Squads of men in denim, flannel, and baseball caps with the names Oscar de la Hoya, Budweiser, Corona, John Deere, and Jack Daniel’s, as well as whole phrases: Mi Vida es un Madre, shuffle with practiced patience on Encinitas Boulevard just west of I-5. Quiet men for the most part, moving slowly among each other, smiling, nodding, speaking in low voices. No roughhousing, no norteño music blaring from cheap radios, no soccer-playing with crumpled paper bags as I’d seen workers do years ago on Grand Avenue in Pacific Beach. The men here are doing their best to be invisible, unless you’re looking for them. They have become, in a way, what J.B. Priestley described as “The Grey Ones.”
Some are eating an Egg McMuffin or a Cup-A-Soup and tortillas. They drink thin McDonald’s coffee, little darker than their caramel skin. At intervals a funny comment is made about drivers cruising slowly past into the mini-mall, and the men expose gums and teeth in grins of chrome mouthwork or yellowed and gapped like old and damaged ivory keys on a piano. Few of the men smoke. Cigarettes, like dentists, are luxuries. It is 6:00 a.m. and these men, in three different clusters — the Oaxacans, the Guatemalans, and
from Michoacán — are hoping for eight hours of work. The odds are pretty good.
This is my third day of trying to get workers at three different locations in North County to talk to me. At the far end of the Home Depot parking lot, just off Leucadia Boulevard, as many as 30 men will be gathered along a fence, squatting, leaning, milling, and eating. Occasionally a vehicle rolls slowly past — usually a pickup truck or a van with the name of a landscaping company, cement contractor, or nursery (though more often, the van, SUV, whatever, will bear no commercial markings) — and the driver will extend a hand displaying fingers for the number of workers he needs. None of these employers will talk to me — I didn’t expect them to. The workers are less paranoid and will talk, albeit warily, up to a point. That point is usually when I produce the tape recorder or camera.
I am driven to that measure after about half an hour of loitering, wearing a baseball cap that says “Dietrich Corporation General Engineering Contractors,” which I picked up at the Salvation Army thrift store. I sport a few days’ growth of beard, with a long, full mustache, and T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. I don’t wear my prescription sunglasses because hardly any of these Latino guys wear them — except some of the younger ones — and I hope to fool no one among the hopeful workers; to them, I look like Newt Gingrich. But I am hoping to pass with some local suburbanite looking for a gardener or a bricklayer or someone to chop the bamboo roots out of the yard to make way for the new gazebo and barbecue area. In other words, someone white and clueless, to whom Italians, Mexicans, and probably Middle Easterners and Jews all look alike.
The third location I try — after being good-naturedly dismissed by the Home Depot franchise of day-labor pools — is on Encinitas Boulevard east of I-5, at the gas station at Calle Magdalena. These guys are from states in southern Mexico, like Chiapas, and wear straw ranchero hats. Their skin is wrinkly suede or relief maps of dry riverbeds and unpaved back roads. They hardly speak at all. I am told by one of the Tijuanenses that a fruit shipper whose foreman is also from southern Mexico always hires these men.
Laureano Díaz Velazco is 70 years old. None of the groups want him in their midst. An old one is unlikely to get hired, and the others distance themselves, like Japanese businessmen in the company of a CEO who has lost face after a failed merger deal. Díaz’s only crime is the passage of time and old ways. Díaz has a green card — a work visa, or papeles. He has had it for 12 years and has worked in Texas and Las Vegas. When he was young he owned a bracero card, those work passports that FDR’s administration began issuing to Mexican workers during WWII in order to fill jobs left vacant as Americans went overseas to fight Hitler and Tojo. When asked if he speaks English, he says, “Pretty good.” Turns out, those two words are pretty much his whole repertoire and he proceeds to speak in rápido Spanish. Too fast for me, but I get the gist. He wants me to hire him for gardening, painting, or janitorial work. At all of these jobs he is “pretty good.” He makes a flabby músculo of his right biceps. I expect him to drop and give me ten one-armed push-ups like Jack Palance at the Oscars. I give him some money just to talk to me, tell me his historia. He takes the bills but eyes me curiously. He’s never been hired just to talk before.
