On the fringe

Camilo Jose Vergara is a photographer and 2002 MacArthur Foundation fellow.

Of all the big cities in the United States, Los Angeles is the one where the mattress and furniture recyclers, the bottle and can collectors, the food vendors and other street hawkers are most ubiquitous.

Their workshops -- where they repair the items they’ve salvaged, do piecework for sweatshops, make pinatas to sell to variety stores or craft mantelpieces to sell to their neighbors -- are often in rented garages or in their backyards.

Driven by the need to survive, these fringe workers -- often young Latino immigrants -- work at their own pace, setting their own schedules and acting as their own bosses.

In my experience, they get little respect from more fortunate immigrants, who often see street vendors and recyclers as a drag on the image of their community.


Once, when I showed some of these portraits at a conference in Monterey, a Mexican American graphic designer in the audience counseled me not to show them again, asking: “What are the gringos going to think of us?” At an exhibition of my work on the L.A. barrios, a visitor suggested that I should have included portraits of doctors, lawyers and priests, lest people get the impression that the entire community is down and out.

Yet the fringe workers I met seemed proud, friendly and independent. One of them, a mattress recycler named Eric, told me to ask the president of the United States to approve his residency in this country because of his contribution to “cleaning the city.” The fringe workers of today are the equivalent of the Italian ragpickers, Jewish pieceworkers and Greek newsboys Jacob Riis photographed in the New York City of the 1890s. If, today, the descendants of those workers could see photos of their long-gone, raggedy ancestors, they would not be ashamed of their poverty but instead would give them a place of honor in their homes.

This Labor Day, let’s celebrate the workers on the fringe of the American economy. They would be the first to be surprised.