.The Gritty Life of a Day Laborer

The story of Fidel Antonio.

Day laborers are pretty much taken for granted, as they wave at cars passing the sidewalk where they look for work near Home Depot or the local lumberyard. What road brought them to their street corners, far from their families in Mexico and Central America? What do they do if they don’t get hired — where do they live and how do they eat? Fidel Antonio makes a living, barely, from jobs gained on the sidewalk near Truitt & White in Berkeley. He lives in Oakland’s Fruitvale, and every day takes a bus to this street corner hiring hall. He told his story to me in Spanish and the following is my translation of it.

In the state of Morelos, my family was very poor, living just from one day to the next. My father had no land of his own, so landowners would rent him land. But he was a very hard man, and would fight with them, so then we’d have to move. Later he had asthma, which kept him from working at all.

Sometimes we didn’t have enough to eat. My mother tells me that she would make a soup with two eggs and some vegetables, and make it stretch so it would feed the whole family. She’d have to borrow tortillas from the neighbors to eat with it. Or if there wasn’t enough corn for the tortillas, she would combine corn with sorghum to make them. That would satisfy our hunger, and maybe we’d have some left over for the following day.

In many little towns, especially up in the mountains, people still live this way. They don’t have enough money even to buy beans — just enough for tortillas to eat with salt.

We had no money to buy beef or pork. Ironically, today I consider it a sin to eat meat, but at that time I was ignorant. When my mom would say that someone had given us a present of meat, we’d be really happy.

There were six of us kids and we all had to help so we would have enough to eat. I would often go and cut wood, and then bring it to a tortilleria or a bakery in the nearest town. I’d bring home 15 or 20 pesos. My sisters would go door to door among the neighbors, offering to wash their clothes or grind their corn to make masa. My older brothers looked for work in the fields. At the end of the week they’d come home with whatever they’d earned, and maybe a little fruit or vegetables as well.

I just went to primary school, and even that was a sacrifice. As we got older, little by little we all left for the city to go out on our own. We wanted a new way to live. I was thirteen when I left to go to town to learn a trade. By then my father and mother had separated.

In the nearest town I’d chop wood, wash cars — whatever honorable work I could find. I went to Salina Cruz, a nearby port city, where I loaded and unloaded ships. There were lots of young people like me — living on the streets, looking for work by the day or week. It was like being a day laborer here. I began to eat better and would even go to restaurants.

In those days I didn’t lead a very spiritual life. I didn’t have much discipline. I met women with a lot of experience, who’d had adventures before I came along. But these relationships didn’t last. I was young and poor, and that’s not what they were looking for.

Finally I got together with a woman for ten years, and we had three children.  A lot of companies from the US and Korea were building factories where I lived, especially for clothing. They had a lot of jobs for women on the sewing machines. I understood hydraulics and industrial mechanics, so I got work, too, but the pay was very low. 

When I was still living with the children’s mother, and working in the factory, we ate pretty well. We had meat twice a week, beef once a month, and salads, as well as beans, rice, pasta, and vegetables. She made corn tortillas at home. I told her, I don’t care what I eat myself, but I want the children to eat well, so they’ll grow the way they’re supposed to.

I was 32 when I came to the US the first time, in 1998. The violence and crime in Mexico was getting worse, and work was getting harder to find. My brothers said getting there might be hard, but it would be worth it because I’d earn more. A better future, right?

I came here to earn money to help my family at home. My kids are getting older now, but they still need my help. That’s the main reason I’m here. I don’t want them to live the same kind of life I had when I was a boy. At first I was sending money home quite often because I found a lot of work. But their mother didn’t use the money well, and the kids weren’t getting a good education. We had a lot of disagreements about it, and finally ended our relationship.

I’ve gone back to Mexico every two or three years to see the children since then, to see if they’re being brought up well. The oldest one is seventeen now, the next is fifteen, and the youngest is thirteen. I stay with my mother or brothers, since I don’t have a house of my own. Then the kids come over to my sister’s house, which is where we see each other.