“¿Porqué?” he asks me, and I tell him I am an escritor. He nods, satisfied.
A man named Luciano keeps following me around. He is happy and free with Spanish sexual references to women and their body parts, positively chatty, but not with work skills or job histories. I’m not sure why he feels he can share such rabid, macho sexuality with a gringo, a complete stranger, but at least he’s talking. Eventually he walks down the road, beneath the overpass of I-5, and toward the mini-mall.
The elderly Díaz then resumes his story. He is telling me that up until six years ago he was blind and walked with a white cane. He was healed at a revival meeting in Texas and saw “the light of God” (la luz de Dios). His mother was also cured of some indefinite malady against which all medicine was powerless. They were both washed from their heads to their waists in river water. He falls to his knees in front of me, makes the sign of the cross, and draws a numeral nine in the dirt. “It was at nine o’clock in the morning that my sight returned. It is my lucky number. I charge nine dollars an hour. I can see perfectly.” He turns his face up to me and his eyes are tired, moist with emotional recollection, and milky with traces of cataracts. To my relief he gets off his knees and paces slowly. He gestures for me to sit on a hollowed-out palm tree stump and listen. He tells me God was “a white hand” and that his brothers witnessed the healing but saw no God. He shows me a crude scapular necklace of stitched suede, brown with pale thread in the shape of a shield and crucifix. It is well-thumbed and filthy.
Fascinating as his story may be, I can see why the others consider him daft and bad luck, relegating him to exile by the pay phone and palm stumps on the east side of I-5.
The key to getting work on North County’s street corners and off-ramps is patience; exhibiting nuttiness is bad form. When it comes to patience, these guys are like monks compared to most Americans, who can’t stand or sit still for more than three minutes in a row without making a cell phone call, rushing off to buy and consume something, or expending a $2 gallon of gas to drive to Starbucks for a $4.50 double decaffé/half caffé latte mocha caramel Frappuccino. What the guys around me on the sidewalks west of I-5 and on the grassy banks rising above them are doing is talking with each other in low voices, sometimes with laughter, some of them eating, many of them reading.
Now, these guys know as well as the Home Depot platoon that I am as Mexican or Central American as Pat Boone, but they show me what they are reading: comic books, novelas.
I look over at the middle-aged but fit-looking Escalante. His reading material is a fully illustrated story, about the size of a CD case. It is called Delmonico’s Erotika with the lead story, “Sanaciones Profundas y Húmedas.” Coupled with the cover illustration of a large-breasted, naked blonde wearing rubber gloves, sitting on the chest of a man, also naked, at least his chest, and with a bandaged head, I get the idea. On occasions when I’ve been in a hospital, sex was probably the last thing on my mind, but human sexuality is a wondrous thing, to say the least. Escalante offers me another novella he has finished. This one looks good. It is called La Novela Policiaca: Diamantes Malditos. It seems to be an African-adventure thing. About cops and evil diamonds? Clearly it is time to refresh my Spanish. I’ve been at a huge disadvantage here for days.
A truck pulling up interrupts my attempt at the opening scene of the novella. Four workers separate from three others in their group. They appear to have recognized the vehicle. The driver doesn’t bother to signal with fingers, or in any other way. He nods a curt hello. He knows the four men. The truck is white and dusty. No exchange of words is evident as the men from Mexico climb into the bed of the truck, one in the cab next to the driver. The truck pulls away at a leisurely pace, on its way down Encinitas Boulevard. The driver, a man with sunglasses and a shaved head, one tattooed arm out the window, again nods a cursory recognition to other men.
I ask Escalante where they are going. “Cardiff, I think.”
“What do they do?”
It takes me a full minute to translate his answer. He helps with hand gestures and drawings in the dirt, rectangles and straight lines. I get it. The men will be installing rebars and cinder block at a construction site.
Another 15 minutes pass and it seems like an hour. I am the only one exhibiting boredom or impatience. I return to my Spanish lesson.
