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Conversation / WITH DAY LABOR ACTIVIST PABLO ALVARADO

'The Guys Police Themselves ...Nobody Drinks, Nobody Gambles"

September 07, 1996

PABLO ALVARADO, 28, arrived from El Salvador in 1990, near the end of a 12-year civil war that devastated his homeland. Last year, he began working for CHIRLA, the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, as coordinator of its day labor project. Before CHIRLA, he taught English as a second language and held day labor jobs as a gardener and painter, though he has a degree in sociology from the University of El Salvador, and has worked in a factory.

The day laborer hiring sites that he helps run have had their share of problems. After residents in Ladera Heights complained two years ago about day laborers approaching cars on the streets, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance to make curbside job-seeking a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Other communities around Southern California have similar ordinances.

Day laborers are mostly from Mexico and Central America, although African Americans are starting to gather at informal hiring sites in some neighborhoods. A day laborer will earn about $40 to $60 for an eight-hour job. Alvarado talked with DEBORAH BELGUM at the Home Base building supply store parking lot in Ladera Heights that was a focus of complaints and where workers organized to reduce friction with nearby residents and the store's managers.

The history of this corner is that the anti-day laborer solicitation ordinance was first proposed because of conflicts that emerged in this site. Local residents, the business community and the sheriff's department were concerned about safety-related issues. Some of the guys rushed the cars and competed for work. There were no trash cans or toilet facilities. There were also concerns that women were being harassed when they passed by the area. There was vandalism, drinking in public, gambling. CHIRLA tries to approach the day laborer issue from a different perspective, bringing these different parties together.

So local residents, the business community, the sheriff's department, the Human Relations Commission, MALDEF [the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund]--many community-based establishments came together about two years ago. And we began trying to see what could be done to eradicate those difficulties.

So now, as you can see, everything is great here. The only problem we haven't been able to eradicate is [workers] going into the driveway. That is something that really bothers management. Sometimes it causes traffic congestions, but it doesn't happen very often.

The guys are the ones that deserve most of the credit [for solving the problems]. They are the ones who did it. They police themselves. Now, there isn't any vandalism. Good things have happened here. An hour ago, a person was stealing at Home Base inside the store, and one of the guys got the guy. And this has happened twice before. Also the guys protect the property here. If there is someone who is not complying with the rules and regulations, they tell them, 'Hey look. You should do this and this and this.'

Home Base has given us permission to use their toilets. The good thing is that whenever any problem arises, the channels of communications are open between the program management, the sheriff's, CHIRLA, the community and business organizations. Whenever there is a problem, we call for a meeting and discuss the issue, and we work on it. Probably there will be problems in the future. We understand if we don't comply with the rules we might lose this space.

The workers have organized a security committee and a cleaning committee. They do a cleanup twice a week. There is an executive committee that deals with the issues here. The guys have organized a soccer team and a musical band. And the guys write their own corridos, their own songs.

This [place] is unique because in other places, law enforcement agencies spend a lot of resources trying to get rid of the workers to enforce the ordinances, and it doesn't work because the workers are still there. It's a pragmatic approach. There is no crime here. Nobody drinks, nobody gambles. It has taken a lot of energy, a lot of work.

For example, yesterday one of the guys ran into the driveway of the parking lot and stood there for about 10 minutes, talking to the [potential day-labor] employer. And the rest all stood there saying, "Come on in, Victor. Come in, Victor." And he didn't come back. Then he walked inside and then walked out [of the store.] The guys told him, "If you do that again, you won't be allowed to be in this [hiring] site." He said, "I don't care. I'll do whatever I want." And the guys told him he had to leave the site and not to come back ever again. Basically, it is the workers taking the destiny of their site in their hands. Caption: Pablo Alvarado, day labor organizer: 'It is the workers taking the destiny of their [hiring] site in their hands.'

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