Photo by Chris Ryan
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Ignacio Páramo held the large plastic bear above his head as 60 men crowded into a tight circle around him. He shook the bear and the blue tickets inside its clear belly tumbled around. "Blow in it for luck!" he said in quick Spanish, pushing the bear toward the day laborer next to him. The man blew, the tickets swirled, and Páramo drew one out. "Dos treinta y cuatro!" he shouted and a worker's arm shot up, lucky ticket in hand. He had won the chance to work that day.

A Place for Jornaleros

This raffle occurs every time a contractor shows up at Portland's new day laborer hiring site on NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. After months of heated debate and a $200,000 grant from the mayor's office, Portland immigrant worker rights group VOZ opened the center last Monday, June 16. It's a modest space, just a chain-link fence encircling a parking lot outfitted with a trailer office and Honey Buckets on the corner of a broad and busy street. But for day laborers, or jornaleros, the site is a major step toward improving their image and everyday lives.

During the early morning in this Northeast Portland neighborhood, groups of Spanish-speaking men usually cluster on street corners while waiting for landscapers or construction site managers to drive by and offer them under-the-table work. Nearby businesses have complained that the men left trash and drugs on the curbs, that their presence intimidated customers.

"Nobody knows what they're doing here—they just see a big group and don't know if they're drug dealers or what's going on," says VOZ Director Romeo Sosa, who himself was a day laborer decades ago. Now, Sosa is hoping jornaleros will register at the VOZ hiring site, where they are hired via orderly raffle rather than clambering into trucks. The site is about solving the practical problems of jornaleros: the lack of sanitation and safety of the corners and their chaotic scramble for jobs. But these small improvements, VOZ hopes, will eventually make big changes in the way other Portlanders view the men. Portland's Latino population has increased 34.5 percent between 2000 and 2006, according to census data, with an estimated 38,634 people in Portland now speaking Spanish at home. Sosa estimates that between 100 and 300 of those people work as day laborers, but for some Portlanders, day laborers' street-corner presence makes them the most visible portion of the population.

Sosa and VOZ hope Portland will see immigrant day laborers as people, not just workers, people with opinions, ideas, and histories like all American citizens. Among the crowd holding raffle tickets at the VOZ site during the first week of its opening were both legal and illegal Americans.

A Man from Honduras

René talked in a low, calm voice as he stood in the shade of a tree growing from the gritty pavement at the VOZ day labor site. He is 23 now and remembers the exact day he arrived in Portland: February 28, 2006. The city reminded him of the one he'd left behind a few weeks earlier, San Pedro Sula, Honduras, except for the Northwest's rain and the funny drinking fountains.

René grew up around San Pedro Sula, where his family made 100 pesos (about $5) a day working on farms. This was enough for what the family spent, living in a small two-room house and feeding six kids. René dropped out of school in sixth grade to work full time in the fields. It was hard to get ahead on those kinds of wages, though, so when he turned 20, René and a few friends decided to head north. The friends rode a bus from Honduras up through Mexico. At the border, they hired a "coyote" (a person who smuggles people across the border) who guided them through the Texas desert for four days. There they split up and René headed to Portland, where he had a place to stay with friends in a four-room house in Gresham.

"Life here is more calm, it's better," René said. Since arriving, René and his Gresham housemates have found work by waiting on street corners around inner East Burnside, jumping into bosses' trucks when one pulls up. "You can have fun because you're with the same guys every day, making jokes," he said.

But standing on the street corners can also be dangerous and frustrating.

"There's a lot of people hanging around who are up to no good," René says. René and his friends can't be sure the contractors will pay them what they promise—if at all. Plus, he says, "There's people who wander around drunk and make a bad impression on business owners." When the police show up to deal with the drunks, sometimes they write jornaleros tickets, too—those who don't scatter at the sight of cops. "Because of one person, we all pay," says René. "All the Hispanics."

When René gets back from the street corner or from roofing someone's house, he watches TV or plays guitar for a couple hours, falls asleep and wakes up at dawn to catch the bus back to MLK. As other Americans enjoy the weekend, René heads back to the corner—Saturday is the most reliable workday of the week. He takes Sunday off, though, and goes to church. Every month, he sends $300 to his family in Honduras.

