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EL MOSCO : It means day labor, and, increasingly, all the controversies and conflicts that surround Latin American immigration in Southern California

March 18, 1990|Bruce Kelly | Bruce Kelley is the editor of California Tomorrow magazine. Alexandra Smith, Jose Romero and J. Edward Taylor assisted with translations for this article

EVERY SATURDAY MORNING, Poli Jaramillo says goodby to his wife and two daughters and walks several blocks to the busy corner of Lankershim Boulevard and Strathern Street in industrial North Hollywood. There, along a two-block commercial strip--an auto-parts store, a Burger King, an Arco gas station--60 or 70 men stand and wait. Following his custom, Jaramillo joins the group in front of the Mel-O-Dee Nursery, exchanging greetings with men from his home state of Michoacan, Mexico. El mosco is open for business. The day-labor employment lottery begins.

The men are mostly young and mostly undocumented, transplanted to el mosco from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. They will stay today, as every rainless day except Sunday, until noon, when the trickle of hiring patrones usually taps out. If a car or truck pulls over, they will rush the vehicle, competing for the brass ring--the patron 's invitation and a job: You. Hop in, quick, hop in.

Mostly they will wait. And while they wait, they talk of \o7 pueblos\f7 , \o7 novias\f7 , the search for full-time work, future dreams. They gamble, tossing dimes. They jump when Mel-O-Dee owner Clyde Miyata, campaigning daily to drive them away, turns on the sprinklers. And they tell stories of \o7 el mosco\f7 .

In Spanish-English slang, \o7 mosco\f7 means "bug"--a variant of \o7 mosca\f7 , Spanish for "fly." In Jaramillo's neighborhood, however, where graffiti spell it "mosko," it is the made-in-America noun that means first the gathering place, but also the wait, the rush for the job, the harassment by cops and shop owners, the uncertainty, the whole day-labor experience. Elsewhere the hiring corners have a simpler nomenclature--\o7 la esquina\f7 , "the corner," \o7 la yarda\f7 , "the yard." But in North Hollywood, the story goes, a new worker, overwhelmed and appalled by the crowd clambering around a \o7 patron\f7 's truck, called out the word \o7 mosco\f7 , and the ironic tone stuck: \o7 el mosco\f7 , the place of swarming insects.

The place of swarming insects is also the place where a man once paid Jaramillo $2 to move a couch and then tried to drop him miles from North Hollywood. Where everyone has a story about the prostitutes and evangelicals who troll the crowds. Where occasionally \o7 mariposas--\f7 "butterflies," the "men of the other side"--pick up workers for gardening help when they want something else entirely. Where one ruinous day four years ago, three vans pulled up and the first driver said: "\o7 Trabajo para todos\f7 "\o7 --\f7 "work for everyone." Nearly 75 men piled in, laughing at their good fortune. And then \o7 La Migra\f7 's doors locked, and off to the Immigration and Naturalization Service facility and Tijuana the entire \o7 mosco \f7 went. Within two weeks everyone was back on \o7 el mosco\f7 , Jaramillo reports, smiling at its irrepressibility.

Every week, migrants from "over there" arrive "over here." They come for jobs--pushed by hardship and unrest in their own countries, pulled by an economic boom they helped create in Southern California. Of the estimated 150,000 Latinos, documented and undocumented, who increase the region's population each year, the men on \o7 el mosco\f7 account for a small fraction, perhaps 5,000 to 15,000 on any given day. They are the ones who for a variety of reasons--few village or family connections, hunger, no papers, owing the coyote money, bad luck--haven't gained a foothold or have lost the one they had. They hear about \o7 el mosco \f7 and use it as a springboard, a place to earn money for food, to learn who is hiring or where to find a bed, to make a little extra on a day off.

Standing and waiting at dusty rural turnouts, on upscale suburban \o7 reales \f7 and in front of the Mel-O-Dee Nursery, day laborers are a constant reminder of the controversies and conflicts surrounding Latin American immigration in Southern California. By their ubiquitous presence, they have become the most visible symbols of the region's complex ties with its legal and illegal Latin American work force.

On the one hand, the day laborers represent the Latino immigrants who are welcomed by the Southern California economy. On the other, they're fuel for a fire of resentment and discomfort, caught in the middle of an ambivalent relationship: Even those who direct hatred at the immigrants live in an economic system that depends on hiring them. The \o7 moscos \f7 also are a street-level report card on laws such as the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which was designed to reduce illegal immigration by fining employers for hiring undocumented workers. If you drive down Lankershim, it's clear that the law is failing: The men keep coming and the men keep getting hired.

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