Mauricio Cruz doesn't like to talk about himself. He's a gentle person with big, brown eyes, seemingly incapable of malice. “I always tell the truth, so no one can talk behind my back,” he offers quietly in a small office on Van Nuys Boulevard.
The 24-year-old documented Nicaraguan immigrant, at 5 feet 8 and 200 pounds, wears Santee Alley designer jeans, a bright blue Southpole T-shirt and white dress shoes. He has deep, unguarded eyes and speaks in a soft, functional English as he talks to his advocate, Mark Volper, a Moscow transplant who runs the California Workers Advocates office in Van Nuys.
“My grandmother taught me that you always need to be good to others, no matter how they're treating you,” Cruz says. “If I can help you, I'll be blessed.”
It's been more than four years since he left his grandmother, Ildefonsa Vasquez, in Corinto, Nicaragua, to work in the United States. In November 2008 he was hired at Printefex Inc., a print shop on Los Feliz Boulevard in Glendale.
Cruz claims that what seemed like a good situation eroded into a relentless cycle of abuse at the hands of his boss, Printefex co-owner Eric Ovanespour. But Ovanespour says that never happened: “I deny all charges. I very deny all charges,” he says.
Cruz's duties included making boxes and posters and overnighting packages, working 13 hours or more some days. He says he cleaned the boss's houses on weekends, getting paid 40 hours weekly by check, the rest in cash.
Cruz says Ovanespour sometimes came to work very angry. “I was getting yelled at a lot because I didn't speak any English,” he recalls. “He said very bad things to me.”
Cruz says the verbal abuse segued into physical attacks, which he claims he endured for more than two years until he filed a case with the U.S. Department of Labor on July 6.
“The case is because my boss sometimes hit me,” he says. “When I was cutting [boxes] my boss would come up behind me and wrestle with me. 'Don't you wanna play?' he said. He punched me so hard it broke the skin and left bruises. One time, when I working on the computer, he wrestled me from behind and I went unconscious for over two minutes.”
Cruz's mother asked him who'd left the marks. “My patron,” he said, “but I couldn't do anything because I didn't want to lose my job.”
He says the worst part was the stress the situation caused his mother, Silvia, who had recently suffered a heart attack. “I didn't want her to feel bad. I was humiliated. I get nervous just thinking about it. He hit me very hard. I was scared. I never hit him back. Everybody [at work] would look at me as if I was a dog. I did most of the work there, and they treated me as if I did nothing.”
Cruz says Ovanespour told him they were friends, and that he was just playing around.
Confused by that message, and bound by the need to support his family, Cruz felt powerless: He says that if he stayed and absorbed the abuse, he had to surrender his dignity. But the alleged attacks were leaving him physically and psychologically damaged.
Like Ktesibios' water clock, Cruz describes a situation that was self-perpetuating. He understood that if he wanted to keep his job, he needed to absorb the alleged blows.
His predicament permeated his dreams, stealing his sleep each night in his small apartment in South Los Angeles near Broadway and 70th Street.
Today, still traumatized, Cruz says he fears retribution from his former boss. “I'm scared of him. I think he might do something to harm me or my family. My friend told me to stand up for myself, that he'd help me file the papers.”
That friend, Herbert A. Vasquez, 36, who worked with Cruz for seven months at Printefex, was “like a brother,” Cruz says.
Vasquez says Cruz “gave 100 percent. I saw the abuse that was going on, and I said, 'I can't work here anymore.' I put the papers in to the Labor Department for Mauricio.”
Cruz filed two cases against Printefex: one with the U.S. Department of Labor, over wages, and one with California's Division of Workers' Compensation over the alleged physical abuse. He also plans to pursue a civil case.
Volper, a formidable advocate, moved to the U.S. three decades ago from Moscow. With silver hair and closely cropped beard, wearing a crisp white shirt, he smiles easily and speaks in a thick accent. “From Russia with love, 30 years!” he laughs.
He calls such employer-mistreatment allegations rare. In his job, Volper says, “I've never seen physical assault on males. Usually it's on women who are completely depressed, and men take advantage.” Volper alleges that Cruz was assaulted not “once or twice, it was over two years. And now they play games that it was a joke, with the scars, with the bruises.”
Volper describes Cruz as “psychologically damaged. He didn't stand up for himself and that's what piss me off. In this country, why he didn't stand up for himself? They took advantage from day one. Everything, monetarily, psychologically, physically, emotionally, spiritually. I'm not a psychologist, but no normal person would do it to another human being for so long.”
In Volper's view, Cruz “sacrificed in order to provide for grandmother, for family. [His tormentors] knew that he doesn't have choice. In Russia, everything has explanation: System against you, cards stack up, nothing you can do, don't even try. But here, that's what piss me off. It's an arrogance, like nothing bad [will] happen to them.”
Regardless of the outcome of the cases, Cruz finally feels empowered. It could be because of the blessing his grandmother told him of, when he was a boy in Nicaragua.