The first panel, in what is — I don’t care what else they call it — a comic book, depicts a black man, shirtless, digging a trench with a pickax. “Hombres miserables trabajan en condiciones infames bajo el calcinate sol africano.” Jesus, I’m almost hopeless, but I roughly translate, “Miserable men work in infernal? flaming hot? no, infamous conditions, eh, something about rocks or stone…beneath the African sun.” I congratulate myself on getting the sense of it, but my back is killing me. I’ve been sitting cross-legged on this grass bank for less than an hour. God help me if some dumb gringo actually hires me to work.
I look over at another of these literary gems sticking out of Escalante’s back pocket and I can read the title: ¡¡Perra Brava!! Era lesbiana y marcaba la carne que se queria comer. Oh brother, “Brave Dogs? Age of lesbians?” That can’t be right. I can see a mean-looking chick wielding a pair of scissors in the illustration, but this is no help. Since not even Escalante will talk to me for more than a minute anymore, I use the time to concentrate, to see if I can retrieve memories of the high school Spanish I slept through and the street Spanglish of the Mexican surfers I used to live next door to down at K-38, back in ’87, before the condos were built there. Okay, brava can mean brave or defiant; perra…let’s see, yeah, it’s a female dog, or a bitch. So he’s reading “Defiant Bitches!” The rest is something about branding the flesh you want to eat? With scissors?
I’ve been here at the mini-mall, or over at Home Depot or Calle Magdalena, since 7:30. It is now 9:30. Escalante tells me he expects to be here until 11:00 a.m. before he gives up, but some guys will stay longer — as long as it takes.
I’m beginning to feel like Dian Fossey among the mountain gorillas (and if you take that as a racist statement — don’t; I’m not saying these men are gorillas, okay?). I must insinuate my presence among them slowly, respectfully (if not actually keeping my head lower than theirs) until they get used to me, decide I’m no la migra, no competition, and no threat. A young laborer named Don tells me that gringos sometimes come out here looking for work too.
“Sometimes, yes, they get the work, but not too much. They don’t want to do too many things. They’re not the best workers so they don’t come back because everybody knows and they don’t get hired no more. One Anglo guy was a good mechanic and a plumber. He died. Drogas.”
Speaking of plumbers, I meet the sole representative this morning of the Cuban contingent. His name is Leo, and when he calls himself a “piper,” it turns out he means plumber. He wears a black cowboy hat, and his face is scarred from acne or maybe chicken pox. The older day workers (Guatemalans, Oaxacans, etc.) don’t let him into their circle. Being Cuban is a very different deal, and they’re not quite sure what to make of him. A group of young Tijuanenses isn’t so fussy. These kids are all under 20 and Leo is probably in his early 40s, but the border kids have, possibly, a more blurred or soft-focused sense of nationalism and separatism. Leo comes here seven days a week but works an average of only three days. He asks nine dollars an hour, but usually accepts only seven or eight. He says he pays taxes, that his papers expired but he has had them renewed. “If you have a green card, you have to pay taxes,” he points out. He then adds that he misses Cuba.
“At first I couldn’t wait to get to the United States. It seemed everything I liked was here. But now I’m here and everything is so expensive. At home in Cuba you work eight hours a day in a factory and make $250 a week, and here it is a little better, but the rent here is too much, and gasoline and food.” Leo has been here for four and a half years, and his sentiments have changed. “I don’t like the U.S. anymore. I love my country, Cuba. I don’t love Castro and the politics, but I want to go back in the future when I can save the money, but it’s hard to save money here.”
Businesses are now opening in the mini-mall. I see a guy unlock a kind of Mail Boxes Etc. store where you can buy containers, send a fax, rent P.O. boxes, that kind of thing. I walk over and introduce myself. I am momentarily pleased at the look I get, which is like, “What does this shabby dude from Honduras want with me?” You can fool some of the people some of the time. His name is Dave and he seems relieved when I speak to him in the impeccable Chicago English of Dennis Franz.
Dave has been at this location for seven years, and I ask him if he has any comments or opinions about the men outside, hanging around looking for work.
“You have to be more specific in your question, otherwise it will take me six months.”
“Are you rooting for them to get a job? Do you want them to just go away? Do they hurt business at all?”
