grouses that he's tired of picking up after illegal aliens.
Steve Granitz/Rogers & Cowan
Joe Fendler grouses that he's tired of picking up after illegal aliens.

Sheila recalls a summer trip to a trade show in L.A. On returning, they loaded the remaining equipment in a box van. "We were so worried about the checkpoints, so we had Hector pack it to leave a little room in the back." When the truck was loaded, Hector crawled over the appliances and slipped down inside. Brian closed the door. "It was hot that day, and I didn't intend to go more than a few miles." As bad luck would have it, a police car pulled in behind them, and they couldn't pull over to let Hector out for miles.

"When we finally could stop, I felt just terrible. Poor Hector climbed out of there just dripping with sweat."

There are times, Brian says, when Hector works well past quitting time. "There have been days when I can't pay him, and he'll ask to come work for free because he wants something to do.

"I can't hire someone with papers because there's no way I can afford the benefits and make a profit. We are a small business, and it's a constant struggle to stay alive."

As employers, Bruce and Sheila are enthusiastic about the new center. "I'd like to see a controlled entrance to keep out the dopers and undesirables," says Sheila.

"It's Russian roulette right now for the employers, too," says Brian. "You never know who you're going to get."

It's close to 7 now, and Hector carefully bags the appliances he has left to assemble to protect them from dust. "Work tomorrow?" he asks. "No," Brian says, "not tomorrow, not on Thanksgiving."

It's 5:30 on Thanksgiving morning. The air is crisp, the sky pitch black, the streets empty as two men walk quickly up 25th Street toward Bell Road.

There is some satisfaction when they reach the corner, survey the emptiness and find themselves the first to arrive. One of the men pulls his windbreaker snugly around him and drags on a cigarette for warmth. "El que madruga Dios le ayuda," he says -- "God helps the early ones" -- as his companion shuffles back and forth in silence.

A few more men arrive shortly, greet each other, and stand together as they will until the middle of the afternoon. But football and turkey are what's important to their would-be employers, and there would be no work.

They talk quietly as they watch the deserted streets. For a while they trade fantasies of the homes they left behind. Ranchos nestled among rolling hills covered with flowers and wild oregano. Villages where any traveler worthy of the journey -- because not just anyone can make it through the mountains -- would be welcomed like a king, fed with homemade tortillas and thick steaks, then sung to sleep by children. No one talks about why they chose standing on a street corner hooking for jobs over paradise.

Just past 6, Hector arrives smiling widely from under a thick fleece cap. "Sorry I'm late," he says, as he shakes each outstretched hand. "I had a hard time saying goodbye to my blanket this morning."

Hector knows most of their names, but all of them know his -- and his reputation. He is an emerging leader of the jornaleros. Thin and lanky with a face eroded by smile lines, he's been standing on this corner most mornings since he came here from Sinaloa six years ago. Whether this center fails or triumphs depends much on his influence on the disparate group before him. It's a heavy load, but it suits him.

Hector was an accountant once, then became a bureaucrat for the government supervising an office of tax assessors in Culiacán. When politics changed in Mexico and Cedillo replaced Salinas de Gortari, Hector says he was one of many who lost his job, something as common and inevitable back home as the change of seasons. There was no work for someone on the wrong side of politics, so he kissed his wife and young children goodbye and came here to start over.

"This turkey thing," a man says with a sigh. "It's bad for us. There's going to be nothing today."

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