The going rate at the corner is the same as at the day labor center: $10 an hour for unskilled labor like digging ditches or cleaning up a construction site. Though if a boss offers them less and René needs the work, sometimes he'll take a job for less.

"It's not worth it to fight for two dollars," he says, shrugging his shoulders. As it is, work can be sporadic. Some days he stands on the street corner from sunrise 'til afternoon, returning home empty-handed. He doesn't mind the random raffling of work at the center. "Sometimes you're lucky, sometimes you're not," he says.

René shrugs when asked about his future plans. Someday maybe he can get papers and a steady job. Someday maybe he will find a way back to Honduras, to buy a home and see his family.

"God willing, I'll be here for a year or two and then go back home," he says. "You never know."

A Man from Montana

The man with no front teeth introduced himself as Montana. His home state became his nickname when he started living on the streets here in Portland. While he's an English-speaking American, Montana is a migrant like René, looking for a job in his new city and lacking proper papers.

Like René, Montana grew up working in the fields. His parents worked on a sugar beet farm outside Billings, so Montana harvested sugar beets during the summers and full time after he dropped out of 10th grade.

"I smoked too much pot. I thought I knew it all," he says. Since then his life has been colored by addiction, rehab, and instability. The potential for a steady paycheck drew Montana to Portland two years ago. He worked as a prep cook for a restaurant downtown, but soon got into heroin and then started stealing.

Now, the only form of ID Montana has is a flimsy inmate identification card from Clackamas County Jail, where he served a month for theft. Above the sallow-faced photo on the card is Montana's full legal name, but showing potential employers an inmate ID is not the ideal way to secure a job. So Montana finds under-the-table work by standing on street corners. At night, he sleeps outside his methadone clinic.

"My methadone is 300 bucks a month, but it's a lot cheaper than heroin!" he says, smiling broadly. Montana is a perky guy, upbeat and optimistic. "I didn't think I'd be able to handle the city, but the people are really nice around here. They're like Montanans," he says, grinning as he talks about finding odd jobs around town. "I'd stand on the corner just down the street from here," he says, pointing past VOZ's chain-link fence to the I-84 overpass. "I thought I'd try coming here [to the center] a couple days."

Two weeks ago Montana roofed a church steeple with an incline so dangerous and protective gear so minimal that most guys walked off the job. Montana didn't care, he said, and in a few days made enough money to pay off his entire month's methadone bill. Next he cheerfully recalled the time a semi-truck hauling some kind of industrial waste (maybe lye, he thought, since it was chalky and acidic) flipped over on the highway right next to the overpass. He and the other guys worked for an entire day and even received facemasks for safety. These are the kinds of jobs and health risks day laborers work with every day.

Montana and the other white English-speakers stand near each other at the VOZ day labor site until the raffle, when they crowd around the plastic bear with the rest of the guys and shout "American!" and "English!" as the organizers read the chosen tickets aloud in Spanish.

"We definitely are the minority down here," says Montana, looking around the site at his 60 or so Latino companions. Like René, Montana plans to send some of his wages back home to his family. He left a 14-year-old daughter back in Billings with her mother. He hopes he'll find work, stay clean, and start paying child support again. Montana stared at the cars rushing past on MLK, waiting for his number to turn up.

"I just pray I get to go out."

Big Picture, Small Picture

The debates leading up to the public funding for the day labor site touched on several big issues revolving around the jornaleros—like immigration, class, and America's changing demographics.

"The day labor issue is very complex," says VOZ's Sosa. He wants to keep the discussion about the day labor site simple: It's not meant to be a solution to the nation's large questions about immigration. Instead, it's a practical solution to neighborhood problems and the mutual desire for clean streets, low crime, and stable livelihoods. "Those problems," he says, "can be solved together."

Montana, René, and the men filling the VOZ site whistled at every flatbed truck driving past, hoping to catch the attention of potential employers. One contractor pulled in to find experienced concrete workers who can fill out a work crew that's behind schedule. A gray-haired man in a button-down shirt came looking for a landscaper. Only one contractor refused to give the required name and phone number to VOZ, leaving without any laborers.

Twenty workers went out on jobs that day. Montana and René were not among them. However, both workers will be back tomorrow—because that's what they do.

Translation help from Ben Cohn.