Seattle's migrant workers fight for identity

Waves of immigration built this country, yet each wave stands isolate and alone - one of the deep and abiding ironies at the heart of the American dream. It's almost impossible these days for young people living in the United States, now generations removed from the experience of their great-grandparents, to comprehend the monumental trials faced by these immigrants, their ancestors.

The early uprooting from family and native soil, the difficulties of confronting a foreign language and alien culture, the grinding, up-from-the-bootstraps struggle to make-do is a journey that amounts to a rite of passage. It's a path laden with lethal pitfalls, soul-shattering dead ends, and public misperceptions.

Nowhere in Seattle is this drama played out with more gritty reality than the sidewalk in front of CASA Latina's worksite in Belltown. For the casual observer walking or driving slowly down Western Avenue near the day labor facility, the gathering of men in the block surrounding the worksite appears to have more than its share of ragged, seemingly homeless people hanging about - folks that may be spending too much time cuddled up next to their favorite drug.

The evidence of abuse can shock: empty cans of cheap domestic beer thrown about a fenced-off hillside; a sickening whiff of alcohol and urine wafting along the sidewalk; or a glimpse of a person taking a furtive, paranoid hit off a crack pipe. But just as an apple's bruises draw one's eyes away from the shining red skin, drunks and crack heads pull one's attention away from the gathering of sharp-eyed people eager to work hard for themselves and their distant families.

According to the Seattle Police Department, the downtown streets and sidewalks surrounding the CASA worksite are host to approximately 10 "chronic public inebriates." They mix with the day laborers like flies in applesauce, fueling a good portion of the negative impressions many people harbor against the area and, subsequently, the workers who gather there.

"The people that are organized and have ambition are much greater than the ones you see because a lot of [the ambitious ones] are working," noted Hillary Stern, CASA Latina's executive director. "People will see [the drunk] as one of 50 when in reality he's one of 1,000."

The art of blending in

There are communities in the Pacific Northwest so heavily Hispanic that, like San Francisco's Chinatown, they take on many aspects of the immigrant's native soil. Their businesses cater to the Latino culture with storefront signs and advertisements written in Spanish highlighting the brands of food, styles of music and the money transfer services intimately familiar to those living south of the border. This increasingly common infrastructure creates a culture of isolated safety, and the Latino immigrants following the seasonal cycle of work from farm to city to farm thrive within its confines.

It's a common question for native English speakers to ask why these people don't learn America's dominant language. The answer is simple: they don't need to while living in such tight circles.

"I started learning English when I started traveling [East for work]. I had to," recalled CASA Latina's 43-year-old worksite coordinator, Daniel Anguiano. "It wasn't my choice because I had to deal with many people who didn't speak Spanish. It was a big change for me. Where I was in Oregon there were a lot of Spanish people."

Although his English improved, it was used mainly for communication with job site managers and prospective employers. When it came to daily survival and long-range planning, Anguiano still relied on his native tongue. If he wasn't traveling with someone who knew the proverbial lay of the land, he fell back on his habit of striking up conversations with anyone who spoke Spanish. When heading from the country to the city, this networking taught him where he could find safe shelter and sleep, what parts of town he should avoid, and where to pick up jobs.

It's unavoidable that immigrants following the ebb and flow of work pulsing through America's countryside and urban centers will spend money. This necessity forces shrewd workers, like Anguiano in his non-management days, to think strategically when facing the inevitable end of their temporary jobs. Cash is always on the immigrant worker's mind.

For immigrant laborers, wading into a city's work stream requires a series of street savvy steps; immigrants need to project an illusion of permanence to passersby and prospective employers while at the same time eliminating the reality of homelessness. The first step in this process invariably has to do with money.

"If you don't show people you have money, you have nothing to worry about," Anguiano said. "You don't know how much I have in my pocket because I'm never going to tell you."

After several years of wandering and working in Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Colorado, Anguiano decided to give Seattle a try in 2001. With two week's pay hidden in his jeans, he hopped off the Greyhound bus in downtown Seattle.

While some of his fellow immigrants prefer hiding their traveling money in their shoes, Anguiano learned from other's mistakes that shoes can easily be stolen. Instead, he hid his bills, folded flat and shoved through a hole he made on the inside of his pant's waist belt.