“They hurt business. Not necessarily mine, but a lot of people are afraid to go ‘up the gauntlet,’ it’s called. It’s a lot better now than it used to be. They used to line each side, and if you even blinked at them, they’d jump in your car. So women and a lot of men wouldn’t drive in here because going up the gauntlet was a disaster. We spent a lot of money through the [private security] guard to keep them on the public street and off the private street.”
I look out the window and see 11 men on the sidewalks. I guess that’s okay with Dave.
“One of the guards earlier,” I say, “was telling me they will sometimes chase after cars, knock on the doors and the windows, the roofs or hoods, stuff like that.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. I don’t have time to go look. I’ve had women who’ve driven trucks in here with their small children and they come around the corner and they [workers] will jump in the car, and the women will slam on their brakes and yell and scream because they don’t want anybody in their vehicle. That was years ago. That hasn’t happened lately. We [the mall business association] spend thousands and thousands of dollars [on security] to keep them out there.”
A customer, Diane, whom Dave seems to know, comes into the shop. I ask her if she’d mind offering her opinion about the work hopefuls lining the gauntlet outside.
“I always wave, they’re friendly. I give them food sometimes,” Diane says and leaves with her mail.
“You need to research your facts, maybe,” Dave chides me. “You see, they have territories. The Mexicans are in one place, the Guatemalans are in another place…” He trails off as if he has exhausted his knowledge of Central American geography. “When I came into this center seven years ago, there was a dead man with a knife in his gut, right here on the corner, 15 feet that way.” He gestures out the window. “There were prostitutes in the back of the building, Mexican prostitutes, oh yeah. Three minutes, ten bucks. The line would form for these girls, and there would be lots of people in the line. It’s so much better now. They have rules they can live with, and we have rules that we can live with. Basically, the guards make the difference. In fact, the skateboarders are now more of a problem than the Mexicans. We deal with the Mexicans — or Guatemalans, really — and then the skateboarders in the afternoon. The skateboarders do more damage…” Here Dave goes off on a bit of a rant on skateboarders and I try to appear attentive, but I surreptitiously thumb the tape recorder off.
I steer him back to the labor hopefuls outside, and he wants to clear up a misconception right here and now. “Some people think they are way underpaid, $2 or $4 an hour, and they’re doing hard labor. Well, they’re asking $15 — they usually get $10 to $12 — and they work half days and they get fed. The bad workers never get picked up. If you find workers there past nine or ten o’clock, they’re the bad workers. The good ones get here at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning, and they get picked up like crazy. They’re getting paid good. There’ve been a lot of Anglo-Saxon people coming down here to get work, because they get paid good. I’ve seen guys like you spend a couple of days down here, and when they get a job, they’re amazed at what people pay.
“Some of the Mexicans or Guatemalans drive here, they rent a room together, and share a car. It costs them a hundred bucks apiece for the room, and there are four or five guys in the room. Their expenses aren’t that high and they only work three days a week, but they get paid 10 to 12 bucks an hour — and they get fed!”
I can’t escape the impression that Dave envies these guys or that possibly he is suggesting that I leave the dirty racket I’m in and jump on board this gravy train down the sidewalk.
I walk back down among guys I haven’t tried talking to yet. Some are from Tijuana, or so they say; one guy says Puebla, another says Tepic. They’re friendly enough and after a little joking banter about my pinche español, I ask them about la migra and if they have papers. They say Immigration comes around every couple of weeks, sometimes more often, but it is no problem for them — they have papers. I then ask the rude question, “What do they look like? Can I see?” None of them produces so much as a Mexican library card. The only genuine papers I’ve seen belonged to Díaz, the old guy who was miraculously healed of blindness. I change the subject.
A tough-looking man, maybe 45, named Rafael seems willing to talk to me as I offer him $5 and maybe something at Wendy’s. He says he isn’t hungry, and my $5 doesn’t buy me much conversation. His English is like my Spanish. I ask him where he is from and he tells me Guadalajara. I ask him how long he has been here, in the United States, and he says, “A long time.” Okay, so I ask him how he got here, and he says, “Aero Mexico to Tijuana.” Any problem getting across the border? He purses his lips as if to indicate minor inconveniences but finally says, “No. No problem.” I have heard this from nearly everyone I ask, and I will hear it many times again. “Do you get much work here?”
