By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
I'm going to sing you a story, friendsthat will make you cry,how one day in front of Kmartthe migra came down on us,sent by the sheriffof this very same place . . .
The thumping bass strings of a bajo sexto punctuate a simple 2/4 rhythm as a couple of old guitars and a plaintive accordion carry the familiar chord changes of a Mexican corrido. Seven mournful voices ring across the parking lot on St. Andrews Place, belting out the Spanish words in traditional style.
Surrounding the singers, dozens of men dressed in work clothes listen intently, crowding under a blue awning or standing out on the black asphalt, sweltering in the sun. The musicos proceed with their cautionary tale:
We don't understand why,we don't know the reason,why there is so muchdiscrimination against us.In the end we'll wind upall the same in the grave.
At the end of each verse, the listeners shout, or whistle, their encouragement. It's obvious that almost everyone knows the story, and that many have had the same kinds of experiences.
The song relates the history of a famous 1996 immigration raid in the City of Industry. On a rainy winter morning, Border Patrol agents charged into a street-corner clinic where a dozen or so day laborers had lined up to be tested for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. One worker, Omar Sierra, had just taken his seat at the examining station, where a clinic worker had tied off his arm and inserted the needle for drawing the first blood sample. As agents of the migra swarmed across the street and sidewalk, Sierra jumped up, tore off the tourniquet, pulled the needle out of his vein and ran.
Sierra escaped and made it home. Shaken by his experience and determined never to forget his less fortunate friends, he committed their fate to music. Returning to the corner three days later, he sang his song to those who remained.
Omar Sierra's song is not just a history; it's an anthem. The seven singers in the parking lot - Sierra, Pablo Alvarado, Jesus Rivas, Julio Cesar Bautista, Paula de la Cruz, John Garcia and Omar Garcia - are more than a group of friends performing for their own pleasure and profit; they're the day-labor band Los Jornaleros del Norte. And singing Sierra's "Corrido de Industry" is no casual social event; it's a new way of organizing Los Angeles' mostly immigrant daylabor force.
"What do we do while we're waiting for work on the corner every morning?" asks guitarist Alvarado. "We're learning to live with each other, telling jokes and stories, playing games, arguing about football. We're learning to organize ourselves to the rhythm of our happiness and sadness. We're creating a culture of liberation."
It hasn't been easy for the Jornaleros del Norte to survive as a band. All its members - except Alvarado, who's a full-time organizer for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) - earn their living from the curb every morning, at any of more than 200 day-labor corners across Los Angeles. None of them owns a car, so getting together to practice is hard. And taking time off to perform doesn't help pay the rent at the end of the month.
But when they are able to play, their audience recognizes itself, not just in the words and music, but in the clothes, the mannerisms and the hundred details that make it plain that these musicians earn their daily bread on the streets. The band is a living, singing demonstration that solidarity among day laborers is not just a possibility but a reality.
Organizing people who work on the streets in L.A. requires more than a sing-along and a common culture, however. At 6 on a gray morning beside the Home Depot parking lot at Sunset Boulevard and St. Andrews Place, a grittier reality shows its face as Alvarado and another organizer, Mario Martinez from the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA), approach a group of 20 men strung along the sidewalk. The workers are wearing plain trousers and cheap work shirts. Some lean against a cinder-block wall in small groups, talking quietly and smoking; others sit on the curb itself. They're all waiting for the contractors to pull out of the Home Depot parking lot.
At this time of the morning, a steady stream of small trucks drives in and out of the lot, hauling out building supplies. As the drivers load up and start to pull away, Alvarado hands each of them a leaflet showing the location of a new day-labor pickup site IDEPSCA has opened in a parking lot a few blocks away.
The workers on the curb aren't happy about the leafleting. Every truck that goes to the new site represents a job lost to them. A group of half a dozen men forms at the corner of Sunset. Two or three are in their 20s; the others are middle-aged. As they move angrily toward the driveway, their voices get louder. Soon Martinez, who's walked over to meet them halfway, is faced with a wall of hostile faces shouting questions and threats: "I have a family to feed!" "Who's going to buy school clothes for my three kids?"
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