At the time, Anguiano said he could have afforded a hotel, but he didn't want to spend money on a room before vetting his job prospects. With this in mind, Anguiano got off the bus and quickly asked some strangers if they knew a place where he could clean up. Someone pointed him to an urban rest stop where he showered, shaved and did his laundry for free.

Along with his travel-worn appearance, his large backpack was another problem. Employers don't like to hire you if they see you carrying all of your possessions around, Anguiano noted. He therefore stashed his extra clothes and documents in a monthly storage locker located near the bus station.

These simple acts helped him meld with the city's rhythms.

"You're a citizen. You can say you belong to Seattle," Anguiano said about the importance of cleaning up and storing your stuff when arriving in a new city. "I was showered, wearing clean clothes and good shoes. I went into the city like I was there forever."

Driven or drugged

Through word of mouth Anguiano found his way to CASA Latina's worksite, where he waited around for a few days, checking out how the system worked. He soon discovered that the place was largely worker led and run, and the responsibility was on people like himself to make sure respect, order and a suitable public appearance were maintained.

This can be more difficult than it seems, especially considering the drunks and the crack heads found mingling on occasion with the workers waiting by the CASA compound. However, drunk or high individuals are not allowed to sign up for the work lottery. This noted, the CASA worksite remains open to anyone who wants to hang out or use the bathroom, often creating confusion and bad impressions with passersby.

Angel Muñoz, the 22-year-old CASA Latina worksite dispatcher, said the goal of the staff is to "try to make it a safe place," both for those who utilizes the organization's services as well as for everyone passing through the neighborhood.

"What we're trying to do now is let the people know that they can drink, but not in the area," Muñoz added. "When we are open, we keep the people who drink out of the area."

Anthropologically speaking, such an attitude of live-and-let-live is more common to Latin American culture than that of the United States. It's not in the Mexican character to tell people what to do or to bust them for perceived misbehavior. This laissez-faire ethos presents difficulties when it comes to patrolling one of the rougher areas of downtown Seattle. Yet, according to Muñoz, the current staff at CASA has been successful in its dual mission of image control and internal harmony.

In fact, he says he doesn't think disruptive behaviors such as drinking, selling drugs and fighting are the problem they once were.

"A year and half ago, it was crazy down here," Muñoz said. He credits the current improvements to the direct efforts of the staff.

The serious revamping, Muñoz said, started about six months ago, when he and Anguiano began to overhaul a system perceived by some to be dominated by favoritism. Though he admitted some workers outside the system still feel the raffle is unfair, Muñoz feels there is greater accord and harmony among the staff and those they serve.

"Before, it was everybody fighting with everybody," he said of CASA's past difficulties. "We did fix it. Not a 100 percent, but a lot."

Muñoz pointed to CASA's current roster of laborers - which in six months has risen from 80 to 100 folks signing up for the work lottery to the 100 to 140 signing up these days - as evidence of the organization's successes.

Javier Alonso Salas Buenrostro (see "Work Wanted, Part II," Nov. 2), a 21-year-old affiliate of CASA Latina, agrees that there's a problem with "people getting high and drinking."

"This place can be dangerous. You don't know which people you're among," said Buenrostro, who felt the image of CASA Latina "needs to be more positive."

Juan Martinez, an occasional patron of CASA Latina, said he sees lots of his compatriots fall onto hard times, getting mixed up with gangs and tangled in substance abuse.

"Drinking, doing drugs, it's not a life," Martinez said, which he said creates a conflicting image of the presence CASA tries to project to the outside world. "Some people, they think it's bad people here."

Martinez noted that a lot of laborers and transients not affiliated with CASA Latina tend to congregate near the organization's worksite. Despite a strict stance on alcohol consumption, it's impossible, not to mention undesirable, for CASA to police any activity not taking place on its own stake of land. It's not CASA Latina's problem; and it's exactly CASA Latina's problem.

After decades of experience as a farm and city day-laborer, Anguiano has reached a simple conclusion as to why it's hard for many people to see past the blemishes tainting his companions' images.

"We have to deal with a lot of people on the street. That's our main problem," Anguiano asserted. "That's the only reason we can not show the community who we are. I'm sure, 100 percent, if we get a place where we don't have to deal with these people here on the street, we can show the community who we are and we can organize better."[[In-content Ad]]