By: Jacob Liechty
The morning fog intensified into a dripping haze, engulfing the umbrella of Carolina’s tamal stand, where she shepherds a side-street corner in the Mission District of San Francisco. The sun barely rising, a four-door car rolled up to replenish the supply of the high-calorie corn rolls, already running low during the early morning rush. Carolina, who moved from Mexico City a year ago, grabs bags through the open window, clueing me in – mi sobrina, la unica que tengo aquí – “my niece, the only I have here.” Down the road, the winter peninsula chill failed to deter a steady smattering of informal semi-circles of any-aged men on sidewalks, sidestepping discarded cases of cerveza, on the lookout for the day’s task.
As the sun lightened the sky, Jorge laments the cold, and confirms to me that he’s awaiting a solid day’s work – Ojalá que caiga … Qué frío eh? As in most of the world, the availability of paying work is subject to the weather. Later that day, the skies cleared, and merchants with tabletops and blankets lined up on a nearby street, displaying used goods for sale. Javier, a San Francisco resident for 23 years, said his array of tools yields enough cash for his needs from time to time – de vez en cuando. When asked what the most important thing in life is, he answers, que saque a trabajar o cómo va a comer – without work, how will you eat? In this world, we are not to expect sustenance without suffering and effort.
Down the road, the winter peninsula chill failed to deter a steady smattering of informal semi-circles of any-aged men on sidewalks, sidestepping discarded cases of cerveza, on the lookout for the day’s task.
Academic authors, echoing a readily observable reality, document the material and psychological challenges of those who may coldly be called “Latino Migrant Day Laborers.” I asked Alexis Terrazas – editor of the local bilingual newspaper El Tecolote – about this imperfect phrase. While “Latino” directly conjures the Spanish language, Terrazas told me that speakers of Mayan languages – to name just one linguistic family spoken by immigrants to the Mission – find themselves “doubly excluded,” by both English- and Spanish-speaking communities. The term “migrant” indicates travel on a daily, seasonal, or once-in-a-life basis. “Day laborers” perform contracted, uncontracted, and independent work on urban and rural jobs lasting days, weeks or as lifetime careers. Economic insecurity – the uncertainty of finding work – is a commonality among all who travel to track with community needs, harvesting seasons, and international market movements. A defining challenge is that of being excluded from a regime which guarantees social benefits, health services, and civil recognition. It is a theme strikingly represented by the Mission’s built environment: Pastel colored, comfortably furnished apartments perch themselves atop a more desperate milieu of fluorescently lit construction zones, restaurants with revolution-themed murals, and cash remittance services.
Terrazas, speaking on a local radio program about BIPOC-focused journalism, gives a Spanish-language name for a world with which he identifies: El Pueblo. By this, he refers both to the physical locality of a community such as the Mission, and also more literally to The People. Terrazas sees El Tecolote as focused not only on the San Francisco-based Pueblo, but also that which extends to worldwide diaspora communities, and to originary homelands in the great central and southern portion of our supercontinent. “Our communities,” he says, “are not a monolith; not all of us speak the same language.” In our interview, he noted the advocacy work by speakers of Indigenous languages, communitarians such as Pedro Uc-Be, a defender of land rights in the Mayan lu’umil Múuch’ Xíinbal. On Terrazas’ recommendation, I pay a visit to the Asociación Mayab here in the Mission, an organization which addresses the “lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate services for the estimated 30,000 Maya immigrants living in the Bay Area.” Jach ki’imak in wóol te’elo’. Very happy my being there.
Such community services represent the strong sense of solidarity for Mission residents who share a history of great material struggle, along with the physical danger of impassable terrains and exploitative strangers. The soggy morning I met Carolina and Jorge impressed me with the relatedness, and deep distinction, between my own strivings and the day-to-day challenges of my interviewees. For I am who may sharply be called White American – Güero, Pole, Che’el, Mennonite, Estadounidense, and materially comfortable. Before the sun rose, my unaccustomed groggy eyes peered through a damp window to see Francisco Herrera, standing at a desk shuffling papers, willing to open the door to a stranger in a standard-issue black hoodie. The office is part of the San Francisco Day Labor Program, which Herrera describes as a “workers’ justice collective.” The organization determines contract rates, advocates for its workers, and performs quality assurance. Its neighbors, Mission residents of all stripes, are highly encouraged to hire workers through the program – for jobs such as landscaping, moving, painting, construction, and cleaning. Herrera points to the ways that workers share resources, combine skill sets, collaborate on meals, and gift their time to each others’ families on otherwise costly jobs. He says that, in California and beyond, old systems of labor exploitation are still at play; wage theft and lack of legal protections remain common. He mentions a need for volunteers to help work toward justice and repair. All are invited to contact Dolores Street Community Services, the parent organization which provides literal and figurative shelter for thousands.
