They build our homes, landscape our yards and harvest the produce we find in our grocery store aisles. Migrant labor fuels our economy, in Seattle and across the country, yet these 13 million workers, the majority traveling from Latin America, remain largely a statistic.
The image of American labor has undergone a dramatic shift in the last half century. Gone is the portrait of the earth-bound worker captured most dramatically by photographer Walker Evans: begrimed and sun-scorched from long hours in the fields, working with one's hands reaping the harvest. Manufacturing jobs have fled abroad, where cheaper labor is outsourced to unregulated markets. If you work with your hands in the United States, it's more likely you pour coffee than pick the bean.
The steady, 40-hour-a-week jobs have shifted from being dominated by the agriculture and manufacturing industries to jobs dealing primarily with the service and information industries. While Americans used to wear out the soles of their shoes and the knees of their work jeans, they now are more likely to develop repetitive use injuries from prolonged keyboard punching and weight problems from inherently more sedentary work.
However, traditional forms of labor haven't disappeared: they've simply shifted to a new demographic, a growing population of immigrants that has the time and the drive to get the work done. Strong bodies and quick hands are still essential for America's economy to function, and statistics from the United States Bureau of Labor back this notion. Two-thirds of all U.S. jobs today do not require any formal education or experience, according to D.E. Hecher's 2001 analysis of the Bureau of Labor's statistics published in the Monthy Labor Review. Hecher's work also found that two-thirds of all new jobs over the next 10 years will require limited skills and education.
Seattle's CASA Latina is the face of this new American Labor Force. The non-profit organization formed in 1994 to provide English-as-a-second-language courses to Spanish speakers at the Millionair Club in Belltown. In 1999 CASA expanded its mission by organizing the hopeful workers soliciting jobs on Western Avenue and opening a worksite near the Alaskan Way Viaduct's northern terminus. Here, and at their 220 Blanchard St. administrative office, CASA serves an ever-growing population of day laborers. They are predominently Latin American men who have immigrated here to take advantage of an unfilled need for blue collar labor.
According to CASA Latina's Executive Director, Hillary Stern, America's dependence on temporary labor, whether it's a one-day cleanup gig at a housing development or a six-month stint on a farm, has increased with the popularity of corporate downsizing and outsourcing. The bottom-line benefits to those individuals and organizations who tap CASA's resources are obvious: no health care costs, wage increases or long-term conflicts to deal with. If you don't like your temp worker, get another one.
Living in such a constant state of flux has created a hard working, highly mobile and resilient labor force.
Fields of hard dreams
Immigrating to work in a land of strangers is America's original school of hardknocks. It dates back to the 15th century and Europe's first stabs at colonizing the "New World." One successful graduate is Daniel Anguiano, 43, who coordinates the CASA Latina worksite.
He first crossed into the United States through Arizona's unforgiving Sonoran Desert at 17 with a small group of friends and no money to survive. They immediately found financial relief in the Southwest's small farming towns. The young friends discovered field workers were in high demand to pick North American grocery store staples such as tomatoes and lettuce.
The language barrier posed no problem to the young men, for Anguiano said only Latin Americans worked in the fields. In fact, he noted that many of the farmers were Latino's themselves. This Spanish speaking network of laborers and employers stretched through the West Coast states, a network Anguiano says is still in place today. He pointed to the Latino dominated agricultural fields of Yakima as proof.
"When you get here and you've got no money, [the farm bosses] lend you $20 to get all your stuff," said Anguiano, who noted that most of his fellow workers spent the money on food or, less often, on clothing.
Althought the pay was low, often less than minimum wage, paying off this initial debt was usually no problem. The workers lived a stripped-down existence in barracks-style buildings on or near the farms. Many of these places held around 100 workers, who slept in bunkbeds lining the rooms. Anguiano said the feel in such places is communal with their sleeping arrangements, common kitchen areas and community rooms featuring televisions.
"I didn't speak English because I was always with Spanish people in the camps," said Anguiano, who taught himself English only five years ago.
A typical day in the fields clocked in between 10 and 14 hours for Anguiano, depending on the crop and the boss. Like most of his fellow immigrants, he sent money back home every few weeks. Eventually he found himself consistently sticking with field work around Oregon City, Ore., for 10 years.
For six weeks, Anguiano would harvest strawberries until their run was done. Then, he would pick in the cucumber fields for three to four weeks before moving on to the grape fields for a two to three week harvest. Then he moved on to tree pruning, but once this was over the agricultural fields shut down for the winter season. Sometimes the cycle of work lasted from five to six months, with no days off.
"Then you have to go somewhere," Anguiano asserted. "You go back to your country, or you go to the city. Those are the options."
