Squads of men in denim, flannel, and baseball caps with the names Oscar de la Hoya, Budweiser, Corona, John Deere, and Jack Daniel’s, as well as whole phrases: Mi Vida es un Madre, shuffle with practiced patience on Encinitas Boulevard just west of I-5. Quiet men for the most part, moving slowly among each other, smiling, nodding, speaking in low voices. No roughhousing, no norteño music blaring from cheap radios, no soccer-playing with crumpled paper bags as I’d seen workers do years ago on Grand Avenue in Pacific Beach. The men here are doing their best to be invisible, unless you’re looking for them. They have become, in a way, what J.B. Priestley described as “The Grey Ones.”
Some are eating an Egg McMuffin or a Cup-A-Soup and tortillas. They drink thin McDonald’s coffee, little darker than their caramel skin. At intervals a funny comment is made about drivers cruising slowly past into the mini-mall, and the men expose gums and teeth in grins of chrome mouthwork or yellowed and gapped like old and damaged ivory keys on a piano. Few of the men smoke. Cigarettes, like dentists, are luxuries. It is 6:00 a.m. and these men, in three different clusters — the Oaxacans, the Guatemalans, and those from Michoacán — are hoping for eight hours of work. The odds are pretty good.
This is my third day of trying to get workers at three different locations in North County to talk to me. At the far end of the Home Depot parking lot, just off Leucadia Boulevard, as many as 30 men will be gathered along a fence, squatting, leaning, milling, and eating. Occasionally a vehicle rolls slowly past — usually a pickup truck or a van with the name of a landscaping company, cement contractor, or nursery (though more often, the van, SUV, whatever, will bear no commercial markings) — and the driver will extend a hand displaying fingers for the number of workers he needs. None of these employers will talk to me — I didn’t expect them to. The workers are less paranoid and will talk, albeit warily, up to a point. That point is usually when I produce the tape recorder or camera.
I am driven to that measure after about half an hour of loitering, wearing a baseball cap that says “Dietrich Corporation General Engineering Contractors,” which I picked up at the Salvation Army thrift store. I sport a few days’ growth of beard, with a long, full mustache, and T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. I don’t wear my prescription sunglasses because hardly any of these Latino guys wear them — except some of the younger ones — and I hope to fool no one among the hopeful workers; to them, I look like Newt Gingrich. But I am hoping to pass with some local suburbanite looking for a gardener or a bricklayer or someone to chop the bamboo roots out of the yard to make way for the new gazebo and barbecue area. In other words, someone white and clueless, to whom Italians, Mexicans, and probably Middle Easterners and Jews all look alike.
The third location I try — after being good-naturedly dismissed by the Home Depot franchise of day-labor pools — is on Encinitas Boulevard east of I-5, at the gas station at Calle Magdalena. These guys are from states in southern Mexico, like Chiapas, and wear straw ranchero hats. Their skin is wrinkly suede or relief maps of dry riverbeds and unpaved back roads. They hardly speak at all. I am told by one of the Tijuanenses that a fruit shipper whose foreman is also from southern Mexico always hires these men.
Laureano Díaz Velazco is 70 years old. None of the groups want him in their midst. An old one is unlikely to get hired, and the others distance themselves, like Japanese businessmen in the company of a CEO who has lost face after a failed merger deal. Díaz’s only crime is the passage of time and old ways. Díaz has a green card — a work visa, or papeles. He has had it for 12 years and has worked in Texas and Las Vegas. When he was young he owned a bracero card, those work passports that FDR’s administration began issuing to Mexican workers during WWII in order to fill jobs left vacant as Americans went overseas to fight Hitler and Tojo. When asked if he speaks English, he says, “Pretty good.” Turns out, those two words are pretty much his whole repertoire and he proceeds to speak in rápido Spanish. Too fast for me, but I get the gist. He wants me to hire him for gardening, painting, or janitorial work. At all of these jobs he is “pretty good.” He makes a flabby músculo of his right biceps. I expect him to drop and give me ten one-armed push-ups like Jack Palance at the Oscars. I give him some money just to talk to me, tell me his historia. He takes the bills but eyes me curiously. He’s never been hired just to talk before.
“¿Porqué?” he asks me, and I tell him I am an escritor. He nods, satisfied.
A man named Luciano keeps following me around. He is happy and free with Spanish sexual references to women and their body parts, positively chatty, but not with work skills or job histories. I’m not sure why he feels he can share such rabid, macho sexuality with a gringo, a complete stranger, but at least he’s talking. Eventually he walks down the road, beneath the overpass of I-5, and toward the mini-mall.
The elderly Díaz then resumes his story. He is telling me that up until six years ago he was blind and walked with a white cane. He was healed at a revival meeting in Texas and saw “the light of God” (la luz de Dios). His mother was also cured of some indefinite malady against which all medicine was powerless. They were both washed from their heads to their waists in river water. He falls to his knees in front of me, makes the sign of the cross, and draws a numeral nine in the dirt. “It was at nine o’clock in the morning that my sight returned. It is my lucky number. I charge nine dollars an hour. I can see perfectly.” He turns his face up to me and his eyes are tired, moist with emotional recollection, and milky with traces of cataracts. To my relief he gets off his knees and paces slowly. He gestures for me to sit on a hollowed-out palm tree stump and listen. He tells me God was “a white hand” and that his brothers witnessed the healing but saw no God. He shows me a crude scapular necklace of stitched suede, brown with pale thread in the shape of a shield and crucifix. It is well-thumbed and filthy.