A Brooklyn Corner | The Nation


A Brooklyn Corner

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Most Wednesdays, 27-year-old Ligia Guallpa arrives around 11:30 am. Short and slim, she could be mistaken for a college student with her wire-frame glasses and large backpack. Guallpa is not a day laborer, though she was raised by one. She’s the head of a small nonprofit group: the Workers Justice Project, an affiliate of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

This article was made possible by the generous support of the Ms. Foundation for Women Fellowship. Special thanks to Karina Vasquez, Karen López and María Alexandra García-Sánchez of the Caracol Interpreters Cooperative.

About the Author

E. Tammy Kim
E. Tammy Kim (@etammykim) will soon join Al Jazeera America as a staff writer.

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Women who care for poor kids are often mothers living in poverty themselves.

On the corner, she greets every Latina worker and waves to the Polish women she knows. She tapes sheets of office paper to the chain-link fence, creating an ersatz bulletin board for English words and phrases. She attracts a small crowd of listless workers—by this time, the day’s hiring is mostly done.

“The first question should be ‘How many hours?’ because, based on that, you decide how much to charge,” Guallpa says on a recent Wednesday. “If the lady says five hours, you say, ‘I charge $10 per hour.’ If only one hour, $15.” The workers nod; some take notes. An elderly Satmar man in a tall, fuzzy hat pauses to check out the scene. He looks disapproving.

Guallpa teaches the women the days of the week. “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,” she says slowly, in call-and-response fashion. But when she gets to Saturday, a long-timer named Rosa says in broken English, “Jewish no working Saturday!” Everyone chuckles in agreement, and Guallpa crosses it out, moving on to “Sunday–Domingo.”

Around noon, after the mini lesson, Guallpa invites the workers to a ground-floor church annex a few blocks away. Ten Latinas follow her down Marcy Avenue—for bathroom access, hot coffee and conversation. They settle into a circle of folding metal chairs and introduce themselves (name, country of origin, time in the United States, time on the corner). 

Guallpa polls the women about their many obligations. Most are struggling to cover basic expenses, an average of $1,500 per month for rent, cellphone, clothes, food, MetroCard, childcare and medical expenses—nearly double their average income on the corner.

It is 21-year-old Antonia Martinez’s second week as a day laborer. She has quit her job at a grocery store, where she was underpaid and scheduled so tightly that she rarely saw her toddler son. She explains, in fluent English, that the job “wasn’t worth it”—but her husband didn’t earn enough as a construction day laborer to support the family.

“A lot of the women are the head of the household, have kids, and they have more responsibilities on their shoulders as women,” Guallpa says. “They have to do all that’s in their hands to find work.” 

By reaching out to the workers, Guallpa and co-organizer Yadira Sanchez hope to incite change on La Parada: better wages, protection from the elements and mops for all. They model their organizing after unions and day labor centers that offer shelter, wage scales, training and contracts in writing. In Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, at the wind-whipped edge of Gravesend Bay, the Workers Justice Project already runs a tiny but successful center for construction workers (inherited from a predecessor group, the Latin American Workers’ Project). Guallpa and Sanchez also recruit women for an entrepreneurial alternative to day labor: the Apple Eco-Cleaning green housecleaning cooperative. 

Bety, a Mexican worker with the large, dark features of Maria Callas, appreciates—but also is realistic about—the organizers’ efforts on the corner. “Ligia comes, but in three years nothing has changed. The pay’s the same,” she says. “But she taught me how to say how much I want to be paid, not to ask what the pay is. That helps a lot…but people need work, so they go down to eight dollars.” 

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“You want to work?” a middle-aged Hasidic woman asks a young Latina.

“I charge twelve,” the Latina replies, somewhat nervously.

“Fine,” the employer scoffs, going down the row. A second jornalera agrees to $10 per hour and follows the woman down Division Avenue.

Satmar women usually do the hiring on foot (the men do the driving), with stroller and children in tow. At home, they instruct the cleaners to cover up—even imposing a modest, long-sleeved smock, according to many Latina workers—and to keep the kitchen kosher (meat and dairy plates separate). Sometimes they send their husbands to the corner to inspect the day laborers and confirm their choice via cellphone. Sometimes Hasidic men pull up to the curb in minivans, silently beckoning one, two or three workers through the sliding door—for housecleaning or to work in kosher factories packing chocolate and cookies.

It’s a bizarre (and bizarrely American) multicultural symbiosis. But why does the nation’s only domestic day labor corner exist in such a radically Orthodox religious neighborhood?

For starters, Satmar women have a lot to do. Every week, leading up to the Shabbat (the daylong sabbath beginning Friday evening), they must make sure the house is clean, wash and dress an average of nine children, and cook a long list of ritual foods. As a result, many rely on a goyte, or non-Jewish “cleaning lady”; the Latina and Polish day laborers are busiest Thursdays and Fridays. 

Shabbat hardly compares with the Jewish holidays, which are “a huge amount of work for women,” says Ayala Fader, a Fordham University anthropologist and author of Mitzvah Girls. The spring holiday of Passover requires an intense level of cleaning—“to fulfill the religious requirement that all leavening be removed from the home”—and is therefore greatly anticipated by the day laborers. Rosario, a middle-aged Ecuadorian who’s been coming to La Parada on and off for about two years, recalls, “At that time you even have to clean the walls…. I get hired for eight to fifteen hours at a time.” 

Yet the sheer volume of domestic work doesn’t explain why women are hired off the corner rather than through an agency or by word of mouth. Perhaps the Satmar find anonymous day labor less intrusive than steady help; perhaps it’s the convenience. A 44-year-old Satmar woman, who wished to remain anonymous, told me, “Most people do hire off the corner when they’re most desperate…usually pre-holiday or Shabbat.” What’s more, “there’s a large informal economy in general among these communities. If you can, you do cash and off the books.”

The corner is nothing if not informal. Women cycle in and out. There’s no first-in, first-out rule or agreement on wages. There’s no clear logic as to who’s hired, though many Latinas say the Polish women are favored. (The same Satmar woman wrote via e-mail, “everyone’s gotten used to the Mexican cleaning women…[but] the Polish women [are] ‘hungrier,’ willing to work more hours and do anything.”) Rosa, a petite, self-assured Mexican woman with a long ponytail, says, “Sometimes bosses pick old workers, sometimes young. Sometimes people who look very good, sometimes not. It’s luck—what a person feels like that day.” 

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