Hansen: Working in the shadows

On any given day, a couple dozen Latinos wait on a dusty strip of dirt on Laguna Canyon Road, hoping for work. Most support families back in Mexico. They will be lucky to work one day a week.

The recession has taken a toll on nearly everyone, including those in the Day Labor Hiring Center.

"I'm paying for two families," said Jose Villaseñor, 58, who has lived in the U.S. for 21 years and has four children. "I work maybe one day a week, maybe no work, no nothing."

Villaseñor gets up at 4 a.m. and takes two buses from Santa Ana to get to Laguna by 6 a.m., when the work center hands out lottery numbers. In an effort to avoid a free-for-all, the lottery system tries to more fairly distribute work.

"We're a barometer," said David Peck, chairman of the South County Cross-Cultural Council, which runs the site. "Before the recession, about 50% got jobs working two to three days a week. Now, it's maybe one to two days."

On Monday, there were 25 guys vying for work, but only four got picked up.

For Villaseñor, the long days without work are taking their toll. He's trying to hold out for retirement.

"Six days I got to take the bus," he said. "Sometimes I don't have any money to take the bus. Too much problem."

Two years ago he had a "real job" for a construction company as a framer, but the company folded, laying off 465 people. He made $600 a week.

"That was good, but no working here, no making money," he said. "I gotta eat. What do you eat? Tortillas? No beans? No carne? No pollo?"

Villaseñor appears older than his years. It's obvious he's had a rough working life. His tiredness looks permanent. His teeth need work. He doesn't have insurance.

"No insured, no nothing," he said. "My wife, I got to help. Kids is small ones — they got to eat. I got to pay rent, $500."

Most of the workers share rooms.

"A lot of guys are living five to six in an apartment," Peck said.

Irma Ronses, who has managed the day-to-day operations of the center since its opening 11 years ago, tries to help those she knows haven't worked in some time.

She also avoids political issues.

"I'm not allowed to ask if they are legal or illegal," she said.

No one likes to admit it, but most are illegal. According to a seminal 2004 National Labor Day Survey, 80% of California's day laborers are undocumented.

"On average, day laborers find work two to three days a week, although they look for work five days a week," the report said. "Despite a relatively high hourly wage of about $11, average weekly earnings are only around $260, mainly because of the low average number of hours worked per week — about 23."

What makes these numbers significant is that California has about 25% of the entire U.S. illegal immigrant population, nearly twice that of any other state.

The majority of these immigrants have families they support in Mexico, making it a multibillion industry. In 2005, the World Bank said that the amount of money sent from Mexican workers in the United States to their families in Mexico was more than $18 billion.

Interestingly, the goal of most workers is to get back home. Some have already left. For others, it's too dangerous because of the drug wars. The gangs will demand either allegiance or death.

As an alternative, the immigrants would like to bring their families here, but the crossing is too risky and expensive.

Meanwhile, the Laguna work center is like a haven. All say it's the best setup in the area, by far. They feel safe here.

"It's good," said Villaseñor. "I get paid good money but no job every day."

In the six months he's been coming to Laguna, his longest stretch of work was three days in a row. The rest has been a day here or there, sometimes just for a few hours.

"That's sad. No more work," he said.

"We're the lonely hearts club," joked Peck, who has seen his share of daily disappointment. "We see indications things are picking up."

Peck tries to take the long view, recognizing that day laborers will always be needed and that they make up an important fabric of a local community.

"This is democracy in action and something that's been a part of our history," he said.

For the workers in Laguna, that history is now spent milling around most of the day, killing time by kicking a soccer ball or playing cards.

One highlight of the day is Rubin's food truck, which makes homegrown tacos with warm corn tortillas that taste straight out of Puebla. They rival any Laguna Beach restaurant.

The price? Two for $3.

American.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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