By Philip Riley & Chris Samson
ARGUS-COURIER STAFF | Posted in the PressDemocrat.com
(Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about Latinos in Petaluma. This article shares the personal stories of some of the day laborers.)
passing by the Shell station on the corner of Washington and Howard streets has likely seen them — men gathered, waiting for a slowing car or a honking horn, hoping for any sign of work.
These day laborers, or jornaleros, as they are called in Spanish, have been a fixture in the community for many years. Most are hired by residents for temporary work in their homes or yards, but others find sporadic work with local businesses or vineyards.
As many as 70 workers gather along the one-block stretch of Howard Street at the busiest times of the year. But last Friday, about 25 to 30 men were waiting in a light drizzle near the corners of Washington Street and Western Avenue. All cite better wages as their reason for coming to Petaluma from their home countries in Latin America, and their stories highlight the economic forces at play in a complex global economy.
For many workers, the amount they earn in a single day is equal to working as much as a week back home. They typically find work a few days each week, work eight hours per day, and earn $10 to $15 per hour, many sending most of their wages to family back home.
Noe Castillo, 25, is a native of Veracruz, Mexico and an undocumented resident. He arrived in Petaluma six years ago to earn a living and said he has taken English as a Second Language classes to help him improve his situation.
Castillo gets occasional work as a tile-setter for a local company. But there was no work last week, so he went to the street corner hoping someone would hire him. On Friday morning, he was still waiting for his first work of the week.
Castillo shared stories of mis from those who hired him and other workers. One employer did not alert workers before he threw lumber down to them off of a 15-foot porch, almost hitting one worker in the head. He said some of the toughest workers have been degraded to the point of tears.
“This man yells and mistreats all the workers,” said Castillo. “He calls us ‘dogs.’”
Alejandro Guzman, 55, also said his experience as a day worker has not been a good one.
“They don’t always treat you well,” he said. “Sometimes the person who hires you says (at the end of the day) that they need you to work tomorrow and they will pay you then, but they never come back.”
He and other workers suffer harassment and other indignities.
“People look at us with non-accepting eyes,” he said. “They say, ‘What are you doing here? Why are you standing on this corner?’”
He says the owner of the Shell station treats them well, but a business owner at a different location called the police because he didn’t want the laborers standing in front of his store.
Guzman, who has no other job at the moment, says he gets hired about two days a week on average. He is experienced as a carpenter, as well as in concrete, sheetrock and landscaping work.
His undocumented status makes it difficult to find regular work. He said he has worked at local companies, but when they find out he does not have a Social Security card, they lay him off.
He left Veracruz, Mexico, 10 years ago seeking work in the United States to support his family — a wife and two children now 13 and 20 years old — and has not been able to return since. He sends his family as much money as he can.
“I wish we could get labor permits so that we can go back to see our families and return,” he said. Even more, he wishes that conditions would change so that he could bring his family to the United States. But it’s “very expensive and very dangerous” to cross the border as an undocumented resident, he said.
Nazario Lojas, 38, immigrated from Peru in 1992 and became a naturalized citizen. He attended Casa Grande High School and Santa Rosa Junior College, but has to supplement his income as a part-time landscaping worker by seeking day work.
“I come here every morning, Monday through Saturday,” said Lojas, who said he is usually hired three or four days a week for concrete and masonry work.
Unlike other day workers, Lojas says he has never had a bad experience. “I’ve never had to chase anybody to pay me,” he said. “I always show them my identification and Social Security card.”
Lojas, who is unmarried, has a brother and sisters who live in the area. One of them, Humberto Lopez, was also waiting for work on Friday.
Lopez sends money he earns to his wife and 12 children in his home country of Peru. Back home, he found more stable work in construction and other labor jobs, but came to Petaluma because of the higher price he could get for his work.
Lopez has been trying to become a legal resident, but said that the cost to finalize his paperwork has halted that process. His mother is a U.S. citizen and has filed forms to help him immigrate. But hiring an immigration lawyer can cost thousands of dollars.
“Whatever little money I have, I have to send back to my family,” he said.
Earlier this year, a group of local residents announced plans to create a hiring hall to help the workers connect with employers, learn job skills and provide shelter. The hiring center would also let employers give feedback on the work they receive and would help workers report abuse.
Members of the group, called Petaluma Latinos Active in Civic Engagement, or PLACE, say that the building would help formalize an informal workforce that “is already here and not going anywhere.” All of the workers interviewed (with translation help from PLACE members) said that they would welcome a hiring hall.
“It would be a magnificent opportunity,” said Lopez. “There are many who share the same feelings and thoughts. Learning English would be helpful.”
“It would make everything better for all of us,” said Guzman about a hiring hall.
The hiring hall could also provide information and resources to workers on issues such as find finding food, housing and the language barrier, said members of PLACE.
“Some of them have to choose between paying their rent or ing food,” says Gloria McCallister, a PLACE member.
“The Mexican culture is very proud,” McCallister added. “They want to work. They don’t tend to seek out social services because they consider it begging. They just want some simple respect.”