It all started at 5:15 a.m. one Saturday on a filthy street of East Los Angeles. There they stood ambitiously, at the intersection of Atlantic and Beverly boulevards. Some well postured, some not. Some young, some old.
All were different, with one purpose in mind: to get a day's work and make money.
A pickup truck driven by a man in his late 40s slowly approached the intersection. Suddenly the group of about 25 men, including myself, proceeded toward the vehicle. And, in almost perfect unison, we began to scream, "Senor, que necesita? Que le gustaria que hagamos para usted? (What do you need, sir? What would you like us to do for you?)"
He introduced himself as Roberto and looked us over from head to toe. He selected two Mexican nationals--Miguel and Juan--and me.
We hopped in the truck and Roberto drove away. For a moment, I was really confused because I did not know why I had been chosen. There were 22 men who were probably stronger and more capable of handling this job than I. Maybe it was because of my loud mouth--I screamed to get his attention--and my fluorescent shirt and shorts. I remember being laughed at by another man when I was chosen.
As a 17-year-old student, I did not have a particular reason for working with the day laborers. But I had always wanted to find out what these laborers go through in order to put food on the table.
Miguel was a talkative strong man from Veracruz. He was wearing a pair of old, worn-out jeans and a red T-shirt.
Juan was about 5-foot-10. I tried hard to get him to speak, but all my efforts were useless.
I was just about to ask Roberto how much he was going to pay us when Miguel told me to stop. He began to scream at me and said: "Are you crazy, stupid? Do you want to get fired? You never ask how much they are going to pay you. They are the ones with the money, not us."
I was impressed by Roberto's home in West Covina. I was sure that it was worth half a million dollars. As soon as we arrived, Roberto instructed us on what had to be done. He pointed to an area that needed to be leveled and covered by concrete.
I began by digging a hole about three feet deep and carting away more than 20 wheelbarrows of dirt. And boy did I have it easy! While I was digging, Miguel and Juan carried about 1,000 pounds of cement, which was at the end of a long, steep hill. I weigh 145 pounds, and I'm 6 feet tall. I was able to carry only one 90-pound bag of cement, and that nearly killed me.
We filled the hole with concrete and I designed a brick pattern for the top of the slab. When Roberto saw that we were finished with the project, he checked to make sure it was level and had been built properly. He never praised us. All he did was point us to where he wanted a gazebo to be built. We laid the foundation for it, but quickly ran out of bricks.
We decided to call it a day, so we began to wash our dirty, grayish bodies with a water hose nearby.
Roberto called me and said, "Come here" in Spanish. I slowly approached him. He then handed me $60. I thought: "Boy, $60. Maybe this guy isn't that bad after all."
Roberto then told me to split the $60 with Miguel and Juan. There was a long pause. I stared at Roberto and, just as the tears in my eyes were beginning to break, I turned away and never looked back.
I handed Miguel and Juan their money just as the sun was setting. It was now 7 p.m. and we were stuck in West Covina. I could not understand why Miguel and Juan never complained about the $20 I gave each of them. They just accepted that they had been exploited for another day.
We finally found our buses and each went his own way. I had worked for nearly 13 hours in the smoldering sun. I had $20 in my pocket. I used three of those dollars to get back home.
Arroyo is a recent graduate of Roosevelt High School. This article was adapted from The Messenger newspaper, produced this summer at an urban journalism workshop at Cal State Northridge sponsored by the California Chicano News Media Assn.