As Congress and the White House quibble over the best policies and programs to revive the sluggish economy – from tax relief to public infrastructure projects to small business aid – who’s advocating for the countless self-employed individuals in this country? This includes a significant amount of individuals who engage in a variety of economic activity as independent contractors, such as plumbers, mechanics, electricians, after-school tutors, fishermen, tax preparers and those who toil in the domestic household service economy.
The domestic household economy encompasses house cleaners, paid gardeners and, very often, day laborers. This mostly Latino immigrant workforce in California and beyond has taken over the traditional household duties and responsibilities that many Americans assumed prior to WWII, where women regularly stayed home to care for the children and clean the home, while men worked outdoors to “master” the front lawn – an American obsession of the archetypal suburban home.
While my late mother, Carmen Mejia Huerta, worked as a house cleaner for more than 40 years in this country, my dissertation research project at UC Berkeley focuses on paid Latino gardeners and their social networks in Los Angeles’ unregulated economy. My initial scholarly interest to better understanding this group goes back to my days as a community activist when myself and fellow activists – Adrian Alvarez, Antonia Montes and others – originally helped organize this informal workforce in response to the City of Los Angeles’ leaf blower ban. We first learned about the city’s plans by a veteran paid gardener, Jaime Aleman, who emerged as an organic leader in this social justice battle.
Led by the late councilmember Marvin Braude, in May 1996, the Los Angles City Council voted 9 to 4 to ban leaf blowers within a residential area. The draconian penalties for a paid gardener caught using this work device included a misdemeanor charge, $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. In response, the Latino gardeners founded the Association of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles and initiated one of the most dynamic social justice movements since the “Justice for Janitors” campaign of the early 1990s and United Farm Workers’ cause of the 1960s.
Following countless protests, marches, press conferences, candlelight vigils and a week-long hunger strike, the Latino gardeners eventually prevailed, forcing the city to dramatically amend this law. While the affluent Westsiders, who favored the ban, framed this issue as a public nuisance, focusing on issues of noise and pollution, the Latino gardeners successfully re-framed the issue as the “haves against the have-nots.” At the end of the day, the Latino gardeners prevailed in the court of public opinion.
Going beyond the contentious leaf blower issue, I’ve spent the last several years conducting archival and field research on the history of paid gardening in this country and how it currently operates. Like an anthropologist who lives with villagers in Guatemala, I’ve successfully gained the trust of these individuals and spent countless hours with them. They allowed me to enter their universe. By doing so, I’ve developed a more comprehensive understanding of how this informal market is organized, how it works and the roles of the various individuals involved.
Countering the stereotypical portrayals of paid gardeners in Hollywood, television and the mainstream media, where these individuals represent so-called “ignorant workers” with little to contribute, over the years I’ve found these individuals to be highly intelligent, productive members of society. Despite lacking human capital (higher education and special training) and financial capital, many of these Latino immigrant men consist of sophisticated individuals who own and operate their own small businesses.
They engage, for example, in complex entrepreneurial transactions on a regular basis, such as expanding business operations, developing client routes, billing and receiving, trading and selling goods or services with other small businesses.
In the case of Jaime Alemen, a naturalized citizen from Zacatecas, Mexico, who has owned and operated a successful gardening business for the past two decades, we can see how these individuals have created successful enterprises outside the formal economy. Given the lack of educational opportunities in his rural hometown, Alemen joined his father and brothers in the agricultural fields at the tender age of 10 years old. Once immigrating to the U.S., he wasted no time joining the workforce to one day become self-employed.
As an owner of a small gardening enterprise, Alemen represents a productive member of society and positive role model due to his perseverance in life, strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit. Like the Japanese immigrant gardeners of the last century, paid gardeners, like Alemen and his colleagues, contribute daily towards making our communities greener, cleaner, safer and more beautiful.
Thus, it’s time for the government to make an investment in this green workforce, especially during this great recession. Equally important, it’s time for the public to appreciate Latino gardeners as honest, hardworking individuals who make positive contributions to America’s cities and suburbs.
ALVARO HUERTA is a visiting scholar at UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center.
This article originally appeared in the Daily Bruin.