Day Labor Strains Aging “Jornaleros”
By Basilisa Alonso
The Bronx Journal Staff Writer
They line the street corners before the sun rises. They stand tall each and every time a possible employer drives by. Tired, overworked and underpaid, these are the day laborers of New York. A humble hardworking minority, and within that minority exists another group, an aging group of day laborers who have retirement approaching in the very near future.
Day laborers, or “jornaleros,” like many in the immigrant community, can’t receive government aid such as unemployment benefits. Many struggle to make ends meet. Some end up jobless and homeless.
Even after June of 2009, the official end of the recession, many American families still feel the impact according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. With more than seven million jobs lost since the recession began, many are still struggling to rebuild their economic lives. Minority groups, especially the African American and the Hispanic communities, have been hard hit by the recession.
Homero David is a short man, no taller than 5’4. His stare is somber, yet firm. Creases and wrinkles frame his dark sunken eyes. With a blue checkered shirt tucked neatly inside his khaki pants, the shine of his black shoes matches the shine in his slicked-back greying hair.
One could never guess that he is homeless. The giveaway: two very large plastic trash bags filled with empty cans by his side. The cans are David’s sole income. He estimates that he makes $6 to $8 a day, barely enough for one meal.
Luis Prestado, 44, an undocumented worker, has been working since he was six in his native country of Mexico. Currently, he does inventory and stock in an upscale restaurant in Greenwich Village. He says that once he hits retirement age, he will go back to Mexico.
“I have thought about it,” he says, in anticipation of the day when he gets too old to continue working. “For me it is about saving money, more money.” He believes that those who are older and homeless should have saved up.
Prestado like other undocumented workers, consider homelessness as a preventable calamity. He says saving money is important, particularly as workers approach “old age” and they are no longer able to “work like mules.”
Prestado believes it’s about “wanting to work.” He believes many undocumented workers change priorities once they are in the United States. “They allow themselves to succumb to the solitude they feel,” he says.
Many undocumented workers turn to alcohol, he explains, as a way to escape loneliness. Undocumented workers “should do something for themselves, not depend on other people,” he says.
Prestado’s belief that laziness begets homelessness is also a popular sentiment among the American public.
Though he is not homeless, Prestado says he has gone through hardships. When he first arrived in New York, Prestado says he worked as a fisherman in a fish market near the World Trade Center. After the 9/11 attacks, the store lost business and closed. He was unemployed for three months.
“That time was the worst experience I’ve had since I was here,” he says. The apartment he lived in was a tiny space with no windows. “I had to sleep with the roaches,” he says.
Homero David, a native of Peru, says he has a degree in chemical engineering from the University of St. Marcos. Like many Americans, he believed that with a college degree he would be able to succeed in life.
However, the reality of finding a job was extremely hard. This is especially true, he says, because he specialized in a narrow field where many people competed for limited positions. For a few years he worked with a chemical company and then as a factory manager, before arriving in New York two years ago.
At 59, he says it is difficult finding employment. He believes his age has been a problem in finding jobs that are typically taken by younger “jornaleros,” such as painting and construction. He had worked for about a month in a restaurant. After that he got another job in construction that lasted a mere 15 days. That was his last employment.
There is no eager wife and kids awaiting his return back in Peru. David is the oldest of six. He lived with his sister — his only relative in the U.S. However, when his sister decided to move he choose to stay behind.
Now he is homeless. The chemical engineer spends his nights in shelters. When rooms are not available, he sleeps in the subways. After collecting cans, he spends the rest of the day in a library browsing through books. Although it’s been decades since he stepped foot inside a classroom, he retains his scholarly attitude. “Education is the only salvation for humanity,” he says.
David is impressed by how much help is available. When possible, he receives most of his food from churches and shelters. “The worst experience is not knowing that there is help available,” he says. One night, as he was sleeping in the train, a stranger approached him and told him to go to a shelter on 30th Street in Manhattan. There, he found a place to sleep, a lot of information and help.
Although his situation seems bleak David still believes in the American dream. “I live well with the little I can get,” he says. “One is accustomed to living in shambles. Water and food is all that is really needed.”
Although many Americans blame undocumented workers, others sympathize with their situations.
One such person is a Manhattan mason and a Bronx native who delivers materials to a construction supplies store on 139th Street and Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx, a spot where many day laborers stand to get work. The mason, who does not want to be identified, believes that undocumented labor has a “positive effect.” He admires that some undocumented workers wake up at five in the morning and endure brutal weather, all for the prospects of a job.
He says they do hard jobs and he believes that the only reason people are upset is because they set higher standards in jobs such as construction. He says that undocumented workers only want to work and if others “want to work then they have to go get it.”
“Immigration reform is necessary,” the mason adds. His primary concern is that workers should pay taxes, he says, and the solution to that are fair reforms.
Julio Méndez, 50, a roof textile maker, stands on Bruckner Boulevard every day he can. He says that he currently has employment four days a week, all of which he gets from standing on the boulevard. But the other three days he goes back out, hoping for more employment opportunities.
Mendez asserts that “jornaleros” have not felt the recession, since “We don’t have papers.” Age also does not matter, he says, since employers view age as “experience.”
The selection process is degrading as a smiling Méndez described it with slight embarrassment. Employers walk around as if they are inspecting merchandise. When they are ready to choose “they point at you” and that’s the end of the selection process.
Mendez has been in the United States 10 years. He arrives at six in the morning and waits until noon. If no one picks him, he leaves — six hours standing out in the bare street in vain. But, he says it’s worth it when he does get work.
Luis Prestado believes homelessness is not bad luck. “It is a decision a person makes,” he says. He and others believe that losing a job and going on a downward spiral is completely preventable. Ironically, these workers are shunned from society, but they appear to hold a very strong American value: success is attainable if one works hard enough.
David, like Prestado and Mendez, are all optimistic and hopeful about the future. David reiterates what countless immigrants have believed. “America is indeed the land of opportunity.”