Before the sun rose, my unaccustomed groggy eyes peered through a damp window to see Francisco Herrera, standing at a desk shuffling papers, willing to open the door to a stranger in a standard-issue black hoodie
Herrera, born in the border town of Calexico, is an author, songwriter, singer, occasional political candidate, and nonprofit founder. His love for community was palpable, clearly reflected in his working hours and spoken demeanor. Video may be found of him playing guitar and singing “Pueblo Pueblo,” with the wholesome lyrics – Siembra tus flores cosechando amores haciendo vida – “Plant your flowers, harvesting love, making life.” Herrera and his wife Cristina founded the Fundación Caminante Cultural with the mission of solidarity for the poor and disadvantaged. It organizes retreats, hosts cultural events, and introduces young people to sustainable gardening practices (complete with friendly goats). The Herreras’ many sites of resistance and advocacy are one answer to a question which has been itching at me in my interactions with communities on both sides of the border: What is being done? What can be done about the injustices of dangerous migrations, uncertain sustenance, and racialized violence? In the same song, Herrera speaks, “See the first task of oppression is to say to us shut up. […] The first task of liberation is to speak up, tell your story, sing your song! You are a human being; we are alive.”
Hungry for more stories, I followed up on a lead given me by Miguel Esquivel, a 65-year-old manager of a construction company in the Mission. I met Esquivel while searching for the office of the Mission’s other bilingual newspaper, El Reportero. Esquivel, who has lived in San Francisco for 26 years, was managing a work team at the address indicated in Reportero when I brazenly walked through the unmarked door, hoping to gain an audience with the newspaper’s elusive editor, Marvin Ramirez. Weeks later, Ramirez – in an interview which far overflowed the allotted time – offered me an insightful image of highly contested United States immigration politics. Decades earlier, at just 14 years old, Ramirez hitchhiked alone across four borders and entered California. In less than a decade, Ramirez earned a social security number and became a journalism student at San Francisco State University, where he started Reportero. Now, 30 years later, surrounded by icons of the newspaper’s history framed on the wall, Ramirez gestures to aging photography equipment, and to desks he hopes will be filled once again with reporters. El Reportero, which started as a community newspaper, now sources many of its stories nationally.
Ramirez is friendly with both Terrazas and Herrera, and of the three appears the most exhausted. I sense that I’m a rare listening ear. He feels that his friends in the local community-interest scene have abandoned elements of the sacred; nonprofits shepherded by political movements have lost sight of their core values– earthy, traditional values which the Latinx community specifically upholds. He feels international material crises are being manipulated for a politics of appearance; immigrants who have worked the hardest are vilified, and political parties conceive Latin America as a mere pool of voters. Ramirez said he came to the United States hoping to be a hippie, only to see the dream disillusioned. He cites the financial and practical challenge of building a community newspaper from scratch, of distributing copies by hand in a profession inherited from his father and grandfather. Ramirez dreams now of handing Reportero off to a younger manager, and purchasing a ranch in his birthplace country of Nicaragua.
For my part, driven to nihilism by the web of contradictions about a community which has frequently and generously offered me respite and burritos, I return to the cafetería where I first picked up Tecolote. There, Carlos and Sofía reliably manage house and produce a stream of breakfast items for a mix of Spanish- and English-speaking patrons. Some hidden spirit, or perhaps the television newly strapped to the wall, has driven away copies of Reportero. The TV, which normally pumps latinpop and banda, is today squeaking out 1980s U.S.-of-American earwigs, completing my emotional suite of derealization. I reach for a freshly pressed Tecolote, which this biweek features original reporting on the forced disappearances of 43 college students in México in 2014. As my fingertips graze the newsprint, my senses are enlightened by the presence of fellow Mission periódico enthusiast Elizabeth Wheeler, born and raised in Los Ángeles, who slingshots out of a fluent Spanish conversation with Carlos to snatch her copy. Gesturing to the black roots of her cosmetically lightened hair under a bandana, Wheeler introduces herself as la güera loca, verifies my cultural competencies, and offers me a community-sponsored food box in exchange for personal details. “Of course people read the paper!” she retorts to my depressive pessimism. I prod Carlos, the trilingual bastion born in Mayan Yucatán, who glances at the folded print tucked under my arm. Personally? He can rarely find the time.
For my part, driven to nihilism by the web of contradictions about a community which has frequently and generously offered me respite and burritos, I return to the cafetería where I first picked up Tecolote.
I turn to Sofía. What is her favorite Mission-based newspaper? From behind a flowery pandemic-era mask, Sofía downplays her scholarly acuity, and adds – Los todos me dan sueño. Some mornings, when the depressive fog is heavier than my will to rise from bed, my mind wanders to the first time my brain mistranslated the phrase. For a year, in a village not far from Carlos’ hometown, a Mayan-Mexican community and I once hunkered down together in bio-fear about a frightening new virus arriving from the north. Kin na’atik junpʼíit – I understood a little. It is there that I learned of the very meaning of resilience, from friends who have braved border-crossings, beatings by officers, and financial exploitation. There, they continue to harvest swaths of vegetables in declining rains, direct greenish nutrients to the mouths of animals, and transubstantiate meager resources into thriving spiritual hearths. Los todos me dan sueño. It means, “They all make me sleepy.” I know that now. The literal mistranslation, in a collision of linguistic worlds, offers an accidental image of how my friends freely offer me the gift of strength – the ability to hope for better things: “They each give me dreams.”