La Parada | The informal work site of today’s immigrantPublished in 2007
The United States of America is currently experiencing a historic surge of immigration, comparable to the Age of Mass Migration of the 19th century, which brought Italian, Irish, Eastern Europeans Jews And Chinese to this land. Each surge of immigration faced a wave of reaction from established citizens. The Know Nothing Party of the 1850’s was founded to stop Irish immigration, arguing that the Irish would destroy American culture. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to take another example, was passed on the belief that Chinese labor was depressing wages. Today the immigrants are mostly Mexican and they face the same reactions.
Historically the streets have served as informal hiring sites. Irish and Germans competed for a day’s pay on the docks, in “shape-ups” where foremen would choose from the gathered mob. The modern version of the “shape-up”- the street corners throughout the US where Latin men gather to be pick for day work, is known by a Spanish name, “La Parada” (The Stop). New York City has approximately 15 Parada’s that serve as hiring sites. These images are from Jackson Heights, Queens.
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The No. 7 train rumbles through the early-morning darkness in Jackson Heights, Queens, as a group of men carrying coffee cups and newspapers clutter beneath the elevated rail. As passersby rush to work, they just stand around, talking to each other in low tones. Sporadically they run into the streets to approach any slow drivers, obstructing traffic. They compete to get inside the vehicles while clinging to their backpacks. Two curious young women stop to ask what their deal is. “We are here looking for work” Antonio B. responds. “Anything”.
These men are day laborers and almost all are undocumented immigrant workers. They have survived long and dangerous journeys from all parts of Latin America to reach this place – la Parada (the Stop), also known to many as la Oficina. This point is strategic: train lines, bus routes and highways converge here. Everyday dozens of independent contractors and small business owners use this location to hire reliable short-term workers at rock-bottom rates. All the employers have to do is drive up and simply choose from among the eager men who instantly huddle around the vehicle.
Negotiations are held in brief basic English; what is the job and how much will it pay? What skills are needed, what tools? Jobs range from demolition to construction, tiling, wiring, and landscaping – any type of imaginable physical labor. Work that requires little or no experience may pay up to $70, while the more skilled jobs offer as much as $150 per day. “It all depends on what you know how to do” explains Francisco Orea, a semi-skilled worker from Puebla, Mexico.
Work is most often found in the early darkness, in the shadows along Roosevelt Avenue, when you are a day laborer. Later, as the sun begins to cast shadows on the Stop, offers become scarce. The men left behind begin to feel desperate. Anxiously they pace the streets calling their former employers on their cell phones. Others resignedly lean back and wait.
Teachers, engineers and architects are found at The Stop, though most of the men have only primary schooling. No matter what level of education or social status the men may have back home, on these sidewalks they share the same circumstances. Salaries and wages in their home countries do not come close to meeting their basic needs, leaving them no choice but to migrate north. And here, in the eyes of United Sates’ immigration law, they all have the same status – illegal aliens.
By midday, the men are hungry, anxious. They share notes about unscrupulous employers who withhold payment. They mutter over rumors of raids and recent deportations. The newer arrivals report details of their journey north. “Many don’t survive the crossing, you can see human bones along the way, their families may never know what became of them” says Marco Aurelio Hernandez, who has crossed the border three times.
Marco is from Morelos, Mexico and hasn’t been back in three years and seven months. He sends an average of $1000 a month. With this money his family converted their tin roof shack into a concrete house with potable running water. His remittances also provide for his children’s education.
The goal while here is to work hard and return to their families as soon as possible. Yet, because their families depend on the monies they wire home, they often end up staying for years. Meanwhile, their children grow up and loved ones grow older, pass away. When they do return they may find their homes are not what they remembered. Some find themselves to be foreigners even in their own communities.
“It’s time, I have to go back” says Marco, who fears that all the sacrifices he’s made for his children are in jeopardy. Ironically, the decision Marco made to provide a better future for his children – to work for years in a foreign country – may also have hurt his family. His children grew up without a father. His son and daughter have become teenagers during his absence. Marco’s wife, Lupita, is now alarmed about their 15-year-old son’s rebellious behavior. He flunked out of school and is not working. “I need to go home, a boy needs his father” Marco repeats. “Next year I will go back.”