ANAHEIM HILLS — Four hundred years ago, buccaneers roamed the Spanish Main, plundering galleons heavy with silver spewed out by the mines of Mexico's Guanajuato state. But now Guanajuato exports something entirely different: men.
Over the last three decades, hundreds of men from one small village alone--El Maguey--have taken the 1,300-mile road north from central Mexico. Nearly every one finds the same job: Nailing up drywall for Southern California's housing industry.
Many of them are related. This blood link is a major reason why most of the drywall installers in Orange and San Diego counties have walked off the job these days, crippling the building industry. And these few hundred men are at the core of a thousand or so drywall hangers who walked off the job more than a month ago.
The men of El Maguey have organized this protest themselves; they don't even have a union. In fact, getting a union is one of their demands, so they can ensure wages don't slip any further. Right now, they make about $300 a week. Ten years ago, when the business was still unionized, drywall workers made twice that and more.
Most remain Mexican citizens to this day. But the struggle for a union shows that the men of El Maguey have learned the ways of the United States, just as earlier waves of Irish, Italian and German immigrants beat the system that exploited them by joining trade unions or running for public office or getting an education.
"When the first generation no longer fantasizes about going back to Mexico, that's the dividing line," says Marcelo Suarez Orozco, an anthropologist at UC San Diego who has studied emigration from Mexico.
"After a while, these men begin to compare themselves to American workers; they begin to think of themselves as 'hyphenated' Americans--as Mexican-Americans."
Most of the Mexican workers in the United States come from three states in central Mexico: Jalisco, Michoacan and Guanajuato.
El Maguey is a village of several thousand people nestled in one of the many valleys of Guanajuato, a state of mile-high mountains and deep ravines a couple of states north and west of Mexico City. El Maguey is named for a plant with long, spiky leaves that grows around the town, a plant from which tequila is made.
There isn't much work in Mexico's rural villages. So it begins this way: A young man goes north, finds work, sends some money home, and soon more men join him. When they have a little money, they return to the village to find a wife and take her north. So strong is the lure of the north that villages like El Maguey are virtually devoid of young men.
In 1963, Juan Valadez came from El Maguey to Orange County and found work hanging drywall. Home builders were knocking houses together as fast as they could in the sunny days when California exploded with growth.
After a while, Valadez's three brothers joined him. The business back then was unionized, and the money was good, sometimes $350 a week if you worked from dawn to dusk. That was up to $18,000 a year when a little ranch house cost $24,000 and a new Chevy Impala would set you back $3,500. It was enough to let you live a middle-class life and, as Valadez did, even put a couple of kids through Stanford.
A lot of the money went back to El Maguey; suddenly there were new houses all over the village and people wearing American clothes.
Hanging drywall is one of the hardest, hottest jobs in construction. Drywall makes up the interior walls of a house; it usually comes in half-inch thick slabs of paper and plaster four feet tall by 12 feet long and weighing more than 100 pounds.
Drywall hangers wrestle the slabs into position and nail them onto the house's wooden frame. Seams are later taped and the sheets are painted.
Hangers are paid a piece rate; that is, a man's wages depend on how many square feet of drywall he can hang. A skilled man could race through a house back then, nailing up drywall as he went. It was easier and simpler because most houses were square, blocky affairs the old-timers called "dingbats," with none of the features found today to slow you down--cathedral ceilings, for example, or tricky arches, what's called a "cut-up" house.
Wages were high because the drywall companies all had unions and, with the housing market booming, the demand for skilled labor was brisk.
But during the last recession in the early 1980s, that began to change. Hard times meant that the home builders and their drywall subcontractors suddenly had a reason to bust the carpenters' unions, which represented the drywall hangers.
A flood of cheap labor from Mexico assured the drywall companies of plenty of people hungry enough to replace the union men. In just a few years, the residential drywall business had no unions at all.