“Yes, I am a good worker: carpenter, bricks, cement, electricity, landscaping.”
“Where do you live here?”
“Oceanside, an apartamento con amigos.”
“How many friends live in your apartment?”
“Sometimes two or three. Sometimes more.”
“How many more?”
He laughs and turns his head, then back at me. “I don’t know.”
Trying again to get at the length of his stay or residency in the United States, I ask him if he has family in Guadalajara. “All of my family is there,” he says with an unhappy expression.
“You send them money.” It isn’t a question; it is an assumption.
“Yes. Yes.” He is just about at the end of what my five bucks buys.
“When was the last time you saw them?”
Again he turns his face away, lifts his straw cowboy hat off his head, and runs his sleeves over his forehead and eyes, as if wiping away sweat, although it is a cool, overcast morning. When he turns back he is silent, his eyes are moist. Great. Here is a man who looks like he could tear the lungs out of a Doberman with one hand, and I’ve just made him cry. “Never mind. Thank you, Rafael.”
I read more newspapers than usual while sitting cross-legged on the grass on Encinitas Boulevard. They are an alternative to the illustrated Spanish novellas, and I’m making little headway through Lou Carrigan: WANTED: Oeste legendario.
Two men, white, are standing on the narrow island on Encinitas Boulevard, about a quarter mile distant from each other along the strip. They are selling newspapers to commuters who come off the freeway and stop at the lights. A few days ago I bought the U-T from one of them. A headline caught my eye: “INS TO SPEED SPECIAL WORK VISAS FOR AN EXTRA $1,000: Fees will boost services, hiring; critics fear program favors rich.”
This was from the New York Times News Service and was by Eric Schmitt. The lead text read: “WASHINGTON — The Immigration and Naturalization Service will start charging foreign scientists, athletes, corporate executives, and other special workers an extra $1,000 to speed the processing of their temporary work visas.
“In a pilot program aimed at raising money to reduce the years of waiting for other immigration services, the agency will process certain work visas within 15 days instead of in two months or more, the current standard.” According to several workers I speak with, it generally takes much longer than two months. But here’s another interesting sentence. “Of the $80 million in fees expected, $20 million will be used to hire 450 workers to process all types of petitions. The money will also be used to buy computers and finance antifraud efforts.”
So they’ll be rounding up those fraudulent asparagus pickers in the Imperial Valley? Maybe there will be money left over to bust those welfare mothers driving Cadillacs while the Soviet Union bides its time playing possum and Star Wars goes begging.
I wander down the sidewalk and consider getting on a bus, calling it a day. I decide to walk to the terminal, maybe a half-mile west. Along the way, I pick up a yellowing newspaper scrap on the sidewalk. It is the Union-Tribune, and it is a couple of weeks old. On the front page, in an Associated Press wire story by a Giovanna Dell’Orto, I read, “12 IMMIGRANTS DIE OF EXPOSURE TO HEAT CROSSING ARIZONA DESERT. Twelve illegal immigrants died in the Arizona desert after crossing the border from Mexico, and rescuers searched last night for others who might be stranded in temperatures that climbed as high as 115 degrees, the Border Patrol said.” Apparently they came up with 11 survivors, all “in serious condition.” I look out at the honking, crawling commuters on Encinitas Boulevard, many of them undoubtedly pissed off, and think, “Yeah, commuting’s a bitch.” The article goes on to explain that the survivors said their smugglers abandoned them. The coyotes, who said they were going back for water and never returned, pointed them toward I-8, which was a hell of a lot farther away than the coyotes said. “Southern Arizona became a popular crossing point for illegal immigrants after crackdowns in the San Diego regions…”
I return two or three times a week for the next two weeks. Usually I pick up an abandoned U-T on the bus or at a bus stop. On Wednesday, I catch a story by Gregory Alan Gross with the headline: “DYING IMMIGRANT HAD HALLUCINATIONS: She told father she saw dead relatives.
