The recession that lingers over San Diego with more tenacity than El Nino’s storm clouds has another street-level manifestation that has P.B. residents thinking the “D” word.
At the corners of Grand and Noyes, where Balboa crosses, every morning from 6 a.m. until roughly 9 or 10 a.m., as many as 50 unemployed construction workers, landscapers, masons, carpenters, or maintenance workers gather from East San Diego and Tijuana to wait for local contractors to cruise by and hire men for the day.
While this kind of scene has been familiar to rural North County residents for some years (hordes of Mexican migrant workers silting up in Escondido and Encinitas for harvesting crews), it’s a new one on the community of Pacific Beach.
At 7:30 a.m., the numbers of men (all originally from Mexico, many of whom still live there) have diminished by half. Ten men remain on the eight street corners – four corners and Grand and Noyes and four at Balboa and Noyes. Their numbers are small this morning because of the torrential rains the night before and the threat of another downpour.
One man approaches me as I ask several others if they speak English. He seems to think I am hiring. “I speak English,” he says. He tells me his name is Hector.
And his last name?
Hector looks around at the other men and grins, his green eyes mischievous, his weathered face a fine crinkling of lines. “Ah… my name is Hector Balboa!”
This elicits some laughs from the men around him. What kind of work is he looking for? “Right now, anything. Usually it is construction, but that’s bad right now. So we’re looking for anything, like gardening or anything. What have you got? We’ll do it.”
Hector and the others commute to this spot by bus. He says they have been coming here for five or six years, but some locals say it’s only been the past several months that they’ve seen them in such numbers. Why this location?
“This is where the foremen for the contractors come to pick up guys to work.”
What contractors specifically?
“Oh, I don’t know…” Hector looks away as if considering the wisdom of shooting himself in the foot. “I can’t remember their names.”
What will they be paid for a day’s work?
“Usually, before, it was $4 an hour, sometimes; sometimes just, like, $25 for one day, but now it is less. They can pay almost nothing and we have to take it. Most of these guys have only bus fare to get here… not to get back.”
Another man, behind Hector, wearing a Yankees’ cap and a flannel shirt buttoned at the throat, shirttail dangling, twists the stringy hairs on his beard for emphasis and says something in Spanish, which I took to mean, They can pay us anything, and we’ll do it because we are all idiots. Hector translates more effectively. “He says they can pay us whatever they want to. They’ve got us by the pubic hairs.”
Of the growing numbers of men that arrive on these corners every morning, how many of them can expect to be hired?
“If there are 20 guys, maybe 10 will get work. Sometimes a little more. Last week, 4 guys were hired jus to help somebody move out of their apartment in La Jolla. He promised them $20 each but just paid $50 for everybody. The guys just worked too fast, I think. The young guy that hired them thought it would take all day, but it only took my friends maybe two hours, so maybe he thought $80 was too much. They said, this isn’t right, but the guy said too bad. What are you going to do? I know most of these guys and really, they work, they don’t, you know… fuck around and like that, but with this guy, they should have worked slower and maybe they would get paid more.” Hector grinned ironically.
Hector is short and broad with almost oriental green eyes in an Indian-Spanish face. He wears a navy blue watch cap pulled low on his brow. His mustache is thick and tinged with red. He is friendly enough, but his features can fall into a look of menace that suggests you take him seriously. He seems to be an unofficial leader and spokesman for the workers.
Are there more men seeking work out here because of the recession?
“It’s more like the depression, I think – “ Hector is not afraid of the “D” word – “from what my father told me about it. Most of these guys have had pretty good jobs for a few years. We’re not, most of us, used to hanging around on a corner just to get a job for one day. This is a new thing, but… what are you gonna do? I work with these guys, they are like partners. The foremen know most of these guys and know they are good workers, but a lot of times now, the foremen don’t work too. There’s some guys…” he gestures at the far corner by the Shell Station. “They were foremen. But not now.”
Are all these men legal residents? Or are a lot of them without green cards or amnesty papers?
“Everybody… I think,” he peers at the groups on the corners, “are legal. Maybe a few guys aren’t legal, but it’s none of my business. The police come around and check to make sure that nobody is selling drugs or whatever they think. We’re not. They bother us a couple of times a week, but not too much. La Migra has come here, and they do take some guys sometimes. They are usually young guys.”
Is Hector seeing more border cops in P.B. these days?
“Yeah, a little more. Most people are used to seeing everybody here in the morning, but maybe some old lady gets afraid and thinks, ‘Oh, the Mexicans are invading!’ Then she calls the police, then they call La Migra. These guys from the border patrol are all, like, from Texas. They send them down here to train or something. They all got cowboy hats, and they don’t know anything about San Diego. They think, like they are in the movies.” He laughs. “The police are not too bad, but it’s those guys from Texas, man. They’re bad.”
I thanked Hector and got some coffee down the street. In the middle of my second cup, I saw a turquoise border patrol sedan pull up to the Shell station. Two guys with cowboy hats got out and started talking to a few of the men. I could make out Hector’s form, rushing over to intervene.
By the time I got back to the corner, the border cops, two men who looked to be in their 20s, had put two Mexican men about their own age in the back seat of the Chevy sedan. Neither of them seemed to be cuffed.
“Excuse me, are you busting these guys? Are these guys’ illegal aliens?”
The driver of the car shook his head and said, “Cain’t talk to you. Cain’t answer any questions.”
“Well, did you get a call, a complaint? You guys cruise by here routinely?”
The driver shifted his glasses on the bridge of his nose, shrugged. I walked over to the passenger’s side and asked his partner, “What’s the deal with these guys you’re taking in? No ID – what? You establish that they are illegal?”
The blond partner shook his head. “Ain’t your business, way I see it. You talk to the public information officer. Cain’t talk to you.”
They drove off with their two passengers-prisoners-deportees. Hector says, “Texas guys, man. You see those hats?”
I nodded. “I’m not sure,” Hector Balboa said thoughtfully, “but I think that one guy was maybe Roy Rogers.”