Posted on May 30, 2014



Men young and old from impoverished towns in the Valley of Oaxaca and from the drought-stricken mountainous Mixteca congregate on streetcorners or vacant lots in the city of Oaxaca hoping a truck or pickup will swing past and the driver or his passenger will hop and shout “Cuatro, I can use four!” and jab his finger you! you! and you! Seldom is pay discussed, or what the job demands or how long it will take. Always there are more willing to work than jobs to be offered; payment seldom exceeds $20 pesos an hour (about $1.60 U.S.) and often is less.

But if one has a connection one doesn’t have to stand on a streetcorner—not always, at least. Manuel de Jesùs Rojas had such a connection. Tall, slope-shouldered, with a small vulturish face, Rojas lucked into an excavation project that lasted nearly seven weeks. Rains forced delays and the foreman, an asthmatic and somewhat myopic ex-policeman, asked Rojas to help him hustle up extra hands.

From a cubbyhole miscelanea half-a-block from the excavation project Rojas telephoned his brother-in-law in a village forty kilometers away. The next morning the brother-in-law and half-a-dozen of his neighbors were at the work site. They rented side-by-side units in a slovenly hotel and slept four-to-a-room, ate streetcorner blandas and tlayudas and worked ten and eleven hours a day although they only were paid for eight. When the job ended the foreman told Rojas “keep in touch,” other jobs were in the offing.

Some only required two or three workers, some eight to twenty. Whenever he could, Rojas returned to the village tucked against a mountainside in the lower Sierras where his wife and three children lived. They talked about moving to the city of Oaxaca but “Where would we live?” they asked each other. Work wasn’t steady; they couldn’t afford to buy or rent; at best they would become shantytown squatters piecing together some kind of structure away from the security—and poverty—of the village in which they’d been born.

That September, just as he, his brother-in-law and some others from their village had finished dismantling a dozen or more old schoolbuses for salvage parts the ex-policeman gave Rojas the name of an “ingeniero” who was assembling a work crew to begin construction for a new supermarket. The ingeniero, slightly balding and “parecido a un chilango” (looked like a Mexico City type), offered Rojas and his brother-in-law $1,800 a week (approximately $145 U.S.) as albañiles (construction workers) and some of the younger men $1,150 as helpers.

The crew of twenty-four, over half of whom were from Rojas’ village, started work the following Monday digging trenches and framing the foundation. When they finished work on Saturday the ingeniero told them he didn’t have enough money to pay all of them but would loan each of them $450 pesos to tide them through the week then pay them the full amount owed them the following Saturday. Rojas and the crew objected but “if it’s that or nothing” one of them grumbled “no hay remedio”—there’s no recourse—we have to accept.”

All but two of the twenty-four showed up to work the following Monday. Throughout the week they mixed and poured concrete and studded the outer walls. One of men from Rojas’ village complained that his wife had had to borrow “what pesitos she could” from her family to make it through the week; another that he wouldn’t have eaten if a pozolero hadn’t accepted his promise to pay for his meals when he finally got paid.

More than once during the week the ingeniero laughed and assured them “no problema, you’ll get paid.” That Saturday, as customary at Oaxaca construction sites, the crew knocked off early and the ingeniero cracked open two cases of cold Corona. As he’d promised he paid them for the two weeks of work—but at wages reduced by 200 pesos a week from the promised $1,800.

Again the workers complained but again “no hay remedio”—those from Rojas’ pueblo couldn’t go home without money for their families and many of them owed for lodging and food in Oaxaca. The worker who’d first asserted no hay remedio argued that once an employer reneged on promises he’d continue to do so but Rojas’ brother-in-law convinced him to stay with the crew, that longer terms jobs were scarce and the $1,600 a week was better than nothing.

Curses against the “pendejo chilango” ingeniero, the hard work and poverty in Mexico interrupted bursts of laughter and exaggerated accounts of falling off ladders and lost shoes that night as the crew members from Rojas’ village bumped back and forth on the forty-kilometer bus ride to spend Sunday with their families. As always the workers encountered things “bueno y malo”: grandmothers with la gripè, a child bitten by a scorpion, a cumpleaños with tres leches cake and piñatas, unpaid electric bills. To Rojas’ complaint “it puts us short of money” his wife snapped, “We’re always short of money!” then apologized, “It’s just so hard, you’re not here, the children need things.” But as his brother-in-law countered, “There’s no work in the pueblo. We finish this job and maybe find another better.”