“…The 19-year-old, undocumented Mexican woman, weakened from hours of walking in the desert heat with no food and almost no water, told her father she had seen dead relatives coming to her in visions.
“When De La Cruz was unable to keep up with the rest of the group, her father, her cousin and another family member stayed behind to help her. [Border Patrol spokesman] Grijalva said, ‘The smuggler refused to wait for the woman to regain her strength and forced the rest of the group to keep moving.’
“Eventually, De La Cruz started to hallucinate, Grijalva said.
“ ‘She told her father that she was being visited by dead relatives, that they were coming to talk to her.’…
“When she collapsed for the last time, her father ran for help, unaware that they were one-eighth of a mile from a fire station.…”
The day is overcast and muggy. Few people are picked up for work. Two trucks cruise the mini-mall parking lot. One is marked “Terry’s Landscaping,” the other “Quality Concrete Flooring.” They stop in front of the still-closed Quick Fix espresso stand. One of the drivers is talking into a cell phone. The workers wave at them; two approach the stand, but it seems the drivers are not interested in these men. My guess is that they are looking for particular men who aren’t here today. Both trucks leave, having picked up no one.
The previous afternoon I called the public information office at the Border Patrol and spoke with an Agent Bowman. I was curious as to why I had yet to see the distinctive aquamarine vans and sedans of the border cops.
The U.S. Border Patrol San Diego Sector Headquarters’ Agent Bowman says, “We don’t have a separate policy for guys standing on a street corner in a shopping mall or guys standing on a corner downtown. It’s a matter of reasonable suspicion. Like, if one guy doesn’t look at the patrol car, won’t meet the agent’s eyes, or is shifting nervously, something like that.” Nor does the Border Patrol keep separate figures for arrests in shopping-mall parking lots, as opposed to running across the freeway in San Ysidro. “In fact, most of those guys looking for work are legal; they have papers. They’re either residents or citizens.”
When I ask why then so few speak any English and most are reluctant to talk to me in any language, Bowman says, “Well, maybe you did happen on some guys that were illegal.” It wasn’t a long conversation. Over the years, with a few exceptions, my conversations with the Border Patrol have been almost zip with the field agents and real brief with the public information guys. That’s the way it is.
The day is shaping up to be a depressing one. Every time I ask someone how he came over the border, I get the same answer: “No problem.” Usually with a shrug as he looks away. Everyone has papers, everyone is as legal as Pepsi-Cola. No complaints. I do get one interesting answer from a guy named Diego. I speak with several guys named Diego, but this one is short and squat and smiles around what looks like a small fortune’s worth of gold teeth. He tells me he came across the border in a féretro. I have no idea what the word means, and Diego has no English. An 18-year-old kid translates for me. “He says he came in a coffin.”
“A coffin? Like for dead people?”
“No, it’s for live people, but some die from the smoke, the engine smoke.” Turns out what he’s talking about is the common name for a false floor in a panel truck with a space big enough to fit two bodies, maybe three, all riding little more than a foot off the road. If the vehicle has a funky exhaust pipe, or burns oil, it becomes the Euthanasia Express from TJ to North County. Diego grins and nods as the kid translates. It’s like, “Yes, that’s me, I’m Houdini!”
All I can say is, “No shit? Wow.”
Stretching my legs, walking around the parking lot, I notice that the barbershop is being unlocked and opened for the day. Barbershops should be good for information, or at least opinions. I introduce myself to the proprietor, named Wayne. We hardly get to talking when an elderly fellow walks in for a haircut, though it looks as if he had a haircut yesterday.
The guy sits down and Wayne says I can ask him questions while he works on the head, who does not offer his name.
Wayne has been at this location for 13 years. When asked about his general sentiment concerning the labor pool, he says, “I wish they would not hinder the traffic coming up and down and not be obnoxious. But they do. And the guards now can’t do anything. They’re ordered to leave them alone. They got signs out there saying No Stopping and they stop there anyway in the red zone, and nobody can do anything about it. It blocks traffic, everything gets backed up while the negotiations are going on — even out to the boulevard. And the guy who owns the company that owns this whole thing, they don’t want no lawsuits. They’re afraid or something. It would be okay if they stayed on the sidewalk along the boulevard and not along the ramp up to the mall, but… They used to stand across the street in front of the hotel there until some Marine Corps guys ran them off, over to here. They’d go out and they’d just pick ’em up physically and carry them across the road to here. They got the message in about four days.
