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.

"Every day is Thanksgiving for us," Hector retorts. His sentimentality is shared by many jornaleros this time of year. Many return home for the holidays. Hector won't brave the desert again. "Thank God that we have health and life, and that we can stand here talking together. Without that, where would we be?"

Where they aren't is scrambling for jobs in Mexico that pay one-tenth of what they can make here in a day. Most send the money home to keep their children clothed, fed and in school.

The dawn sky glows like the inside of an Easter egg when Fidel, in his mid-40s and dressed in black jeans and a baseball cap, struts up and elbows his way into the conversation. Fidel is one of the newcomers Hector isn't sure about.

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.

Fidel will boast that he has papers, a car and speaks perfect English. He says he's been working in this country for 32 years and knows güeros. Fidel first appeared three months ago, and Hector has never seen him work. Not once. "I think he's here for a different reason," he says. He's here to disrupt efforts to organize workers at the center, Hector suspects.

Fidel quickly finds his audience. "These people who came here from England, the ones who are celebrating today?" he preaches to the circle of men, "they were more fucked than we are, but they did something about it. They went out and killed Indians and made everybody speak their language. That's why those people are eating turkey today, and we're out here in the cold. They stood up for themselves. We have to stand up for ourselves."

He urges the men to demand their rights, since Mexicans have been building the American Southwest since Kennedy was president.

Fidel wants to lead, but his reasoning is seen as flawed, his thought process explosive and illogical, and his calls to action go unanswered. Unlike Hector, Fidel hasn't earned anybody's trust or respect. Yet still they listen. These days, with big changes looming, issues of where these men will fit in once the center is opened are on everyone's mind.

"There will always be troublemakers in every group," says Salvador Reza. "Hector is very good at neutralizing trouble, and making decisions based on the group's consensus."

Back when Hector first appeared on the scene, Reza says, the streets were a much different place. "It was the law of the jungle out there. The strongest worked, the weak or timid went hungry." It's true that it's still that way to some extent, but the men hope the center will bring order and foster unity.

Of the core group of jornaleros that originally approached Tonatierra wanting to organize the laborers, Hector is the only one who remains with the project. "He came to us and asked if we could help," recalls Reza. "I said, Are you sure you know what you are signing on for? This is going to take years of struggle, and we need people who will stay for the long term.' He said he understood, and Hector has proven himself."

And so, when Fidel pauses for air, Hector takes the opportunity to gently herd the two dozen jornaleros away from the corner and down the block to a chain-link fence that surrounds the center site. Here, they can wait without disrupting traffic or businesses on Bell Road. It's an accord they've negotiated with the police to avoid getting ticketed, and a sign of their respect.

A man with a graying mullet they call Canitas rides up on a bicycle and peers through the mesh at the lampposts and portable toilets that have been installed. "¿Oyes, como va a correr el agua aqui?" he asks Hector, wanting to know how things will work at the center.

"This is a beginning," Hector says, as the crowd moves in to listen. "This place is for us. The city is paying the rent for the land and putting up the lights and tarps and bathrooms, but this is going to be our place."

Fidel scoffs and waves a hand dismissing Hector's vision. "What kind of office is this?" he says. "This looks more like a place to have a carne asada. Where are the desks and computers? Where are the coffee makers and little televisions?"

Every step has to be earned, Hector tells Fidel. "First we have to earn back the respect of the businesses that don't want us here, and the police. And we will, I know we will. If we screw this up, let them throw us all in jail."

There is a buzz of energy now as Hector points out where the sinks will be, where they will wait for work, where the cars will pull up, and where they will plug in the coffee maker.

A lively discussion erupts about what minimum wage should be for easy jobs versus "pico y palo," or hard labor. Canitas wonders what the pecking order will be for employment. "Let the first ones to arrive be the first ones to get work, not because they are somebody's brother-in-law or cousin or something," he says.

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