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Day As a Day Laborer

by Ryan Deto

"PINCHE" this and “cabrón” that. The day laborers I worked with in Capistrano Beach, California articulated these Spanish versions of “fucking” and “bastard” constantly. I even heard the occasional English “shit.” I didn’t realize that swear words could be incorporated, multiple times, into every sentence of every discussion. I was not taken aback or offended by this revelation; being a champion of curse words, I regularly drop F-bombs merely because I think they’re humorous. Still, I was shocked at the frequency at which the swear words were verbalized. The way the day laborers cursed opened me up to a whole new world that I didn’t think was a reality.

The Friday morning starts early. The coastal fog still lingers as I arrive at the parking lot behind Donut World on Camino Capistrano in Capistrano Beach at 6:30 a.m., hoping I am not too late to get a day-laborer job. The small restaurant resembles more of a run-down shack than a donut shop; the powder blue paint chips off the exterior walls and day laborers keep filing in and out the restroom located on the side of building. Workers speckle the parking lot, hanging out in small groups of three or five. I shuffle up to a pair of men leaning against the window of a deserted laundromat. The old plaid flannel jackets and tattered jeans of the two men are typical of the outfits worn by the majority of the workers waiting in the parking lot. I chose an ensemble that includes an old red Stanford hoodie, paint-stained blue sweatpants and a dirty black baseball cap to try to fit in with the crowd. Even with the outfit I still get a barrage of strange looks from all of the workers. My costume may resemble that of a typical day laborer, but it does not disguise the fact that I am the only white guy waiting for a job in the parking lot. The two men standing next to me break apart to leave me all by myself. I am an island in an unfamiliar sea.

Standing silently is not the only way to pass time while waiting for jobs in Capistrano Beach. One Sunday morning I went down to Donut World to try to get some work. To my surprise, the workers were separated into groups, playing different games. Three men were throwing quarters on the sidewalk, playing a game called “The Line.” Each man threw a quarter onto the sidewalk, trying to get his quarter closest to the crevice between the blocks of concrete. Whoever got closest to the crevice won the quarters of the other two players. If a player landed the quarter in the crevice then the other two players would give the winner an extra quarter each. If any of the quarters were the exact distance from the crevice or in the crevice itself, then those players threw again to determine a winner. Further back in the lot, groups of men huddle around the back of trucks playing 5-card draw poker, gambling, smoking cigarettes and joints, and laughing all at the same time. A car drives by and a young white man and an older white woman, perhaps his mother, asked for two men to work in their yard. They pick a short, young Mexican man and his chubby friend and drive off.

The strange thing was that the majority of the members of each group didn’t react to the employers driving up and asking for workers. Could all of the workers be so lazy as to refuse an easy opportunity to work? That seemed highly unlikely. In his book Tally’s Corner, Elliot Liebow describes the congregation of black men on a street corner in Washington, D.C. An employer approaches the group and almost all of them refuse work. Since the men hang out on the street and refuse work , they are perceived as lazy. Liebow explains, however, that each man has his own complex situation and the fact that they spend time on a street corner in the middle of the day does not mean that they do not have a job. The black men just chose the street corner as a gathering place, an escape from other parts of their lives. The workers hanging out near Donut World are probably doing the same thing. But I am not waiting in the parking lot to hang out or play games; I am waiting to find a job.

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