“Those guys out there,” he gestures with his scissors at the men looking for work, “think they’ve got every right in America. More than you or I do. A lot of them aren’t even documented and even if they were, why are they on private property causing a nuisance? I’ve seen people have strokes out here because of those guys chasin’ ’em. I’ve seen people get the doors ripped off their cars. Now they got this lawyer, I can’t remember his name, and every time something goes down and we [business owners] decide those people have to get out of here, he’ll file a lawsuit on their behalf.”
“He’s an ambulance chaser.” This is the first time the customer in the chair has spoken.
“Then there was this Catholic priest comin’ down here, givin’ ’em clothes and food and everything and just encouraging them. We finally got him out of here.
“They tell me in Spanish,” again he’s pointing with the scissors, “that that’s their place of business. They say, ‘This is your place of business and that is our place of business. You stay here and we stay there.’ ”
I try to stifle a laugh, and the barber gives me a look like “What the hell’s wrong with you?” I’m thinking, Wayne considers this a sort of communist takeover, when I figure the truth lies closer to the word naïveté. Many of these men along the boulevard have all the sophistication of eight-year-olds co-opting a sidewalk corner for a lemonade stand. I want to say to Wayne, “Hey, they’re not dealing crack out there,” but something tells me not to. Instead I ask him, “Where would you lay the blame. Who is responsible for this situation? The city and the owner?”
Wayne nods his head in a curt affirmation. “I think they are.”
As I walk back down the gauntlet to read a bit more of Lou Carrigan: WANTED, a very heavy man in a Dodgers T-shirt and flattop haircut with shaved sideburns, a man I haven’t spoken with, cuts an enormous, loud fart. This ignites laughter up and down nearly the entire block. Diego (another Diego) says something about “…dispare llamas por el culo!” A reference to flames shooting out of the guy’s asshole.
I’m assuming the well-timed flatulence as I passed the man was a comment on how welcome he felt my presence to be among all of them. I pick up my U-T and my western novela off the grass and head toward the bus terminal. In the paper, staff writer Onell R. Soto has a story: “FORMER LAWYER ORDERED TO STAND TRIAL ON MURDER CHARGE: He is accused of killing worker near labor hall.
“Vista — A former lawyer now living out of his truck shot an unarmed laborer after a short argument in Carlsbad, looked around, and then calmly walked into a portable toilet, witnesses testified yesterday.
“Joseph Butler French fired the shot, said Celso Morales, one of three migrant workers who testified they were standing outside the City of Carlsbad Hiring Center when the shooting occurred June 3 .
“…‘I had to do this,’ said French, who told the judge he kept guns for his protection from people at the hiring center.
“…‘He’s been living out of his vehicle at that location for several months,’ said Carlsbad police officer George Hart Jr.
“He said some of the workers there had complained earlier that French threatened them with guns.
“Hart said that when he arrived at the hiring center that evening, Flores-Cabrera had been shot in the chest and was lying on the ground. He had stopped breathing and no longer had a pulse, he said.”
I transfer buses and head to Carlsbad. I know where the hiring center is because I’ve been directed there by curbside job applicants who kept telling me, “You should go to the Hiring Center” or “You should go across the street, interview those guys” or “Go to the Home Depot.” In other words, go anywhere but where I’m standing; leave me alone.
The Hiring Center in Carlsbad is on a lonely patch of land with a few industrial buildings spaced at wide intervals from each other. The center itself, funded by the City of Carlsbad, is a trailer with an awning of corrugated metal and some cheap, plastic chairs for the men waiting for work. You have to be documented to get work out of the center. Many of the clients, those looking for laborers, are private homeowners in need of landscapers, bricklayers, etc. In the morning, potential workers are assigned a number, and then the numbers are raffled off. The first winner gets the first job request, unless the job requires a car and that winner has no transportation. In that case, they go on to the next number.
