WORKING ON THE STREET: THE GRITTY LIFE OF A DAY LABORER
The story of Fidel Antonio
Day laborers are pretty much taken for granted, as they wave at cars passing the sidewalk where they look for work near Home Depot or the local lumberyard. What road brought them to their street corners, far from their families in Mexico and Central America? What do they do if they don’t get hired - where do they live and how do they eat? Fidel Antonio makes a living, barely, from jobs gained on the sidewalk near Truitt and White Lumber in Berkeley. He lives in Oakland’s Fruitvale, and every day takes a bus to this street corner hiring hall. He told his story to David Bacon. Fidel Antonio
In the state of Morelos, my family was very poor, living just from one day to the next. My father had no land of his own, so landowners would rent him land. Sometimes we didn’t have enough to eat. My mother tells me that she would make a soup with two eggs and some vegetables, and make it stretch so it would feed the whole family. In many little towns, especially up in the mountains, people still live this way. They don’t have enough money even to buy beans - just enough for tortillas to eat with salt.
There were six of us kids and we all had to help so we would have enough to eat. My older brothers looked for work in the fields. At the end of the week they’d come home with whatever they’d earned, and maybe a little fruit or vegetables as well.
I just went to primary school, and even that was a sacrifice. As we got older, little by little we all left for the city to go out on our own. We wanted a new way to live. I was thirteen when I left to go to town to learn a trade. By then my father and mother had separated.
In the nearest town I’d chop wood, wash cars - whatever honorable work I could find. I went to Salina Cruz, a nearby port city, where I loaded and unloaded ships. There were lots of young people like me - living on the streets, looking for work by the day or week.
I was 32 when I came to the US the first time, in 1998. The violence and crime in Mexico was getting worse, and work was getting harder to find. My brothers said getting there might be hard, but it would be worth it because I’d earn more. A better future, right?
I came here to earn money to help my family at home. My kids are getting older now, but they still need my help. That’s the main reason I’m here. I don’t want them to live the same kind of life I had when I was a boy.
I went to New York because I had brothers there. There was a lot of work in clothing and construction, and the rents were not too high. I can operate machinery and use surveying tools. They even had me read plans.
In New York I was working by the day, not by hours. I was making $130 a day. Sometimes, if I was working for someone who valued my experience, I’d make $170 a day.
But as time passed, the situation in New York got worse. There was a lot more competition for work. Thousands of people were arriving from South America, especially Ecuador, and they had a big impact. The new people would work for $80 or $90. They’d get the jobs, even though we’d been living longer in New York.
After a while I didn’t have the money to eat in restaurants anymore. I’d eat in the churches where they gave away free meals.
I began to think it wasn’t really a good idea to live in New York anymore. It was a great city, but there were a lot of bad people. Then one night I was out with friends, and we were attacked by a group of drunks, and I was beaten and robbed. My friends called the police but when they got there, they’d only listen to people who spoke English and were here legally. So I went to jail, and then got deported.
In total, I’ve come to the US four different times. I went back to New York, and then back to Mexico again. I live in Oakland, but I look for work in Berkeley because it pays better
Sometimes we get to an extreme place where there’s not much food, but no one in this country suffers from real hunger the way people do in other ones. In some places people live in dumps and trash heaps, searching for something to eat. In the United States there’s actually an excess of food.
Money comes and goes. I don’t have three bodies, so I don’t need three shirts or pants. A pair of shoes and something to wear is enough. Why would I want a house or a car? I won’t be able to take them with me. Why do I need a woman? When I leave this world, I’ll leave alone. Why identify with things that are just going to pass, that will not last?
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