In the Ashes of American Dreams

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Henry Mejía at his home in the hills above Dodger Stadium in LA. Photo: Edu Ponces/El Faro.

Standing in clusters on urban street corners waiting for a pickup truck and a boss and a day’s work and a few dollars, or gathered at the edge of the Home Depot parking lot beneath the sun and their broad-brimmed hats, day laborers are the almost-invisible floating labor force at the bottom of the American economy. Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martinez traveled to Los Angeles last year to see for himself where they have ended up, his countrymen whose dreams have died waiting in line for a steady paycheck that never came.

The day laborers are celebrating a birthday here at the Centro Laboral in Pasadena, California. It is the ninth of June, a sunny day, and two dozen day laborers are singing around a cake. “Blow if you still can, oldster,” says one Mexican migrant to Henry Mejia. The white-haired Nicaraguan migrant blows, and then some of the day laborers push his head down, burying his face in the cake. There is laughter. They bring out the plates of Nicaraguan cheese, of gallopinto rice and beans. Henry is celebrating his 65 years of life, and his 36th year since he arrived, undocumented, in the United States. He will celebrate a while longer, then he will take a bus to the city of Los Angeles, where he will climb a hill near Dodger Stadium, push through some bushes, and lie down on a mattress on the dirt, out in the open. In his home.

Los Angeles is the capital of the destitute in the United States. The city with the most migrants from El Salvador (some 800,000 of them in the county) is also the city with the largest number of people without a home in this enormous country. Henry is one of the 26,000 destitute who walk the streets of the city of Los Angeles (and nearly 45,000 across LA County). Although most likely Henry himself was not even counted in these figures.

In September, the Los Angeles City Council declared a state of emergency and asked for $100 million to alleviate the problem of the undocumented, who have turned a number of its streets into places that resemble refugee camps. The Homeless Services agency of the city calculates that today there are 12 percent more homeless residents here than two years ago. According to local Hispanic newspaper La Opinion, there are some 5,400 Latinos among these tens of thousands of people without a home. Although the same sources recognize that this is surely an underestimate for exactly the same reason that all such figures about the lives of Central Americans here are underestimates: to be undocumented here is to disappear, to not count, to not pass through the government statistics.

Experts consulted by the Los Angeles Times in September identified three reasons that so many people are ending up living in the streets or in the hills: increasing rents, falling salaries and rising unemployment. A cocktail of despair that is swallowed daily by the undocumented Central Americans who call themselves day laborers [jornaleros].

Day laborers: men or women who work for a day’s pay, or a few hours’ pay, and who negotiate their wage with a new boss each time.

It is, among the castes of the migrant, the worker on the lowest rung. A worker who has no fixed employment nor fixed salary nor fixed boss nor fixed workplace. Streetcorner workers, they call them too. These are the migrants who have only what their hands can bring them. Painters, masons, carriers, maids, gardeners.

Thousands of people who move through a system of Centros Laborales, Home Depot parking lots, looking for a day’s work. They are in their way the soul of the migrant labor world, the starting point from which better times were built by many.

They work, they eat. They work, they pay for a room to sleep in.

If not, they’re out on the street.

Henry climbs for some ten minutes to get to his place. He pushes aside branches and thorns, because he does not take the paths which are laid out for hikers, but climbs through the scrubland. There are ten other huts on this face of the hill. For neighbors, Henry has a Latino who dresses up as a clown, and a Mexican from Sinaloa who works as a day laborer.

His house is a patch of dirt no more than 15 feet squared. Some pots, a throwaway mattress, a blanket, and a parasol under which you imagine someone should be drinking a cocktail on the terrace of a beach restaurant. His home does not even rise to the level of hut. It is a patch of dirt with some things scattered around it.

“I’m deep in the hole,” says Henry.

He is. He wasn’t. Now he is. For more than two years now he has been deep in the hole. That’s what it’s like to be a migrant.

Henry arrived in 1979 after the Sandinista rebels took Managua. He had a work permit (the Reagan administration facilitated work permits for Nicaraguans who left because of the Sandinistas). He got to the point where he was making $11.50 an hour working in Minneapolis. But with the years and with the departure of the Sandinistas from power in 1990, American interest in Nicaraguans waned. Many did not get their work permits renewed. Henry among them.

Geopolitics even fucks up the lives of undocumented people on the streets of the United States.