The man on duty today is Eli. He is new and doesn’t want to speak for the center because he’s not sure if he can explain the operation accurately. He has to check with his boss. Okay, but I ask him if he knew this shooter, the ex-lawyer, French.
“Oh, yeah,” he says, his public relations smile evaporating. “That guy was a time bomb.” And that is all he’ll say on the matter.
Claudia Smith at the California Rural Legal Center has been all over migrant worker issues for years. Hers is the energy, inspiration, and outrage behind the website www.stopgatekeeper.org. Claudia Smith at the California Rural Legal Center has been all over migrant worker issues for years. Hers is the energy, inspiration, and outrage behind the website www.stopgatekeeper.org. She tells me briefly of the lawsuit brought against the City of Encinitas by the American Civil Liberties Union when that city passed a curbside hiring ban in 1992. “It was a constitutional argument. We won. Basically, the argument was that as long as it wasn’t a safety hazard, that people had a right to free speech, even solicit — as long as the work they were soliciting was legal. I don’t think any of the other cities in San Diego tried the same thing. It was a very clean, quick ruling.”
“What about loitering?” I ask her. “Could they use that as an ostensible charge to move them along or remove them altogether?”
“That’s a different thing. You’re not loitering; you’re standing there for the purpose of looking for a [legal] job. That’s a subterfuge sometimes, though, yes. A number of times in the last ten years, we — the ACLU and the CRLC — have had to call either the sheriff’s department or a local police department and ask, ‘Hey, what’s going on here? As long as they’re not obstructing pedestrian or vehicular traffic, they have a right to stand on a sidewalk and solicit work.’
“There were problems in Rancho Bernardo, problems on El Cajon Boulevard, problems in Rancho Santa Fe and Vista, on and on. It comes down to, day laborers may not be aesthetically pleasing to you, but they have the constitutional right to stand on a sidewalk and a right to commercial free speech. But sometimes they can get them for jaywalking or littering, that kind of thing.
“What the workers cannot do is go into the parking lot of the mall, say, and transact business. That’s private property. But if they are patrons of the shopping center — they buy a cup of coffee at Wendy’s? They have the right to drink it in the parking lot and discuss whatever they want to. Most businesses will sell a Coke to someone and not think twice if they drink it outside, discussing whatever. But not day laborers? That’s civil rights discrimination, a violation of the Unruh Act.”
Smith recounts stories of entrapping and abusing workers.
Two workers at “the Country Store in Carlsbad were prosecuted some years ago for falsely imprisoning one of the day laborers. They put a paper bag over his head and handcuffed him to a rail and wrote a sign on him that read, No mas aquí. And then we’ve had a myriad of cases where employers will hire them for five days, promise to pay them on the sixth day, and nobody shows up. Now they don’t know for whom they’ve worked, they can’t really tell you where they worked, because when they get in those vans and trucks, they don’t know where they’re going. I’m always in awe of my clients. Their capacity for rejection alone. They’re so vulnerable, also, to hate crimes. People throw bottles at them and garbage.
“But the other thing you were asking about, the Border Patrol?” In an earlier conversation I had asked about complaints as to border police, or la migra. “This was about five years ago, around Carlsbad. What they would do was they would drive up in unmarked cars, or vans, and regular clothes, they’d do the bit where they hold out the five fingers or ten or whatever, and people would just jump in. They’d drive a few miles, pull over, and say, ‘Okay, we’re the Border Patrol. Who has papers?’ That wasn’t legal and we got that stopped very, very quickly. But just imagine, even the legal, documented ones were just left there miles from where they were picked up to somehow make their way back.
“Another concern I have is those raids they hold on Encinitas Boulevard, very close to the freeway? Well, people just start running. The Border Patrol has an obligation to weigh all the potential risks. Including risks to the undocumented worker.”
Logging on to the stopgatekeeper website, scrolling through the news items and photos, it is clear that the phrase “border safety” is an oxymoron and that what I have written above is pretty much a lighthearted romp.