I went to New York because I had brothers there. There was a lot of work in clothing and construction, and the rents were not too high. I often had five or six full days of work a week, and I was making enough to send money home. Some days I’d do carpentry. Other days I’d lay tile, or do roofing or put up siding. I have skills and experience. I can operate machinery and use surveying tools. They even had me read plans.

In New York I was working by the day, not by hours. I was making $130 a day. Sometimes, if I was working for someone who valued my experience, I’d make $170 a day. I was getting work on the street, on the sidewalk by Home Depot. Once the contractors got to know me, when they had work they’d come looking for me.

Sometimes, a boss would treat me to lunch, and we’d have hamburgers, but I always preferred Mexican food. Hamburgers have too much grease and cholesterol, and the meat has often been refrigerated for a long time. Sometimes, restaurants mix bad meat in with other meat.

I ate in restaurants because I didn’t like to cook. I’d get home from work really tired, and it was easy to get a taco or burrito and take it home. Sometimes, I’d get food from the trucks. They’re restaurants, too, just ones that move from place to place. The food there is cheaper, and I was always looking for the economical way to do things.

But as time passed, the situation in New York got worse. There was a lot more competition for work. Thousands of people were arriving from South America, especially Ecuador, and they had a big impact. Among those of us looking for work as day labor, we’d agreed we wouldn’t work for less than $120 a day. But the new people would work for $80 or $90. They’d get the jobs, even though we’d been living longer in New York.

After a while I didn’t have the money to eat in restaurants anymore. I’d eat in the churches where they gave away free meals. Sometimes, those churches would have their preferred people, and if you were Mexican or Central American, they’d give you a third of what they’d give to people born here. Sometimes, they’d even take boxes of food and sell it.  But at least I would get something — some potatoes or beans I could take back and prepare in my room.

I began to think it wasn’t really a good idea to live in New York anymore. It was a great city, but there were a lot of bad people. Then one night I was out with friends, and we were attacked by a group of drunks, and I was beaten and robbed. My friends called the police but when they got there, they’d only listen to people who spoke English and were here legally. So I went to jail, and then got deported.

I was back in Mexico, but unfortunately I hadn’t saved any money. The kids’ mother was angry because I didn’t have any. We were all desperate because she hadn’t saved any money either. The children didn’t respect me, and I had no work. I began thinking that at least in the US I had a couple of days work a week and enough for rent and something to send home to the kids. So I decided to go back.

In total, I’ve come to the US four different times. I went back to New York, and then back to Mexico again. Then to Houston, then to New York again. I came to California for the first time in 2010. It was a hard time to look for work then, in December and January. I only stayed three months, and now I’ve been back for just the last three months.

I live in Oakland, but I look for work in Berkeley because it pays better. There are day labor places in the Fruitvale and in Alameda, but the contractors there just offer $8 or $10 an hour, and the work is often pretty heavy. Some expect you to work as hard as your body will do it, and even say something if you stop to get a drink of water. In Berkeley, they offer $15 or even $20 an hour, and the work is often easier, so a lot of day laborers who live in Oakland look for work in Berkeley.

In New York they’d pay you for the day, even if you only worked a few hours. Here they pay by the hour. I’d like to get $150 for a day, but often someone stops and they only want me for two or three hours. Some contractors pay $15 to $20 an hour, and better if they see you’re really interested in doing the job right. The trouble is that the job is often only two or three hours.

Right now I can only get two or three days of work a week. Last month I worked five hours on Tuesday, and the contractor paid me $75. On Wednesday, I worked six hours, but he didn’t pay me the $90. He paid for Tuesday, but not for Wednesday. He told me to wait until the following day, but on Thursday I was sick. I called him, but he got upset, and then refused to pay the six hours he owed.