Living on temporary permits is a form of limbo. The United States renews them year after year, until the year that it doesn’t. Migrants who have built a whole life-like the more than 230,000 Salvadorans who were taken in under Temporary Protected Status. ‘Te-Pe-eS-ianos,’ as they call themselves, who all of a sudden can become undocumented.

Henry starts down the hill. He moved to Los Angeles about five years ago, with his sister who lives in San Buenaventura, about 60 miles from the city. But there was little work there, and to Henry, the idea of being “a sponger” in her house disturbed him. He lied to his sister. He said he he’d found a job and would be sharing a room with some other migrants. Since then, he has washed dishes, worked in factories, been a gardener, worked for a builder, carried shopping bags out of supermarkets, washed tires in the parking lots of the stadium when the Dodgers play baseball.

Day after day, he arrives at six in the morning at the Pasadena Centro Laboral, a center of the National Day Laborers’ Network, which offers a place where you don’t have to stand around on a streetcorner, risking an immigration roundup or being scammed by unsavory bosses. In these centers, every boss who comes looking for a day laborer has to identify himself.

Sometimes he gets work, sometimes not. Actually, most times not. He calculates that about three days of each week, he gets some hours. Dinner is a cookie or a taco. “I stretch out the dollars,” he says. Going back is not really an option. Nicaragua is a distant memory. Henry’s adult life has passed more in the United States than the country where he was born.

“I’m deep in the hole,” Henry repeats from under the parasol that he fished out of a trash container on Broadway.

“What has the United States given you, Henry?”

“Nothing. I’ve been searching for the American Dream for more than thirty years. It’s a despicable lie. I cannot even afford to pay rent. Or maybe I could afford a month. But what would be the point, if they threw me out on the street the next month?”

Rent. “The damned rent,” many day laborers grumble.

“Housing is what fucks up a day laborer,” says Angel Olvera, a Mexican in his thirties who runs the day laborer center where Henry goes every day. “If you’re lucky, for $350 you might be able to rent a cubicle.” If you’re lucky, and in Pasadena maybe, he should have added. Near downtown Los Angeles, with $350 you can’t even rent a shared pigsty.

A call comes in on the telephone. Angel answers. He tells the caller that the minimum to hire a worker is four hours at $15 an hour. Although they can perhaps negotiate to as little as $12, and fewer than four hours if necessary. Something is better than nothing.

There are 500 day laborers registered with the center, most of them Mexicans and Central Americans (70 percent, according to Angel). A very few Americans, almost all of them black. Some Chinese and Koreans. Every day, around 50 of these day laborers show up. The oldest is 70, the youngest 18. On a good day, according to Angel, actually on “one particular really badass day,” 38 day laborers got work. But normally about 14 get work, drawn from the list of names that gets made at six o’clock every morning. Those who show up on time are recorded. Their names are put in a box. When a boss comes, Angel takes a piece of paper with a name on it out of the box. If the person doesn’t know how to do the job the boss wants done, he pulls out another paper, and so on. About eight women come in every day in search of work cleaning houses. Angel says the odds for them are even worse. Only one a day usually gets work.

“For lots of people, being a day laborer means they’ve fallen down a well. From here, it is extremely difficult to support your family. Sure, there are lots of people who would like to just work a couple of days and take it easy, but the biggest issue keeping people here is generally that they don’t have legal status.”

The problem is that the average day laborer is someone whose issues are going to keep piling up. He misses paying the rent, he is not getting any younger, he is not getting any less undocumented as time goes on. Moreover, lots of them already have a slipped disk in their back, or a bad shoulder, say, and can only take on certain kinds of jobs. Or they accustom themselves to getting by from what they can earn working a few hours a week and what they can scrape up from a network of assistance points, from day laborer centers to homeless shelters. Migrants who live like the homeless.

A boss comes in to the Pasadena Centro Laboral. A white man. Angel pulls a slip of paper out of the lottery box. He shouts a name. A dark-skinned man stands up, short, wearing a sombrero. He cannot be younger than sixty. He looks over seventy. The white boss turns to look at him and shakes his head no. The dark-skinned man sits down again. Angel pulls out another slip of paper. Shouts another name. A migrant in his thirties stands up. He leaves with the boss.

The day laborers converse in the center, sip coffee, play the guitar. They wait. Every one of them looks up when a boss comes in. Those who don’t hear their name are disappointed. They peruse the internet on one of the center’s three computers for a while. Drink more coffee. Play the guitar. Wait.

In one corner of the center, Nelson is napping, a Salvadoran, 45 years old. He arrived when he was 18, following in the footsteps of his siblings, who had fled the war.