Braving the city
With the harvest in and the jobs used up, workers were forced to ready their walking boots for more roaming. Anguiano said many of the people he knew from the camps did not want to try their luck in the big cities. He said they felt intimidated by the urban environment and it's seeming lack of immigrant cultural cohesion, and they're right, to a certain extent.
Traveling from town to town looking for work is, by and large, a solo adventure for those who decided to stay in the United States. However, Anguiano said there are a lot of Spanish speaking laborers on the road during and after harvest season. They have a natural, survivalist's tendency to group together and help one another get job leads, find safe shelter and food, and wash up to look presentable for prospective employees.
A good example of such adaptable tenacity is Juan Martinez. His luck has been extremely good with the daily raffle held at CASA Latina's worksite: Martinez landed not one but two steady jobs through the organization. Such is his belief in CASA that, with a week off from his regular gig landscaping athletic fields for the Edmonds School District, he's come back in the hopes of picking up a day or two of temporary work.
Martinez, a youthful 29-year-old who seems to hold quiet power in his compact body, said he appreciates the opportunities offered at CASA Latina.
"It's a good place," he said. "There's a lot of help up here."
The raw outline of Martinez's life story is typical of many CASA Latina workers. Born in Culiacan, a small town near Mazatlaan in the state of Sinaloa, he first came to the United States in 1988 when he was brought to Los Angeles by his uncle. He was 12 years old. Martinez, however, said he didn't like the big city - "a tough life," he said, "too crowded, too many drugs and too much violence" - so after a couple of years he struck out on his own.
From 14 to 16, Martinez held "a pretty good job" harvesting watermelons and onions in Bakersfield, Calif. This is perhaps the most common experience of Latin American immigrants first arriving over the United States' southern border at federal portals Tijuana and Mexicali.
Throughout the agricultural belt of the West Coast - from California thorugh Oregon, Idaho and here in Washington - exist ample opportunities for seasonal migrant labor. Harvesters in Washington employ temporary teams of immigrants, assembled in quick order, for reaping everything from cherries and apples in the Wenatchee Valley to the regions of Omak and Chelan for the baby's breath, a popular accoutrement in dried and fresh floral arrangements.
From northern California Martinez made his way to Seattle, arriving here in the early 1990s. He said he used to stand on First Avenue, just a block up from where CASA Latina now resides, holding a sign that said: "I need a job."
Martinez left town for a while, and when he came back in 2002 CASA Latina was in operation. He credits the organization with helping him get on his feet. CASA aids immigrants in getting their papers in order, he said, in finding housing, landing permanent jobs, learning English.
"You've got a lot of choices here if you want to work," Martinez said, but ultimately he said everyone who signs up with CASA wants steady work. "It's what they're looking for. It depends on your luck. It depends on your skills."
Becoming street savvy
Angel Muñoz, 22, works two jobs. For the past two years or so, he's been running the dispatcher's clipboard at the CASA worksite from 6 a.m. to noon, six days a week, a gig that requires he get up at 4 a.m. to catch a bus from his studio apartment in White Center. After he's finished disbursing and tracking workers at CASA, he catches another bus to an office job that he works 1 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Munoz - who, like many young Latin American men, has adopted the hip-hop style of baggy blue jeans and loose-fitting sweatshirts, a ubiquitous pair of headphones woven through his shag haircut - first came to the United States from the hacienda San Miguel Regala at age 16; he made the trip solo.
"I always take a trip by myself," Muñoz said. "I want to know other places, other countries. To make something for myself."
Prior to living in Seattle, he worked construction for two years in Colorado, did a stint in Vancouver, B.C. - "that's where I learned to speak English," he said - and California. He's got family spread throughout the country - in Phoenix, Chicago, New York, Minnesota - as well as two sisters back in Mexico to whom he sends money every month.
When Muñoz moved to Seattle, he started off hanging out in the Pike Place Market; it was a friend there who told him of CASA Latina. He joined the worksite's labor pool, and kicked around for eight months before being chosen to train for an assistant foreman position. "I never got lucky in eight months," Muñoz said of CASA's raffle. However, the one time his number came up, he was picked for a five-month stint on a remodeling crew.
Muñoz said the first order of business for CASA Latina staff is to get patrons on their feet, to "find a job for one, two days." He tells people interested in finding work to "just show up" at the Western Avenue site.
"It's a place where [we] can help you," Muñoz said.
However, Javier Alonso Salas Buenrostro notes that the very nature of CASA Latina's system is transitory - only a first step in creating a new life.
"It's not a way to really make a living," said Buenrostro, a lean 20-something whose chiseled features, close-cropped hair and wire-rimmed glasses bring to mind the severe and intelligent features of the 19th century leftist academic. "It's not a stable living."