At age 56, Silverio Nieto has helped craft hundreds of homes from Ventura to San Diego, through boom times as well as bust. Working side by side with his two grown sons, Nieto used to think that he was doing more than building nice tract homes for prosperous families he would never meet; he thought he was building a comfortable life for his own clan.
But after 15 years, he has little to show for lifting and nailing 100-pound sheets of plaster on walls--sometimes six days a week, 12 hours a day--except a lean, sore body and callused hands.
Nieto's income, as high as $23,000 a year in good times, has been whittled to about $6,000, even as he worked as hard, if not harder, than a decade ago. His wallet empty, Nieto grimly confides to his wife, Linda, that he doubts that he can find another occupation at his age.
The irony is not lost on Nieto, a drywall hanger who owns no property and rents a house in Riverside. "So many homes we have built, I have built," the gray-haired grandfather says in soft-spoken Spanish, "and none of them are mine."
Banding together, frustrated Mexican immigrants like Nieto have ignited one of the largest, most organized and highest-profile labor movements in Southern California's recent past--and they have done it on terrain notoriously unfriendly to unions.
The 3-month-old walkout of an estimated 1,000 drywall workers, which has found a stronghold in Orange County, is an uprising of a traditionally powerless ethnic group, a showing of solidarity among an economically oppressed people. Many are not even full-fledged citizens; most are virtually unaware of their constitutional rights and the tumultuous, bloody birth of American unions.
After spending their lives building tract homes they could never afford, feeling more exploited as the recession hit the lower class especially hard, the drywall hangers say they have nothing to lose.
This labor unrest stems from the cyclical, maturing process that occurs among all immigrant work forces, said Raul Hinojosa, a UCLA professor of urban planning who specializes in immigration and U.S.-Mexico relations.
"As people are here for a while, they begin to organize and demand their rights," Hinojosa said. "And they become the most militant because they are also the most exploited. They were hired in the first place because they were so readily exploited, but in the United States, like Lincoln said, you can't fool everybody all the time.
"Clearly, they have been fed up for a long time, but now they are saying, 'We have to take a stand because we have nothing to lose.' "
The defiance among Latino laborers, dubbed the "shadow society" by one Orange County Catholic monsignor, springs more from close family ties than from the influence of organized labor or some charismatic leader.
A worker persuades his cousin to join the walkout, who persuades his son, who spreads the word to his brother, who tells his son-in-law, and almost spontaneously, they unite. Many migrated from the same village in the Mexican state of Guanajuato that offers but a few small shoe factories and little else for employment.
"Immigration is a very cohesive, social process and it builds solidarity, so it is not at all surprising that they are now standing up for the rights they feel are being abused," Hinojosa said.
Their solidarity is so strong that Antonio Vasquez, 55, recalls when Orange County sheriff's deputies tried to arrest half a dozen of the strikers in July, more than 150 clustered around them, insisting that if those men go, "then we all should go." Together, they quietly raised their arms, waiting for the handcuffs, and the deputies had no choice but to arrest them all.
"The Americans who live here don't understand what we're fighting for at all. But these men are very serious about the strike," said Maria Rosa Lopez, a leader of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a national immigrant-rights group that has helped organize the strike from its regional base in Santa Ana.
Like Jose Garcia, 24, these laborers keep asking the same question: "Why do our salaries go down while the price of homes goes up?" Garcia said. "If they paid us better, the economy of California would be better. We would have money to take our children to Disneyland."
Most Laborers Latinos
The overwhelming majority of the estimated 4,000 non-unionized laborers in Southern California's residential drywall business are Latino, primarily Mexican immigrants in their late 20s and early 30s. No one knows how many are in the country illegally, but when sheriff's deputies arrested 150 strikers last month, one-third were suspected of being undocumented. The rest were first- or second-generation legal immigrants.
Support for the strikers is not isolated to Southern California's immigrants. Much of the ethnic community, just as frustrated by its economic status, is rooting for them.