The five day laborers were huddled over some dice and coins they’d tossed on the asphalt of a Home Depot parking lot in Westlake. They were passing the time on a late afternoon, after another fruitless day waiting to be hired.
I asked them about another day laborer, Manuel Jamines, who was holding a large knife when he was shot by police just a block away. The shooting led to a near riot and ongoing protests, and I’d come to the neighborhood to get a feel for what was happening.
As luck would have it, the laborers were from the same region as Jamines: the Guatemalan departamento, or province, of Sololá.
“He was trying to make some money for his family so that he could educate his children,” said a laborer named Diego, who spoke of Jamines’ circumstances in Spanish with a distinct Mayan accent.
“All of us guatemaltecos here have hurt in our hearts,” Diego said. “Who doesn’t want to go home? If we had something to take back — $3,000, $4,000 — we’d return.”
Jamines got drunk on the weekends and was very drunk on the morning he was shot and killed, according to police and family members. The laborers I met knew him only in passing. But they were intimately familiar with the sort of life he lived as a Maya illegal immigrant in the midst of California’s economic collapse.
The most talkative among them, a 29-year-old man named Hamilton, explained how he and other Maya have found themselves trapped in an L.A. limbo.
Hamilton now lives in the center of L.A.'s Maya community, amid the aging brick tenements of the Westlake district. It’s a grim cityscape dominated by gang graffiti and stores selling plastic toys and discount clothing.
He spent the first 27 years of his life in the town of San Pedro de la Laguna, which sits alongside the cool waters of Lake Atitlán, in a vast highland valley surrounded by three volcanoes. Patches of corn cover the hillsides like a quilt. For American and European backpackers, it’s a vision of paradise on Earth.
Hamilton made handicrafts to sell to the tourists — bamboo flutes and figurines crafted from coconut shells. He wanted something more.
So he borrowed $5,000 to pay an immigrant smuggler — money he has to repay with 10% monthly interest. As a guarantee, he gave a loan shark the deed to his family home. “No one gets here for free,” he said.
Listening to him, I thought: That’s insane. Why subject oneself to usury in Guatemala, to the possibility of being kidnapped and held for ransom by a Mexican smuggler, of being deported by U.S. authorities, to look for a job in a city where even the locals are down on their luck?
Hamilton’s now in a lonely purgatory after giving up a rural heaven where — despite impoverishment — he lived surrounded by family members and natural beauty.
In L.A., he sees the trappings of an affluent society — skyscrapers, luxury SUVs humming past the parking lot on Wilshire Boulevard. But for him there’s only the rare job, at $7 or $8 an hour.
At that rate, it can take an immigrant from Central America more than 600 hours of work to pay off just the principal of the debt to a smuggler — if he can get regular work, that is, and live very cheaply otherwise.
“Over there people say there’s a lot of money over here,” Hamilton said. “But not everyone has the same luck.”
Manuel Jamines’ family members say he didn’t drink in Guatemala. He started, they say, when he got here.
In Guatemalan slang, Jamines was a bolo, a public alcoholic. Overpowering a bolo should have been easy for police, the laborers said.
“The officers could have knocked him down with one of their batons, or with electricity [a Taser], and taken him to prison, or deported him,” Diego said. Instead, Jamines was killed. “If this is such an elevated country,” he asked, “how could something like that happen?”
Word of the killing soon spread. And for the next several nights many immigrants joined street protests against the police.
The demonstrations were instigated in part by a small group of activists who’ve papered the neighborhood with fliers attacking the LAPD and the Latino officer who fired the shots. They say the shooting and other such incidents are symptomatic of an anti-immigrant climate in the city. Making those arguments to the day laborers is like pushing at an open door.
“This place is going to explode,” said another Guatemalan laborer, whom I found sitting on the steps of a nearby apartment building with a Mexican friend from Veracruz. “The police know they did something wrong. They’re not here on their bikes anymore. They’re only going by in their patrol cars.”
The man from Veracruz said he didn’t have a crushing debt to pay. He could go back home, but for one powerful thing: pride.
He’d come expecting jobs that paid up to $15 per hour. Now he can’t go back and face his family empty-handed. “I still haven’t met my goal,” he said.
He was taking a sip from a can hidden under his sweater. After a few minutes, I could smell the alcohol.
There was no drinking at the hiring site where I found Hamilton, Diego and the others speaking in their native Mayan language, Tz’utujil.
Hamilton also spoke perfect Spanish and passable English. He’s a young man with smart eyes. If he ever goes back to Guatemala, he’ll share what he’s learned here in L.A., I think, and help make life better for his community on that mountain lake.
He’s hoping to make it back safely — not like the cousin who died in L.A. some years back and returned home in a coffin.
“That’s the most expensive trip,” he said with a dark laugh. “Because it costs something like $10,000 to ship your body back…. And you don’t even get a chance to see your family.”