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Hitchhikers of the Labor Force : Day Workers Put Up With a Lot for a Comparative Little

Times Staff Writer

Marcos Chicuate Castro toes the curb, tracking the whizzing cars with a seasoned eye, flinging his right arm out when a truck passes or he catches a driver’s attention.

A white GMC truck pulls into the gas station across the street, and the driver lets out a shrill whistle. Castro and half a dozen other men sprint across the street to where the truck is parked.

Someone else gets the nod, and Castro crosses back to his spot at Kester Avenue near Victory Boulevard in Van Nuys. It is 8 a.m., and he has been on the lookout for a job for about half an hour.

Castro comes as often as six days a week to the site, which laborers call Las Piedras (The Rocks). Strangers pick him up and take him to building sites, homes and warehouses to garden, clean or paint.

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Hinges on Variables

Like thousands of other day laborers on Los Angeles streets, whether he gets picked up depends on many factors--such as the weather, the construction business, and his audacity and speed.

His earnings have ranged from $100 to $250 a week. But despite the fact that most people would have a hard time living on such meager wages, the 25-year-old Castro, in the United States illegally, is upbeat: “It’s a gold mine here. If you’re patient, you’ll be able to get something,” he said in Spanish through an interpreter.

Although he sleeps on the floor of a cramped apartment, has no car and longs for his family in Mexico, jobs are more plentiful in the San Fernando Valley than where he came from.

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Castro is tidy in black jeans, with two gold chains tucked inside a red pullover jacket; his mustache is neatly trimmed and he wears a baseball cap. He smiles sincerely when he has a job prospect.

Gumption, he said, is the key. As other workers told him when they introduced him to the day-labor system, “Whatever they tell you they need, you say you have experience doing it. When you get to the job, you watch the other workers, and you just do it.”

He looks at a woman who’s driven up to a liquor store and market along Kester, takes a hesitant step toward her, gets no response and retreats. “Sometimes it’s better if you approach them,” he said, because employers would be embarrassed to beckon someone who turns out not to be offering work.

A woman about 55 years old pulls up in a white Buick. She rolls down her window and smiles; the men, including Castro, surround her car. Three jump into the back seat. “Just need three,” she tells the others.

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Although about 10 prospective employers stop for workers on this day, Castro is not lucky enough to land a job. He calls it quits about 11:30 a.m.

But Castro is not worried. A few weeks ago, a North Hollywood resident who owns a refrigeration supply company hired him. Since then, he has been assembling refrigeration products and painting the man’s house for a few days each week. If employers like your work the first time, “sometimes they’ll come back and look for you,” Castro said.

Spurred by a breakup with his fiancee and dreams of seeing “Disneylandia,” Castro left the fishing village of Sinaloa and crossed into the United States in May, 1986. In Mexico, he was training to work for a fishing cooperative and lived with his fisherman father, mother and six siblings in a four-bedroom house.

He took a bus to Tijuana, where a coyote led him and three other men across the border to San Ysidro about 3 a.m. He and the others hid from the searchlights of U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service helicopters as they made their way north.

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One of the men had a friend in Panorama City, who let Castro stay at her home and invited him to help her sell marijuana. Castro said he did not know about day-labor opportunities and had looked for work, but employers kept demanding documentation. He said he finally agreed to peddle marijuana on Blythe Street. He made $200 to $500 a day.

Sent Money Home

He sent money home, telling his parents that he worked in a restaurant--and feeling guilty about the lie. In the summer of 1987, he was arrested by Los Angeles police, who found 6.2 grams of marijuana in his possession. Out on $5,000 bail, he returned to Mexico with a duffel bag of dresses, Reebok shoes and toys for his brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews.

In his village, though, he yearned to return to the United States. Los Angeles “is more of a rat race, but you can get what you want faster. . . . Right away, you can get all the things you need--TV, apartment.”

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He tried to cross back to the United States, got caught, tried again and succeeded in early 1988.

Still guilt-ridden about lying to his parents, he said he decided to give up drug dealing. New friends took him to Victory and Kester. His first day, he got a job mixing stucco at a Studio City house.

But in November, police recognized him on Blythe Street and hauled him in. He pleaded guilty to his prior felony drug charge, possessing marijuana for sale. After serving three months of his sentence, he was released on probation.

The conviction probably blocks any opportunity that Castro might have had to live in the United States legally, said Antonio Rodriguez, a lawyer at the Latino Community Justice Center in Los Angeles. But even without a criminal record, Castro may not have fit into a category that would have made him eligible for legal status--he has no relatives who are permanent residents or citizens, is not a farm worker, does not qualify for amnesty and has no specialized skill for which there are not enough American workers, Rodriguez said.

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But Castro said he paid $300 to someone he knows as “an attorney,” who told him it would take five months to obtain citizenship. The man told The Times that he was not an attorney but worked for one and refused to give more information. His phone has since been disconnected.

Prospects Dim

Castro did not seem worried that his prospects for citizenship are dim. He said he has paid for his crime and plans to continue going to Las Piedras to seek work.

The going rate along the street is $5 an hour, and Castro said he will work for less. But he and other workers said men who haven’t worked in a few days are desperate and will take whatever they can get.

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One homeowner, Castro said, wanted two men to clear away the torn-down walls in a Ventura Boulevard house that was being remodeled. Once at the house, the homeowner said he would pay each man $20 for an 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. workday.

“Can you imagine that? Two dollars an hour,” Castro said. The employer refused to pay more, drove them back to Kester Avenue in Van Nuys and picked up others, he said.

Sometimes Unpaid

Castro said he was once cheated on an asphalt repair job. The foreman said the boss would pay, but he never did. Castro said he is owed about $50. But, he said, taking the time to pursue the lost wages would mean a day away from the street and potential loss of more wages.

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When he’s not working or looking for work, Castro visits friends, strolls the Panorama City Mall or along Broadway downtown, or watches TV at home--a $475-a-month studio apartment in Van Nuys that he shares with an older man nicknamed “Tio” (uncle) and two teen-age boys. Castro said the teen-age brothers arrived from Ensenada two weeks ago and one of them--using false papers--recently landed a job. Castro and Tio have been splitting the rent.


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