Always that hope: something better. And always the down-pulling realty It never gets better. No matter how hard one tries.

Just before noon the following Tuesday a support beam gave way, fracturing a portion of newly framed wall and injuring two workers. One of them, an ayudante—helper—hobbled to a nearby pharmacy for pain pills but barely could walk and spent the rest of the day huddled against a retaining wall. That night the doctor in a generic pharmacy clinic confirmed that two bones in the young man’s foot were broken. Nevertheless, he showed up at work the following morning but the ingeniero told him to return on Saturday to collect his wages for the day and a half he had worked.                

He showed up but his wages didn’t. Nobody’s wages did.

“We can’t work without being paid!” Rojas insisted.

“Yes, yes, I understand!” the ingeniero responded. “I’ll have the money for you Monday. Monday at three o’clock!”

No pay and no work Monday. Short $1,600 pesos; nothing to take home to the families.

“We ought to kill the pinche cabròn!” the worker who’d counseled no hay remedio cursed as the crew watched the ingeniero drive away but “what good would it do? We’d still be without our money” the villager whose wife had had to borrow from her family muttered.

Shortly after three p.m. Monday the ingeniero drove up to the work site. He didn’t get out of his pickup but beckoned to Rojas and with attempted hail-fellow-well-met joviality explained that he didn’t have the money but would have it at seven o’clock Wednesday morning. Rojas argued that they couldn’t wait another day, they were broke, their families were desperate.

Sì, sì, entiendo!” the ingeniero shouted, slammed the vehicle into gear and gunned the engine. Rojas and two others tried to stop him but he swerved onto the thoroughfare, almost sideswiping another pickup. As Rojas turned to explain what the ingeniero had said one of the workmen assailed him with, “It’s your fault. You’re in cahoots with him!”

“Chinga tu madre!” Rojas retaliated. The workman shoved him and Rojas lunged towards him, swinging both fists. Companions pulled them apart but sides were drawn: “If he doesn’t come across Wednesday there’ll be hell to pay!”

Half the work crew sided with Rojas, others with the dissident workman. Several of the men returned to the village; Rojas promised to pick up their pay for them. He told his brother-in-law that he neither could sleep nor eat because of the conflicts. “I just want to work, get paid, provide for my family” and his brother-in-law agreed, “That’s all that any of us wants to do.”

Both sections of the divided crew—those who sided with Rojas and those who blamed him—arrived early at the worksite on Wednesday morning. Seven o’clock: no sign of the ingeniero with their money. Eight o’clock: still no sign. Finally at a quarter to nine his pickup appeared but he wasn’t in it. A younger man, small, nervous, and a uniformed policia stepped out to face the work crew.

They explained that construction was being suspended until the ingeniero returned from Mexico City with the money needed to pay the workers. Both those who supported Rojas and the dissidents pushed forward, gesticulating. The policìa jammed his two-way radio against his ear and called for reinforcements, then as he backed away shouted that they’d all be arrested if they didn’t conform. It was not an idle threat: Already the workers could hear sirens approaching.

Nevertheless, before they could leave the construction site, several of the dissident workers attacked Rojas. He, his brother-in-law and those with him fought back. As Rojas explained afterwards, “Some of were fighting, others were trying to pull us apart. Bloody noses and skinned fists, that’s what it amounted to. All of us were angry. Angry about not getting paid. Angry with the ingeniero. Angry with each other.”

Rojas and his brother-in-law tried to contact the parent company for which the construction was being done but officials there told them they had nothing to do with hiring or firing, they had hired the ingeniero’s firm to erect the building and had no control over how he managed labor relations. Rojas and his brother-in-law also notified state agencies responsible for adjudicating labor complaints and were told that they could file against the ingeniero but so many cases were pending that it would be months, or years, before theirs could be resolved. They wrote letters to the editors of the city’s newspapers, contacted human rights representatives and, in Rojas’ words, “faced our angry wives and hungry children with nothing in our pockets.”

So along with hundreds of others on streetcorners, in vacant lots, they shouldered what tools they had and waited, hoping a truck or pickup would swing past and the driver or his passenger would hop and shout “Cuatro, I can use four!” and jab his finger you! you! and you! Seldom was pay discussed or what the job demanded or how long it would take. One did what one could, got paid what one could and when one could shared a beer or two with others whose wives and children talked about their friends and neighbors whose husbands, fathers or children sent money—“lots of money back to Oaxaca”—that they earned working illegally in the United States.

From Fox Cry Review, 2014

Posted in: Life in Mexico