Ready for work - Part I

They come to Madison Park and Madison Valley, Madrona and Leschi to build our homes and landscape our yards. Farther afield, they harvest the produce we find in our grocery aisles.

Migrant labor fuels our economy in Seattle and across the country, yet these 13 million workers, the majority traveling from Latin America, though visible in our lives, remain largely a statistic.

Anyone who has traveled the back roads of rural Mexico will feel an immediate affinity for CASA Latina's work site, a small triangle of hillside property sitting one block north of the Bell Street onramp to Highway 99 in downtown Seattle. The modest compound, makeshift but neat, features a gravel courtyard bound on its north side by two office trailers and a small, covered patio holding a pair of portable bathrooms and a faucet. A long, thin community room sits to the east with a squat classroom and storage building running along the western edge.

Above the classroom flies a wind worn Mexican flag, and fencing surrounds the compound. Its business end opens out onto the slow passing traffic on Western Avenue. A taco wagon fronts the street.

Men - most wearing blue jeans and button-up work shirts, many with backpacks and cell phones - mill about or sit at the taco wagon's plastic picnic tables, their eyes alert to any decelerating trucks pulling up in the near lane. Were it not for the license plates on the cars driving by, you might think yourself south of the Rio Grande, waiting at a bus station in Ocatlan or Tampico.

Established in July 1999, the worksite serves an ever-growing population of day laborers, most of them Latin American immigrants come to find opportunity and security in the United States. The non-profit organization's title, CASA Latina, translates to Latin American house and is a clever, partial acronym: Centro de Ayuda Solidaria a los Amigos, or the center of help and solidarity for our friends.

Many of the people here have been in the country only a few weeks; what they carry is all they have. These eager workers find CASA's administrative office at 220 Blanchard St. and, more importantly, its worksite near the viaduct's northern terminus through the advice of friends, family or word of mouth. On the streets, advice flows freely.

They come to add their names to the work raffles held at the compound every morning, Monday through Saturday, hoping to land a gig filling holes, pounding nails, painting walls. Spanish is spoken here, but the lingua franca is work. What they want, in the end, is some semblance of financial security for themselves and their relatives living in a distant homeland.

Family driven

The United State's economy sits on Mexico's northern border like a ripe blackberry patch branching above a backyard Seattle fence. In both cases, a little cautious navigation into the thorny mess on the other side will reap a big reward.

"I think the most common dream [for our workers] is to come here for six months to a year, make enough money to resolve their economic situation and then go back home," stated CASA Latina executive director Hillary Stern.

She said the legal, and illegal, immigrants arriving at CASA's worksite often lived a hand-to-mouth existence in Mexico as subsistence farmers, or they were faced with severely stagnant job growth in their communities. A common daily wage in Mexico clicks in at 100 pesos, around $10, the current rate CASA day laborers charge per hour.

With the prospect of earning 10 times the amount they're accustomed to pocketing in a Mexican workday, the risks associated with crossing into the United States must seem trivial to these men and woman. However, the reality of leaving their families behind is burdensome sacrifice. In fact, family obligations are often the prime motivator for heading north.

"A lot of people who are coming here to work temporarily don't necessarily want to become Americans or establish deep roots," Stern observed. "So, their goal is to find work with dignity, make as much money as they can, and then go back to their own life in Mexico."

Such a course of action is natural for strangers in unfamiliar environments, and during his youth, CASA Latina's worksite coordinator, Daniel Anguiano, was no exception. Standing around 5-foot 6-inches tall, his broad shoulders, muscular hands and weathered face show how years of hard labor can sculpt a 43-year-old body. Exhaustion comes to mind when listening to Anguiano's work history, but an energetic, easy-going personality and quick laugh cushion his grinding tales of manual labor.

Anguiano first entered the United States in 1978 to visit his aunt living in Orange County. His family hoped he would stay in California and go to school, but he said his classes and surrounding community made him feel uncomfortable. Anguiano only spoke Spanish, and because of this he felt isolated. Spanish-only speakers were, at the time, rare in his aunt's neighborhood.

"At school, the kids spoke more English than Spanish, and on the street is was a kind of mix," remembered Anguiano, who said these Los Angeles natives called themselves Chicanos.

Ultimately homesickness set in after three months of Southern California living, he lost interest in school, and his family decided he couldn't stay. Anguiano went back to his small hometown in the state of Zacatecas to resume life with his mother and a portion of his 17 brothers and sisters. His father, a sugarcane cutter, died when Anguiano was a young boy.

A year passed, and Anguiano's experiences in Orange County kept firing his imagination. "I went back to Mexico and I started thinking about the money," he said.

Inspired by the wealthy country, Anguiano gathered up a group of four male friends, ages 17 to 20, and headed for the border. "There were chances for me to make some money, and back then [the border] was pretty easy to cross."

Border jumping

Easy is a relative term. The group entered into the United States through a barren and deadly expanse of Arizona's Sonoran Desert near the Agua Dulce Mountain Range and Cabeza Prieta Wilderness. Every year the parched land kills several illegal immigrants crossing on foot, usually due to fatal dehydration.

With the border challenge met, the group of penniless friends sought work immediately. They dissolved into the immigrant Latino subculture that flows through the West's small, agricultural towns. After two weeks of working and traveling, Anguiano and his friends settled in Oregon City, Ore., for the Pacific Northwest's spring-to-fall harvest season, starting with strawberries.

"Most of the people that got [to the United States] were looking for quick money that they could send back to their family," Anguiano said.

His trip, which he repeated each year until age 19, served as a rite-of-passage into young manhood for Anguiano. However, even though his immediate obligations only included himself, selfishness never overcame Anguiano: he sent home money to his mom and siblings intermittently.

Anguiano learned that weekly transmissions of money back to Mexico were life-blood rituals for many of his fellow field workers. While the cash he sent was a welcome addition to his family's resources, it wasn't crucial.

"It was like an adventure because we were looking for whatever. There were no expectations," Anguiano remembered. "If I was married and I had kids to feed and take care of, then my thoughts would have been, 'I've got to find work quick so I can send money back to my family.' I was young and I could say, 'If I get something good, good! If I don't, that's fine too.'"

Eventually his obligations changed. At 19 Anguiano married an Oregon woman during his third trip up from Zacatecas for the harvest. Soon after, he began sending money to Mexico on a regular basis, at least $100 every two weeks.

For Latino day laborers, these transactions allow their families to buy property, start businesses, help their children through school, put more food on the table and strengthen their financial safety net for leaner times. During the past several years Anguiano has lived a stable life in West Seattle, but his family ties still foster loyalty and fealty. He sends them more money now than ever before, $250 every two weeks.

Anguiano's story of supporting himself and his family by sneaking across the border to work in the United States is one of success. He even received his immigration papers during a federal naturalization effort in 1988, eliminating the threat of being deported.

Unfortunately, many Latino immigrants don't have such good luck when seeking to better their fortunes. Anguiano and his friends learned how to cross into the states on their own, but many pay human smugglers, called "coyotes," to get them across the border. Occasionally their trips end tragically and we hear stories of Latinos locked in containers and left for dead beneath the desert sun while their smugglers escaped the Border Patrol agents.

However, the more common tragedy of financial ruin often goes unreported or unnoticed. Anguiano says many Mexicans will sell their homes, property, livestock, and businesses to pay a coyote thousands of dollars to help cross the border.

"There are many people that come over here and spend a lot of money to pay for the coyote, and when they get here they get nowhere," he explained. "They get upset if they have trouble getting a job. They decide to go back to Mexico, and what happens? They are poorer than when they were first there [at home]."

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