Giving immigrant laborers an online voice

A new program teaches workers to use cellphones to tell their own stories and to document their lives and work.

September 19, 2010|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times

She approaches men and women unassumingly — on the crosstown bus, outside garment factories, along street corners when the light flashes red.

How's your day going? She asks in Spanish. How is work? Do you have children?

If they don't mind, she whips out her Flip Video camera and begins to record.

Two years ago, Maria de Lourdes Gonzalez didn't own a cellphone. Now the 62-year-old housekeeper carries a tape recorder and a video camera and regularly snaps photos and sends text messages.

Her interviews end up on her blog on vozmob, a new site launched by USC and the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California, which works to organize and educate immigrant communities.

The idea is to give immigrants, mainly day laborers, an online space to speak their minds and share their stories. They are also encouraged to document their work as a form of self-protection.

Organizers rolled out the program last month with a mix of grants from various foundations, including $40,000 worth of cellphones to train laborers. They fanned out to local job centers to teach workers how to upload text, photos and videos. So far about half a dozen laborers have launched their own blogs. Others are experimenting, transferring bits of broken audio and blurry images onto the Web.

The contributions to vozmob.net are varied. In one post, a worker named Adolfo features a video clip of day laborers at a Hollywood center singing with an accordion player and guitarist as they wait for work. In another, a Long Beach laborer named Ranferi displays a photo of a cream-colored snake he found on the sidewalk and warns others to be cautious. A man named Marcos likes to upload samples of his handiwork: light fixtures he has installed, bathtubs he has tiled and water-thrifty gardens he has planted.

Politics often takes center stage, with posts featuring photos of immigrants rights marches and short, heated paragraphs blasting Arizona's new immigration law.

A grandmother of seven, Gonzalez prefers to be called a housekeeper, never a domestic worker "because domestic is for domesticated animals." She says she likes to hit the streets and record personal stories. When her subjects shy away from the camera — and many do — she records their hands, "the hands that do the work," she says.

She talks to pupusa vendors, men driving tractors, gardeners and seamstresses, and she films hands dry and calloused, covered with dirt or paint, bruised black beneath the nails.

On one morning bus ride, she spoke to Jacqueline Rivera, an undocumented worker who was about to lose her job. Rivera told Gonzalez she slept in a closet to save money for her children. The housekeeper's face in a grainy photo shows her lips turned up in a shy smile.

"The idea is to let those voices be heard," Gonzalez said, "to bring out of us what's already inside."

Amanda Garces, who is coordinating the project for the institute, said no one expects most participants to be so active. The hope is that some day laborers at least will become more comfortable with technology.

Until now, she said, anti-immigrant voices have ruled the online debate, spreading negative images.

On a recent morning, Garces gathered about 20 laborers at a center southwest of downtown. She demonstrated how to take photos and video of employers' homes and car license plates — documentation that could prove useful if they are not paid or are mistreated. She then encouraged the workers to practice what they'd learned.

Most came ready with their own cellphones, basic models that until now they had used only for calls.

Alfonso Sanchez, 43, listened closely as Natalie Arellano, a community organizer, showed him how to shoot a video clip of a fellow laborer.

"Is it recording yet?" he asked, squinting a few inches from the tiny screen.

"Yes, yes," Arellano told him. "You're ready. Now just do it over and over again until you remember the steps."

Like many, Sanchez has little intention to start a blog. He said he's mostly curious to see how much can be done with just a phone.

All around him, day laborers with muddy boots grinned as they held their phones in their weathered hands, recording one another.

"This gives you the tools to tell your own story and not let others tell it for you," Garces told the men.

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

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