I don’t know anyplace I can go here in California to collect that money. In New York I fought cases at the Labor Department, but you had to be owed at least $300 to make the claim. Here in California I’m only owed $90. I don’t know if they have a limit here, but the loss is still a loss, just the same.

There are a lot of bad people here. They say they’ll pay $15 an hour, but when the time comes they only give you $10. Sometimes they don’t pay you at all. They give you a little bit and say they’ll pay the rest the next week, and then they give you nothing. If you call the phone number they give you no one answers the phone. This is a really big problem. People don’t complain about it, because they’re afraid. The contractor has a license, and an advantage over someone with no papers who doesn’t speak English. When you’re working they say they like you, but when payday comes they say, “there’s the highway.”

In the course of a month I make $800 or $1000. I’m still sending $300 to $400 a month to my sister in Mexico, who’s taking care of my mother, and to my children, because they’re still young and can’t fend for themselves. Then I pay $250 a month for my rent here, and put in money for electricity and gas. I have to pay for transportation, which is about $5 or $6 a day for the bus. And then I have to pay for the food I eat.  The reality is that what I’m making doesn’t cover all of this. 

I have a room in this house, and a kitchen with a stove upstairs I can use to cook. There are days when I only have the food people give me. If I don’t work, I have no money to buy any. I cook cheap foods, like potatoes and spaghetti. I try to have a bag of rice or of cereal in my room. They’re easy to fix, and that’s what I make if I have no money.

If it wasn’t for the food program at the Multicultural Institute [in Berkeley], there would be days when I wouldn’t have anything to eat. But I always find people who have a good heart, like the people who live upstairs. They know I don’t have a permanent job, and there are others in the house who don’t either. Those who have permanent work say, “Look, we’ve made some food here. Please eat what you want.” We’re from the same place, and we help each other. So, thanks to God, that’s how we make it.

Sometimes we get to an extreme place where there’s not much food, but no one in this country suffers from real hunger the way people do in other ones. In some places people live in dumps and trash heaps, searching for something to eat. In the United States there’s actually an excess of food. I’ve seen how much food they throw out in restaurants, while people are going hungry. It shouldn’t be this way.

I don’t eat meat anymore, because if you do you become complicit in the killing of defenseless animals. In addition, eating meat isn’t good for your body. Fruit, vegetables, beans, rice, and wheat are better for you.  I began eating this way eight months ago. At first it was because I didn’t trust the meat, which is often old and who knows where it comes from. The Lord only speaks of eating fish and bread.

Then when I ate beef and saw blood coming out of it I would think of the way they kill animals, the cruelty of it. In my town in Mexico, they string a pig up by its feet, and then cut its throat with a knife. The animal just dies little by little. Animals have the right to live, just like us. They have life just like we do, and there are much healthier things to eat.

I go to the food program in Berkeley on Fridays, and I eat a meal there if I’m not working.  They give you a bag of food, which helps a lot. Sometimes, the food is a little strange to a Mexican, but it’s better to eat something than eat nothing. They also give us raw food, like rice and potatoes. That way you can prepare it in the way you’re used to.

Money comes and goes. I don’t have three bodies, so I don’t need three shirts or pants. A pair of shoes and something to wear is enough. Why would I want a house or a car? I won’t be able to take them with me. Why do I need a woman? When I leave this world, I’ll leave alone. Why identify with things that are just going to pass, that will not last? 

The same goes for food. The other Friday at the Multicultural Institute they gave me a plate of food. I thought, if I go and ask for more I’ll get full. But it’s like the devil is telling me to want more. The same thing happened when I went to get an apple and an orange. I knew a lot of people would be coming there who need food, so I just took what I could eat. But I saw other people filling up whatever bag they could. The people taking too much will never eat what they take. Some of it they’ll just throw away.

It’s not so important to me where I live anymore. My relationship with God is what’s important to me. If He wants me to eat I’ll eat. I don’t know if I’ll go back to Mexico or stay here in the US. I’ll go where God takes me. 


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