With a 1,500 square-foot backyard, including a small orchard of apricot, nectarine and apple trees, a large vegetable patch, a greenhouse, and a wide variety of flowers, Harold Black has his work cut out for him.
Back when he was younger, Black relished taking it on — the pruning and harvesting, the weeding and raking. But now, while the 77-year-old widower remains committed to his thriving plot of land across the street from Los Altos High School, it is a little more difficult to manage.
“As you get old, your back is the first thing to go,” he explains, with a nudge and a grin one Saturday afternoon. Black is walking around his property, pointing out various plants and trees, and occasionally giving direction to Juan Antonio, a laborer he picked up that morning from the Day Worker Center of Mountain View.
Antonio and workers like him have made it possible for Black to continue to maintain his land, and for that Black is grateful. He has been coming to the Day Worker Center to hire help for about 15 years — as long as the organization has been around — and has always been satisfied, he says.
In fact, Black prefers hiring labor from the center over other “mow, blow and go” landscaping services, because, as he puts it, “that’s all they do — mow, blow and go.”
With the Day Worker Center, Black says he has much more control over the length of time a worker devotes to the job and what kind of work they do. Black typically hires one laborer to work in his yard for a full eight-hour day, paying about $100 for his services, which may include tilling soil, trimming hedges, pruning trees or mowing the lawn, among other tasks.
Black likes that level of control, as his yard is not only his hobby but his passion. Born into a North Carolina family with a rich history of farming, Black has been working the soil since he was 5 years old. “Everybody has their agenda,” he explains. “Mine is farming.”
This afternoon, Black has Antonio working in his front yard, trimming hedges. Though the two don’t exchange many words, on account of the English-Spanish language barrier, they seem to communicate just fine. Black points and gestures with his hands to indicate where he would like the bushes cut and Antonio swipes the electric shears back and forth, up and down, while his employer minds the long orange extension cord, making sure it doesn’t get caught on branches as Antonio moves around.
Antonio, who came to the United States from Cuernavaca, the largest city in the Mexican state of Morelos, says that he has been living in Mountain View for about four years. Shortly after moving here, some friends told him about the Day Worker Center and he immediately went down and signed up. He is happy that he did, he says. The center helps him find, on average, two days of work each week.
The center, located at 113 Escuela Ave., accepts anyone looking to find work, and asks for only basic information upon registration. Members of the center get access to free English classes, meals prepared by Day Worker Center members, computer literacy instruction and help searching for work on the Web and applying for citizenship if necessary. Maria Marroquin, executive director Day Worker Center, says her organization never asks would-be members about their citizenship status.
Needless to say, the Day Worker Center has not been received with open arms by all Mountain View residents. Many object to the center’s don’t-ask, don’t tell policy on citizenship status.
Black, however, doesn’t see things that way.
“You’re giving a person with three or four kids a job and he’s working his fingers to the bone,” Black says in response. As for hiring a non-citizen, that’s something that he isn’t even sure he has ever done. Just like the Day Worker Center, Black never asks the people he hires whether they are in the United States legally.
When pressed on the issue and asked if he could be taking jobs away from American citizens, Black is incredulous.
“Quit joking me, man,” he snaps. “Where are you going to find someone to do these jobs?”
The way Black sees it, there is plenty of hard, back-breaking work that needs to be done in this country, and he doesn’t see many other groups of people, other than migrant workers, who willingly offering themselves up to do those jobs.
For Antonio’s part, he is certainly willing to take whatever work comes his way. He, his wife and their three children cram into one bedroom of a two-bedroom Mountain View apartment that they share with two others.
He says living in those conditions is worthwhile, considering the alternative back in Cuernavaca. He and his wife together make about $500 during a good week, but that is still more than they might expect to make in a month where they came from. “It is a very difficult situation in Mexico,” he says in Spanish.
And then there is the matter of the schools.
Antonio says that in Mexico he wouldn’t be able to provide his children with the kind of life he wants for them. “In Mexico, I don’t believe this would be possible,” he says, nodding at the newly installed, gleaming solar panel canopies in the Los Altos High School parking lot. “In Mexico, you need much more for this kind of life.”