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Jornalero: Being a Day Laborer in the USA

Juan Thomas Ordóñez
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    The United States has seen a dramatic rise in the number of informal day labor sites in the last two decades. Typically frequented by Latin American men (mostly "undocumented" immigrants), these sites constitute an important source of unskilled manual labor. Despite day laborers' ubiquitous presence in urban areas, however, their very existence is overlooked in much of the research on immigration. While standing in plain view, thesejornaleroslive and work in a precarious environment: as they try to make enough money to send home, they are at the mercy of unscrupulous employers, doing dangerous and underpaid work, and, ultimately, experiencing great threats to their identities and social roles as men.Juan Thomas Ordóñez spent two years on an informal labor site in the San Francisco Bay Area, documenting the harsh lives led by some of these men during the worst economic crisis that the United States has seen in decades. He earned a perspective on the immigrant experience based on close relationships with a cohort of men who grappled with constant competition, stress, and loneliness. Both eye-opening and heartbreaking, the book offers a unique perspective on how the informal economy of undocumented labor truly functions in American society.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95996-5
    Subjects: Anthropology, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. A Brief Note on Language
    (pp. xix-xxii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    The last two decades have seen a dramatic rise in the number of informal day labor sites throughout the continental United States, to the point that they have become a ubiquitous presence in most of the country’s urban areas. Theseparadas or esquinas—as day laborers call them in Spanish—are usually inhabited by migrant Latin American men, mostly recent “undocumented” migrants, who stand on the curbside of outlying traffic corridors or in the parking lots of mega retail stores, waiting for someone to stop and hire them. In California, which has one of the highest number of undocumented migrants...


    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 21-30)

      The three chapters that follow comprise the central aspects of day labor as a form of employment in Berkeley. I describe the labor site and the people that transect it, address the ways in which labor works through weak ties of solidarity, and show the difficulties inherent in contesting employer abuse and other problems. This is a snapshot of what takes place in a small liberal city and does not necessarily reflect a typical corner in the United States. If anything, what I describe is a benevolent reflection of very harsh realities, which at the time of my fieldwork (2007...

    • 1 La Parada de Berkeley
      (pp. 31-56)

      The Berkeley informal labor site is a seven-block corridor in the western part of the city, near the freeway and marina. All along Hearst Avenue, from Ninth Street to Second Street, men stand on the curbs in small groups waiting for potential employers to drive up and offer them work. The site is only a block to the north of University Avenue, one of the city’s main streets.La paradabegins to suggest itself several blocks east of the site itself, on San Pablo Avenue, the main thoroughfare that brings the men to work from Oakland. Mixed into the diversity...

    • 2 Friendship and the Inner Workings of Day Labor
      (pp. 57-82)

      Standing on the corner for long hours, waiting for work atla parada, but also waiting for a phone call from apatrón, the men can spend days on end without getting a job. The street corner is a place of socialization where the men have a lot of contact with peers and where the relationships that arise are central to their lives. Yet, as with all other relations on the street, friendship is highly unstable. On the corner, jornaleros establish important personal and labor contacts and interact with one another at different levels, some very intimate. It took me...

    • 3 Abuse and the Absurd Bureaucracy of Small Things
      (pp. 83-110)

      Understanding the ins and outs of day labor involves more than outlining the inner workings of jornaleros’ networks and the mechanisms through which they succeed or fail to make ends meet. For marginalized “legal” and “undocumented” Latin American migrants, employer abuse and unjust treatment are the order of the day and regiment many of the decisions men make in relation to work. Almost everyone on the street has had trouble with apatrón, whether in the form of withheld wages, on-the-job accidents, or lack of rest, water, or protective gear for dangerous undertakings. Most jornaleros consider the frequency of abuse...


    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 111-122)

      Jornaleros, in a way, are always in the gray zone between social inclusion and marginalization, which ultimately affects every aspect of their life. In the following section I explore the social and physical space that day laborers inhabit, from their rented ramshackle apartments and houses to the racial/ethnic and even gender apartheid in which they inevitably end up inscribed and that they help perpetuate. Overcrowding, isolation, separation, and estrangement from families back home are the order of the day. Two elements are at the heart of these effects of migration. The first is part of the proces of racialization the...

    • 4 The “Other” among Others
      (pp. 123-147)

      Whatever the degree of social interaction on the street corner, much of a day laborer’s everyday experience is tied to what I can only describe as a constant and intimate state of siege. This is an effect of the conjunction of day laborers’ structural position within the Bay Area and their separation from family. In the United States, most of the men I met lived in crowded dwellings where they did not know their roommates well and where they many times dealt with the rowdiness and drinking that ensued by resorting to self-imposed isolation. Those with family members nearby seemed...

    • 5 Bittersweet Nostalgia, Sexuality, and the Body at Risk
      (pp. 148-170)

      As with other aspects of socialization, jornaleros in Berkeley deal with family tensions back home and the effects of separation through humor, often quite cruel, and conversations that depend on saving face on the street and not appearing week. All jokes taunt and at the same time address real sources of anxiety and desire that sometimes turn tongue-in-cheek banter into serious and heartfelt exchanges. What follows is an account of the preoccupations that jornaleros have as men, fathers, and providers, which accordingly deals with notions of masculinity and gender on multiple levels. I will not try to disentangle these notions,...


    • [Introduction]
      (pp. 171-182)

      Common assumptions about “illegal” immigration in the United States usually overemphasize people’s reasons for crossing the border—they are escaping poverty, looking to find better jobs, more money, and so on—and in a time of economic crisis, attribute dark intentions to migrants who, in truth, embody some of the moral premises the country is built on. A strong work ethic, individualism, and the search for opportunities open to people of all walks of life get turned into “taking American jobs,” abusing or cheating the system, refusing to embrace English, and the like. However, few people wonder about how living...

    • 6 Belonging
      (pp. 183-206)

      Interactions with peers, organizations, and other people shape the experiences of jornaleros in Northern California and give rise to particular perspectives among the men about the world around them. This “reality” emerges in the juxtaposition of the men’s personal histories—what they carry over from home and through migration—with the context in which they become inscribed when they establish themselves in the United States. On the street, the sense of reality is so distorted that the men appear worldly, well informed, and totally clueless all at once. Here I will address the elements that make up a day laborer’s...

    • 7 Terror and the May Migra Panic
      (pp. 207-228)

      No one on the corner except me went to the annual immigration march on May 1, 2008, but the following week seemed to promise the usual for jornaleros on the street. The day after the march, a Friday, I went tola esquinaand talked with Beto about what was going on. Work was scarce and he was worried about paying his bills and he did not want to borrow money from his cousins again. He had no luck that morning, so around noon we walked up to join in on free lunch at the church on Ninth Street. The...

  10. Conclusions
    (pp. 229-236)

    I spent a little more than a year in Berkeley after forcing myself out of the field, a fiction that was difficult to maintain because the men I had befriended continued to call and invite me out. Slowly but surely people started moving away, and even before I left the United States I lost touch with thetrillizos, Hernado, Iván and Chucho. Lorenzo’s mother died in Guatemala in 2010, and we became reacquainted for a few weeks, spending hours on the phone and in the San Francisco bars he liked so much. He was so distraught I thought he would...

  11. References
    (pp. 237-248)
  12. Index
    (pp. 249-281)