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Essay: My 10 Years of Working With Dallas Day Laborers

By Craig Hanley |
THE LABOR PARTY: On a recent morning, workers wait on Ross Avenue for their next job.
photography by Brian Harkin

Writers are usually broke, but if my funds get dangerously low I’ve got a buddy who lets me pitch in on his home remodeling crew. When this option opened up 10 years ago, it was a common duty for me-and for thousands of local contractors-to fetch ­a few extra day laborers first thing in the morning. You pull over your pickup at one of the corners where the men gather, and they swarm the vehicle fast. Faces crowd the windows, and the most eager prospect cracks open the passenger door, ready to jump in as soon as you quote an acceptable hourly wage. One morning about eight years ago, Hector jumped in. He was a short, solid guy and very keen. Six bucks an hour plus lunch? “Vamanos!€VbCrLf he said.

He’d come 800 miles from Cortazar, a farm town in Guanajuato, at the foot of a snoozing pyramidal volcano. Hector grew up picking vegetables in the fields and working in a smelter where he once saw a man impaled on a white-hot copper rod. After he married Lizbet, he turned truck driver. The wages barely fed their children, and meals had to be skipped when Lizbet bought new shoes for one of the kids. Right after NAFTA passed in 1994, the peso lost half its value and so did Hector’s take-home pay. His fourth child was born as the Asian financial crisis rocked the peso again. By then, he’d lost all faith in his thieving government. Like every other family man he knew, he felt duty bound to cross the border in search of survival money. 

When he got to Dallas, he had never held a power tool. Today, he can put a second story on a house with one helper-framing, plumbing, Sheetrock, roof, shingles, hardwoods, custom tile in the bathroom, and stone façade outside. He can build impressive decks and fences, repair insanely skewed foundations, and still crack open thick concrete slabs with five or six strategic sledgehammer blows. Three years after he arrived, he used saved wages to bring Lizbet here. The next year, his cousin Lupe arrived. This trio has been the core workforce of my friend’s business ever since.

Manual labor has its moments. It’s almost fun to tear the roof off a house when the autumn sun is firing up yellow-gold clusters of chinaberries overhead. What gets Hector fired up these days are engineering challenges. He built an ingenious header beam not long ago to tie together a house where we’d knocked out half the walls. It took five men on four ladders to hoist the giant lumber device eight feet up in the air and wedge it slantwise over the studs it had to cap. When Hector gave the high end a mallet whack, the beam slammed down into place, tight and plumb, with a boom like a 12 gauge. He was quick to share the credit.

“Are we big goats, or what?€VbCrLf he asked in Spanish.

But manual labor typically is not fun. When you have to spend eight hours chiseling tile off a floor, or mortar off old bricks that must be reused, music helps keep you sane. We listen to 97.1 La Preciosa-or did, until it recently switched formats-an oldies station where most songs are built around acoustic guitar, trumpets, and the words “heart,€VbCrLf “love,€VbCrLf “sorrow,€VbCrLf and “my destiny.€VbCrLf When you are digging your 16th post hole through white rock and iron-tough crepe myrtle roots, the music is a strangely welcome distraction.

But when you have to crawl under a house to dig up a nasty sewer pipe, tunes cannot take the sting out of the spider bite that swells your hand up like a grapefruit. Inevitable lungfuls of brick dust, asbestos insulation, and pulverized rat excrement help explain why my friend has never been swamped with job applications from gringos. Two smooth-talking locals with prison records did pretty well for a while until they started stealing and pawning tools. My friend’s neighbor tried to sign up his 17-year-old son, hoping that rough chores would make a man out of Zack. Zack threw up after an hour of summer heat and never came back.

Day after day, year after year, no matter what the weather, Hector, Lizbet, and Lupe show up promptly at 8 am, ready to give any and every project their all. They are loyal because their patron provides them the stability every worker craves. And he never humiliates them like Hector’s first Dallas employer, who sat in his truck drinking coffee and barking out orders while the Indian slave sweated. Nor has my buddy ever stiffed Hector on wages like the landscaping contractor who promised $500 for a brutal week of tree planting. When the sun was finally going down at the end of that week, this bad patron bought Hector a six-pack and told him to wait while he drove off to fetch the cash. Hector stood on that street corner till midnight before he finally gave up and walked home seething. Almost every migrant worker can tell similar tales.

When funding gets held up on one of my buddy’s projects, Hector still has to wait a few weeks for his earned wages, which are essentially non-negotiable. No aspect of his current situation is open to real bargaining. After work, he cannot vote, lobby, petition, picket, blog, or even prudently shoot the finger at drivers who cut him off in traffic. On the rare weekend when he drinks a few beers to unwind, he is careful to drink them at home. Very rarely, he will venture out in public to large Hispanic events.

During a recent lunch break, we sat on big plastic paint buckets in the living room of a project in progress. Hector was recounting a few wild episodes from his teen years, and the memories sounded like more than simple nostalgia. The juvenile high jinx seemed to evoke a time in his mind when he was completely free to do as he pleased. Lizbet listened to her husband. She’s an elf-like creature who can carry 80-pound bags of mortar mix when necessary. That day she had her hair tied up in a blue bandana and a big smudge of trendy paint on her cheek (Valspar Ultra Premium “Pumpkin Butter€VbCrLf).

“Yes, every blessing has its curse,€VbCrLf she told him. “Look at you now, hombre. Eating this dry barbecue.€VbCrLf

The chewy brisket from the smokehouse down the road always makes her miss the juicier barbacoa back home. It was a good-natured jab, but dry barbecue is increasingly how she sees her life in Dallas. She can feel the mood of the native Texans darkening around her family, and she feels increasingly trapped in her little rent house. It wasn’t anywhere near this inhospitable just a few years ago.

Lupe misses Cortazar, too. He misses the Corpus Christi festival when his townsmen stage night parades through the streets with illuminated statues crafted out of wax. He misses the day everybody climbs up the Cerro Culiacan-even bent old ladies with canes-to pay their respects to the Cross at the summit. And he badly misses his little son and daughter on the other side of the new border wall.

An hour before the end of work every day, Hector leaves the job site briefly to pick up his youngest from school. This is the boy whose birth drove him here. Jesus is now 10, waist high, missing front teeth, and always sporting one of his mom’s uneven soup-bowl haircuts. Quiet and shy, he sits in his dad’s truck and does homework while the grown-ups coil extension cords and sweep up sawdust.

I asked Hector about any emergency plans he might have if the mood in this country toward his people were suddenly to turn pitch black. He was kneeling in a backyard, detaching a shark-toothed wood-cutting blade from a reciprocating saw, and found the question hard to process. It was the sort of inquiry that could only be framed by a person who had never been caught up and squeezed to the point of popping by economics and politics. But Hector’s an obliging guy, so he tried to find an answer. He pondered his predicament and his destiny for 10 long seconds. Then he scrunched up his face and shrugged.

“Men always make plans,€VbCrLf he said, getting up. “God has plans of his own.€VbCrLf 

Then he went back to work.

Craig Hanley is a contributing editor to D Magazine. Write to [email protected].

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