Nelson did not know how to do any manual labor when he arrived. He lived with his sister and helped look after her children for a few dollars and a roof over his head. Nelson got a girlfriend, and his sister asked him to leave. One in the house, fine. Two in the house, too many. Because here in Los Angeles, when you talk about a house, what you generally mean is a shared room; a room and a shared living room if you’re lucky. A tiny place of your own is something only an extremely fortunate migrant, and one with legal residency, has been able to imagine for several years now.

Family is an essential life preserver to keep floating above the Los Angeles sink-hole, but it’s a life preserver that supports only very little weight. And here, the rules of flotation apply very strictly; the less weight it is supporting, the easier it is to breathe; add more weight and you sink. And you go all the way to the bottom. Sometimes the weight you are carrying is beloved weight, but it is weight all the same: brothers, parents, children.

“I succeeded in getting an apartment in Lincoln Heights near La Raza Park, in 1994. But with the biles, it ended up costing $1,000.” Biles, another essential word in the migrant vocabulary. Bills, invoices, electric bills, water bills, cable bills.

With time-and time goes by fast here-he had three children with a Mexican woman who already had three other children. The Mexican woman brought her sister-in-law and various nephews in to live in the house. There were as many as twelve people living there at times.

“I would say that a one-bedroom apartment is only meant for a single couple,” Nelson reflects.
His was more like a military barracks. Two cots, a bed for the couple, a sheetrock divider halving a living room covered with mattresses.

There were problems. Of course there were problems. Nelson ended up throwing out the nephews of his woman, who were now older than fifteen, because one of his daughters, who was six, accused them of fondling her and pulling her clothes off.

Lots of people. Very little space.

Organizations that work with undocumented people here say that this is one of the biggest evils that comes along with the overcrowding problems of Los Angeles. The sexual abuse of minors is common in apartments like these, where privacy is even harder to come by than fresh air.

The argument over the nephews did not end there. Nelson was working two jobs then; one sewing in a garment factory that had him working from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon, and a second one as a security guard that filled his time until three in the morning. Tolerance and fatigue are mortal enemies.

There were shouts. There were insults. There were threats.

Nelson’s woman decided to leave with the children. If my family goes, so do I, she said. Afterwards, something happened which Nelson will not talk about directly, but which is not difficult to infer.
“The police came. They accused me of domestic violence.”

He spent six months in the county jail.

He came out the way you normally come out of a jail: worse off than when you go in. His family disappeared and he has not seen them again. He had no house anymore. He suffered from depression, anxiety, stress. Nelson travels with an enormous plastic bag in his backpack, where he keeps eight bottles of pills for the pain and anxiety. Naproxen, Cyclobenzaprine, Venlafaxine…

He went in poor, he came out destitute. Nelson was not deported due to an ongoing legal dispute with a Mexican who threatened to murder him after Nelson reported him for drinking on the job at a slaughterhouse where they worked together.

“I sleep at Mision Dolores (a Catholic hostel) or I just sleep on the train, although that costs 7 dollars. Lots of people do that. Or you go to Santa Monica on the bus, on the 733 from Union Station. Leave at around 10. Goes out, and comes back. Sometimes they don’t put you off the bus when they get to Long Beach. To Eat? There are lots of places that hand out food. Here in Pasadena, they give you lunch, and there’s coffee and cookies. Dinner you can get at Mision Dolores. We’ve all been through that.”

And that is his life these past four years. Trying to find himself. Sometimes all he eats is lunch or dinner. Sometimes he is unable to bathe, some days he never gets off the bus until he comes back in the morning to note down his name in the morning again at the centro laboral.

Nelson surveys those around him at the Pasadena centro laboral. “That guy over there is another train and bus tourist,” he says, pointing at a Mexican in his forties. “And that one too,” he says, pointing at Carlos, a Salvadoran of 37 whom everyone calls ‘Diablito.’ He’s been here for twelve years, used to work two jobs so he could afford to rent himself a garage to live in for $500. He got sick of that. Became a day laborer. Now he lives at times in a car where somebody lets him sleep the night, or on buses or in shelters or sometimes in the bushes or under a bridge.

“Lots of people end up on drugs,” Nelson says.

The logical question arises. Why not go back to El Salvador?
“Pride. What would people say?”

El Salvador has built this image of the migrant who returns at the airport to a triumphal reception by truckloads of relatives. The migrant relative living under a bridge in the United States or sleeping his nights on the bus is not a figure around which political discourses or electoral campaigns are built, not a main character for nostalgic TV ads.

