Monday, June 22, 2009

Closer to the Hispanic Laborer

This house renovation project is bringing me closer not only to hard physical labor, but the danger involved in living as a Hispanic person in the United States. I learned today that one of the men that are working on our house was arrested last Thursday night. He was stopped at a traffic checkpoint and was arrested because the name on the registration for the vehicle was not his own. These traffic checkpoints are set up randomly throughout the city to check people’s license and registration. Apparently they are randomly far more likely to be positioned in Hispanic communities. In several instances these simple traffic stops result in people being deported, legitimately or not. The man working on our place was fortunate. He is here legally and was given the latitude to prove that. Despite his ability to do that, he still had to spend the night in jail while his status was verified in consultation with ICE – Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (I will simply mention that he was at work on Friday.)

One of the men, on their last project, was shot and robbed on his way home one evening. Another of them, during that same project, was held up at gun point, beaten and robbed. These are the daily experiences of random Hispanic men that I now know. Apparently Hispanic men are the targets for theft and assault because criminals know that they are often paid in cash and, because of their status, cannot call the police. Not only are the men terrorized, I’ve learned recently that Hispanic women attempting to cross the border are extremely likely to be raped by whatever men they encounter. The violence against them is fueled by the same knowledge of their powerlessness.

In addition to the daily street violence, they are confronting a raging anti-Hispanic sentiment in the country at the moment. It is driven in part by the poor economy and the idea that Hispanic workers are stealing jobs from willing American workers or undercutting the wage rate for legitimate services provided by Americans. It is also fueled by people like Lou Dobbs who is encouraging vigilantism and going to the border of ethnic cleansing in his zeal to rid the country of illegal Hispanic immigrants. Hispanic people are being arrested by the hundreds per week in Cobb and Gwinnett Counties here in Georgia and by the thousands across the country in ICE raids on factories where large concentrations of them work. The mantra seems to be – arrest them all and we’ll sort out their status later.

I am struggling to consider what it must feel like to be one of these men – here, in the United States, separated from their wives and children, working non-stop, without complaint, under extremely difficult conditions to improve the lives of American people who in turn spit upon them. How does this man, who is ultimately working for me, feel when I ooh and ahh about how phat he is making my house and then he goes home and is nearly deported because Georgia doesn’t want his kind to be here?

My wife and I passed by a Home Depot one day and a pickup truck with two white men drove up to the long line of Hispanic day laborers who post up there. A whole set of the men dashed to the truck to be first for an opportunity. As soon as the men were close, the truck peeled off with the white men laughing and yelling, “Look at those bastards run!”

I am seeing in these Hispanic men the dignity and quiet fortitude that American black people have been singing about themselves forever. I do not see the lessons that black Americans supposedly taught the nation about acceptance, equality and justice being extended to these newest Americans. Unfortunately, I also do not see black Americans themselves extending an arm of understanding, support or encouragement. I am sure that in the end this group of Hispanic Americans will end up teaching us how to be Americans again. When they are finally able to stand up straight and not be subject to American indecency they will greet us.

Hola amigos, Buenos dias.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Beginning to Think About Work

My wife and I are renovating our house. These days in America that appears to mean contracting with a white man who oversees the work of Hispanic men. That is what we’ve done. Our contractor oversees the work of Hispanic men but, he has distinguished himself in that he works alongside them. He does not oversee the work of several crews on multiple projects breezing between them in a spotless, scratchless Chevy Silverado. Since we have been in Georgia he is the very first white man – or any man for that matter – that I have seen working directly alongside Hispanic men, swinging the hammer shoulder to shoulder in the blazing sun. His truck is scratched up and dusty and they ride together to and from Lowes hauling materials. His love of the work and of craftsmanship is laudable, but his sense of humanity and equality among men is remarkable. Watching these men work has made me think deeply about the dignity of work and our attitude towards the so-called Hispanic laborers.

This experience has brought me closer to hard physical labor than I have ever been. It has reminded me that I work in a profession of the mind. The heaviest thing I might pick up in a day is my full cup of hot chocolate. Even that is lighter after the first sip. These men put out extraordinary physical effort each day in the searing heat and then come back and do it again.

Our plan is to knock off the roof and attic of the house, raise it and rebuild it with two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. One day an enormous flatbed truck pulled up with all of the materials necessary to rebuild the floor system, all of the 2x4’s necessary to frame the entire upstairs structure and all of the rafters to hold up the roof. The flooring system is a set of nearly 50 I-joists each of which is approximately 30 feet long. The rafters to hold up the roof are solid pieces of 2x10” wood each of which is approximately 20 feet long. There were 118 rafters. Then there were hundreds of 12’ long 2x4’s. The guys from the truck used a mechanical lift and dropped all of this material on the street in front of our house.

While our contractor is righteous, he is also much older than his Hispanic crew so he left the lifting to them. These three men carried every scrap of that material to the back of the house by hand. It was thousands of pounds of wood. Each 20 foot long rafter weighs nearly 100lbs. They used cut up pieces of carpet as cushions for their shoulders. They had to pick up each piece from the middle in order to balance it on their shoulders. They had to walk through a muddy garden, navigate between two houses with only 7 feet between them, go up an ivy-covered embankment and then walk all the way across the back yard. Each man had to do this about forty times. I don’t know how many hundreds of 2x4’s there were, but two of them would carry 12 at a time up the same difficult path and the third man would carry six at a time by himself. Then there were the floor joists.

They began this work at 8:30 in the morning and continued until it was done at nearly 5 in the evening.

After they had gone I went to try to pick up one of the rafters which were stacked in three waist-high piles. I consider myself fairly strong, but it was a strain to pick it up. Once I got it on my shoulder I felt my lower back and stomach muscles trembling with each other trying to balance the weight. I didn’t even attempt to carry it from the street.

The following morning I saw one of the guys promptly at 8:30 as usual. He smiled as he always does.

“Hola amigo. Buenos dias.”