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Advocate Has Walked in Day Laborers' Shoes

The Salvadoran immigrant's efforts have helped preserve the workers' rights and brought national attention to their cause.

January 23, 2006|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

The day laborers were furious. Undercover Redondo Beach police officers had staged a sting operation and arrested more than 60 workers for allegedly violating a city ordinance barring curbside job solicitation.

Pablo Alvarado and his team of organizers immediately mobilized, planning a march on City Hall and recruiting attorneys to file a lawsuit against the city. During the rally in November 2004, Alvarado marched and chanted alongside the workers. A few months later, a judge temporarily blocked the city from enforcing the ordinance.

As head of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, Alvarado defends the civil and labor rights of workers nationwide. He pushes for job centers, promotes a positive image of laborers and lobbies politicians on their behalf.

Alvarado, 38, has vaulted to the national spotlight as cities from Burbank to Baltimore struggle -- against a backdrop of increasing public protests -- to deal with day laborers soliciting work on their sidewalks.

Last year, Time magazine named Alvarado one of the nation's 25 most influential Hispanics. Alvarado said he doesn't do his work for recognition, but he does use his high profile to help the cause.

"I'm taking advantage of the opportunity to tell the story of the day laborer," he said. "It makes it easier."

Alvarado sees himself as an atypical national leader. He spends much of his time on street corners and at job centers, getting to know laborers and organizers and talking to them about their concerns.

"The only way to remain devoted to your ideals, to remain focused, is by having those connections with the workers," Alvarado said from his basement office near MacArthur Park. "That's how you humanize the fight."

Earlier this month, Alvarado met with laborers at the Hollywood Job Center, located outside a Home Depot parking lot. Using a bullhorn, Alvarado warned them about anti-illegal immigrant organizations that stage protests at hiring centers. He urged the workers to remain peaceful if such demonstrators showed up.

"The day laborer is a symbol for them," Alvarado told the workers in Spanish. "You are the visible face of the immigrant community."

Alvarado also informed the men about pending congressional legislation that would increase sanctions for employers who hire undocumented laborers and require hiring centers to check the legal status of their workers. He urged them to get involved in the fight by educating themselves and lobbying congressional representatives.

One of those workers, Guatemalan immigrant Cesar Herez, said he was thankful for Alvarado and others who fight on their behalf and show the public that they are honest, hardworking immigrants.

"We are not taking anything away from anybody," said Herez, 39. "We simply came here to look for work."

Alvarado, who is most comfortable in tennis shoes and jeans, speaks softly and laughs often. He switches between English and Spanish with ease. He is contemplative and unassuming, traits that UCLA professor Abel Valenzuela said are effective and powerful.

"There is just no doubt that the work that he has done has made a huge impact," said Valenzuela, who conducts research on day laborers and has known Alvarado for a decade. "He has really built a movement by bringing different worker centers and other community organizations together so they can strategize, coordinate and learn from each other."

The privately funded National Day Laborer Organizing Network was created in 2002 and has about 30 member organizations, including the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Alvarado and others train laborers and organizers, advocate for legalization of the undocumented and work to educate elected officials about possible solutions to problems. The network also has enabled laborers and organizers to develop a coordinated response to anti-immigrant attacks.

"We're not criminals," Alvarado said. "We're people, just like everyone else, who have a need to work, a need to feed our families."

Despite critics who argue that illegal immigrants should not be rewarded for breaking the law, Alvarado said undocumented laborers deserve an opportunity to gain legal residency because the contributions they make to the U.S. economy outweigh the financial costs.

"It is us who have actually improved the quality of life of Americans," he said.

Improving the situation for day laborers is about more than strategizing and responding to critics, Alvarado said. It's also about uniting the workers and giving them a sense of pride about what they do.

Alvarado plays in a band, Los Jornaleros del Norte, or the Day Laborers of the North, that performs at hiring centers, political fundraisers and churches. The band was formed in 1996 after immigration agents raided a day laborer corner in the City of Industry. They sing of police beatings, families back home and learning English.

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