Nevertheless, the migrant living under the bridge also sends back remittances. Nelson fishes around in his backpack and pulls out eight Western Union receipts. Money sent back to support his sister. $70 on the fifth of June of this year, sent while he was sleeping in homeless shelters. $100 on the twelfth of May of this year, sent while he was subsisting on free cookies and coffee…Over there, at the other end of the remittances, there are not just successful family eateries and relatives wearing Los Angeles Lakers jerseys.

At the other end of the remittances, there are the destitute as well.
“I told you, we’ve all been through that.”

At the other extreme among central American labor migrants is the one who has obtained papers and steady work-still as a laborer, but steady.

Maribel, a Honduran day laborer who specializes in painting and who pays $700 to share a room with a retired American lady in the city’s downtown, has a job painting a house. She has been here for 22 years, undocumented, and has succeeded in buying herself an old Ford V-8 pickup truck so that she does not have to depend on a boss to bring her to and from jobs. Maribel, like almost everyone, sends remittances back home.

Today Maribel is painting the house and she has brought with her an assistant, a former paratrooper in the Salvadoran army who came to the United States in 1993. They are painting the house of a Salvadoran gentleman from Usulutan who also came to this country 22 years ago. This gentleman has papers, works at a recycler, and lives here with his wife. He has succeeded in renting a house, one very much resembling a minimal habitation back in El Salvador: a tiny bathroom, a tiny living room, one tiny bedroom. Him and his wife. They pay $750 a month for this house they have rented since 1994. They live in Terrace, East Park, in a neighborhood dominated by black street gangs in which there have been four murders by the middle of 2015. “Around here, after 7 pm, you don’t leave the house,” he says. Three years ago his wife was mugged outside the house. Two years ago, he had to fight with a couple of black guys who tried to rob him.

The gentleman from Usulutan is not in the hole like the Nicaraguan migrant. But he lives in a place that very much resembles the poorest neighborhoods of his native country.

Day laboring is the economic starting point from which the majority of central American migrants have taken off-and still take off. It is a legendary job among the undocumented. Nowadays they stand around outside Home Depot, or they line up at a Centro Laboral. In the 90s, it was at the streetcorners of Pico Boulevard or along Main Street. In the old days when a civil war in Central America heated up, they’d be there, outside the Seven Elevens on Pico. The central Americans have all stated out as streetcorner workers and then moved on up. Or not.

Los Angeles Street, in downtown, divides the Los Angeles night of sequins, miniskirts and shiny white smiles from that of improvised tents, cans of tuna and toothless mouths.

This is an area they call Skid Row, fifteen blocks which by day are filled with businesses, and by night with the tents of the destitute, one after another. It is considered one of the largest concentrations of the destitute in the world. Some 4,000 are estimated to gather here each night.

This is the bottom of the hole. Thousands of the destitute, from every corner of the world, drug addicts many of them, gather on these blocks each night in hopes of a handout: a doughnut, a cup of coffee, perhaps a little bit of crack. Various religious missions descend on Skid Row each night, offering hot chocolate and Christ.

Edwin is a Salvadoran, from Bread and Chocolate Ministries, who hands out these two things on Skid Row. He arrived in 2004. He was a streetcorner worker outside Home Depot. Back home, he had worked as a ticket-checker on the public buses in Sonsonante Province, and on the third of June of that year, he fled the country because gangster of the Barrio 18 had threatened him with murder.

“On Skid Row, you see people who have just arrived, boys from Guatemala or El Salvador, sixteen, seventeen years old, who don’t know what to do. Or people who have already lost everything, says Edwin.”

Tolerance is a street here in Skid Row. On one side of the street the destitute lie scattered on the ground. On the other, 50 feet away, there is a French restaurant with a wine and cheese bar.

The majority of those on Skid Row are black, but there are dozens of Hispanics. People from all over.

One man says he is from Guadalajara [Mexico] before pulling his blanket back over his face. An Asian lady who looks like a figure off a Tibetan postage stamp mutters to herself while moving her head back and forth like an autistic, outside of her camping tent. A Puerto Rican says he studied fine arts and asks for another doughnut. A Guatemalan who appears to be over fifty comes back for another coffee. He responds irritably that he arrived in the 1980s, and does not want to talk more.

“I am lost, I am lost,” he says, and loses himself among the rest of the destitute.

This piece was translated from Spanish by International Boulevard, where it first appeared in english.