They have come from Mexico looking far and wide for work, any kind of work, from cotton fields in Arkansas to tomato farms in California.
But as the economy suffers, the jobs disappear. It has been a desperate winter for the migrant laborers of suburban San Diego.
So, last week, Ramon Soto and 10 other veteran farm workers arrived at Los Angeles International Airport carrying duffel bags and wearing their unofficial wayfarer's uniform: baseball caps and cowboy hats, old coats, scuffed boots. After a restless night in the airport, they boarded a plane Friday morning for a destination that is a new chapter in their immigrant odyssey: Hawaii.
"We are going into the unknown," said the 53-year-old Soto, a father of six who has been living in a North County squatters camp in the brush. "You always go with doubts, wherever you go. If what they say is true, we are going to live well, with all the comforts. We will see."
Hawaii these days is a mirror image of California and other economically depressed mainland states. There are plenty of jobs and not enough workers. With unemployment at about 2%, locals have followed the fundamental shift in the state's economy by deserting jobs in agriculture for less physically strenuous employment in the tourist industry, according to state officials and labor experts there.
Agribusinesses that for decades employed Asian immigrants, predominantly Filipinos, find themselves needing a new work force. The companies are aggressively recruiting legal Latino immigrants such as the 11 men who left Friday.
The recruits are part of a group of about 30 that will depart from San Diego County in the coming weeks--the largest number of Mexican farm workers recruited in California so far to harvest pineapples by the Maui Land & Pineapple Co., a major Hawaii agricultural firm. They will earn $8.47 an hour, a considerable increase in pay for most of them.
The company's recruitment campaign features slickly produced Spanish-language videos, pay advances for air fare, low-cost company housing and promises of longtime employment.
"Our work force is getting older, and there is a lot of competition for workers," said Skip McDonnell, the company's employment programs administrator. "We constantly tell them that it's a permanent, full-time position for as long as they want. . . . We want them to bring their families when they can. We think that if they are going to be stable they need that family unit."
The workers are going alone this time, bringing little more than the will to work and scraps of knowledge about Hawaii: The climate is agreeable; it was the setting for the American TV show "Magnum P.I."; it is about as far by plane as the Mexican state of Oaxaca (where several of the workers were born).
"I've picked cotton in Pecos, Tex., and Arkansas," said Francisco Resendez, 58, who has been traveling to the United States periodically since the 1960s. "I've picked tomatoes, lemons and lettuce. But this is the first time in Hawaii, first time working with pineapples. It's a big step."
The population of Latino immigrants on the booming island of Maui has grown from a handful to about 600 in the past two years, according to Gladys Baisa, executive director of Maui Economic Opportunity Inc., the nonprofit agency in charge of recruiting and helping pineapple pickers adjust. Social service workers in Hawaii said that while the overall numbers remain small, they have seen a significant increase in Latino immigrants.
"I'm amazed at the number of fellas who just buy a ticket and come," Baisa said. "They are also picking coffee and macadamia nuts. They are working in hotels and restaurants on the big island (Hawaii), a lot of them are in construction. . . . On Maui we know of 12 families that came through our program and stayed. We have had two weddings, and many more on the drawing boards. We have had two babies born here."
In addition to Maui Land & Pineapple, three or four other large agricultural companies are recruiting Latino farm workers from the mainland, experts said. Workers are also being brought in from Micronesia.
Mexico does not have an official consulate in Hawaii. A spokeswoman for the consulate in San Francisco, which has jurisdiction over Hawaii, said an estimated 10,000 Mexicans live in Hawaii, which has a population of about 1.5 million.
David Meza, a 24-year-old from Mexicali who got a job picking pineapples in 1990, now drives a truck for Maui Land & Pineapple. What started out as an adventure has turned into a career, he said in a telephone interview.
"When I came here, you couldn't find any Mexicans," said Meza, whose brother joined him in Maui last week. "Now there are lots. I feel more at home. I speak a little Filipino now, a little Hawaiian."
The tropics have a dark side, however. The high cost of living discourages many laborers from staying. In a place so distant and exotic that it might as well be the moon, Latino immigrants suffer from intense boredom and loneliness.