Looking for Employers
To survive, these immigrants offer their construction, mechanics, gardening and other services, and in many cases are assaulted not only by their attackers but by the employees.
If you enter the Northeast Tower Center parking lot in Philadelphia, any given week day, between eight in the morning and one in the afternoon, you will be truly surprised. You only need to advance a few meters before a small pack of men, mostly youths, lay into your car, as if they had found their long awaited idol in you.
From inside your vehicle you’ll see expectant faces, intense eyes that seem to plead instead of look at you, smiles that, at least for moments, will seem like grimaces.
They are not fans that have confused you with a celeb and that want your autograph. No. The young men standing there are laborers who stand there every day waiting for someone who will hire them, even for a few hours.
In the same system established for the women who stand on the public streets offering their bodies. Clients come in cars, state the types of services they need, reach a financial agreement, chose those they want for the job and take them with them.
Among the laborers, all of whom are immigrants, most are constructions workers, but one can also find gardeners, mechanics and cooks. Almost all of them do a bit of everything.
The laborer is a completely marginalized being. He/she lives and suffers in this country but it is as if they weren’t here. The laborer isn’t concerned about the occurrences, he/she lacks every right and expressions such as the land of opportunities or the American Dream lack any meaning for him/her.
Juan Carlos Muñoz, one of those who comes to the Northeast Tower Center is in his thirties. He arrived in Philadelphia three years ago from his country, El Salvador. He borrowed six thousand dollars to pay the “coyote” (human traffickers) who brought him here. He still owes two thousand. After the odyssey –repeated time and time again—of the hardships lived by the immigrants, he arrived in Philadelphia because “they told me that it was easier to find work up this way”.
For the first few weeks he unsuccessfully looked for work and when he was about to to to sleep on the street someone told him to go to where the laborers meet. Since then he goes to the Northeast Tower Center every day. When things go well he finds an “employer” for one, two and up to three days a week. There is rarely a fully week of work. But this way he is able to pay the weekly $70.00 to pay for the room he lives in; to eat something and from time to time send a bit of money to El Salvador.
“At least I have lunch covered for today”, he says taking a plastic bag with four pears out of his knapsack. He clarifies that a woman came by a while ago and distributed fruit among the laborers, something that is quite infrequent.
Ramón Febus, Mexican, is another one of those who comes to the Northeast Tower Center every day, even on Sundays. His story is also filled with hardship, beginning with the suffering he had to endure during his trip from Mexico. He recalls how the “coyotes” mistreated them and even rapped the woman that travelled with them. During the two and a half years that Febus has lived in Philly, he says that he has been attacked four times, something that has happened to almost all of his mates. Muñoz confirms this.
They affirm that there are gangs, many of them made up of Afro American or Puerto Rican youths that spend their time assaulting Mexicans and Central Americans. “The greatest danger is when we return to where we live during the afternoon, because they think we have money on us and they attack”, Febus and Muñoz say. And worse of all –as is usually the norm—laborers return home without a single cent. Febus remembers that a short while back the thieves came up to him and beat him because he had no money.
Laborers, however, are not only the victims of the street robbers. Some “employers” take them with them, force them to do hard work and don’t pay them. A short while back, as they stated, a man hired many of them for a demolition job. They were all very happy to have a job for one and even more weeks. But when the work was finished the man that hired them disappeared and every time they arrived at the site to look for him all they found was the site that they themselves had cleaned.
When asked why they don’t report the abuses they replied that justice did not exist in their case. After insisting that it did, they lower their heads, fix their eyes on the ground and move their heads from side to side, adding that though they wish they could report the man involved int eh demolition job, they can’t because they don’t know his name, address of anything.
Do you have wives, children?
Are they here or there?
But they immediately clarify that they “had” a wife. Muñoz affirms that his was disappointed because he sent so little money and interpreted this as a sign that he had another woman. He was told that his loving wife decided to replace him. He is not altogether sure about that but feels that when he calls her she is more indifferent each time. Febus does openly state that he wife is with someone else. Their greatest regret is that there isn’t enough money for them to drink a few bears to drown their tears.
There are days when up to 80 laborers meet at the Northeast Tower Center, they say. But lately the figure is increasing. It seems that even those who are citizens are going there. “Even a Chinese was here”, they say. It must be because of the crisis, I said.
“What crisis?” they ask
The economic crisis.
Muñoz reflects a while and then says “I don’t know what crisis you’re talking about because I have always been in a crisis”.
But now it’s even worse, I say, and he answers “for me things can’t be worse”
What do you think about Obama?
“Obama, Obama”, they both say the word and think as if trying to remember who he is.
Barack Obama, the new President, I insist.
“Oh, yeah”, Febus says, and adds, “we don’t know a thing about politics”.
But do you have hopes that there will be a reform to the immigration laws”
“We don’t know about that”, Muñoz says, while he yawns, showing his two gold teeth and his charro style mustache.
Are you guys aware of the daily news?
Muñoz speaks up again to say that he has a small TV that he got from someone that didn’t want it any more. Then he clearly says “All I care about are is the weather”.
Me too, Febus adds.
The weather report is very important for laborers. When days are warm and sunny the long days waiting for an unknown job are not that bad. But when it is raining, intensely cold, snowing, in addition to the hunger, weariness, and despair, that huge parking lot becomes an aggressive and painful place.
Muñoz says that he hardly sleeps because the nights are all the same. Without exception, they are the prelude to an infinite series of totally uncertain days. He gets up at five in the morning, leaves home at six, takes the bus that drops him off ten blocks from the meeting place. He walks that distance to save the two dollars in fare, says hi to his companions and newly awaits the uncertain “employers”.
If you had known that it would be this way before coming to the US, would you have come anyway?
Both say “no”, almost in unison.
Are you men of faith? Do you go to church?
Muñoz speaks up again to say that he went to a church but the Pasture was on a campaign asking for money for some work. One day the Pasture said that those who had given $100 were to stand on one side. Muñoz was the only one that didn’t to to that side. “The following Sunday only an old lady and I stood on the side of those who had not given $100. I didn’t return because I was ashamed”.
However, Muñoz says that every night, before going to bed, he kneels down and asks God to help him.
What do you ask for?
“To grant me the miracle of finding a steady job, even for one year. I want to make enough money to go back to my country”
Do you think things will be better there?
“At least I won’t be alone, or as sad. And winters won’t be as hard”. “The same goes for me”, says Febus, while he accommodates the worn cap with which he intends to protect himself from the cold.