Will Work for Jornaleros
Can the Colectivo Tonantzin secure another victory against anti-day laborer ordinances in the county, this time in Orange?
The sidewalk in front of the Bean Bag and Futon Factory in Orange doesn’t seem like the ideal place for a day laborer to find work. It’s next to a busy stretch of Katella Boulevard, a stretch that seems more like a highway than a safe place to stop and pick up a jornalero. And there’s not exactly a demand for futon or beanbag installers in this (or any) economy.
Yet every morning, between sunrise and 11 a.m., some 10 to 25 men stand along the sidewalk. They stack bikes against a ficus tree and take turns waving a large white sign that reads, “HIRE WORKERS HERE” in red letters. And every morning, members of the Costa Mesa-based Colectivo Tonantzin accompany the jornaleros, armed with cameras and constantly monitoring where the workers stand to ensure they don’t break the law.
“Some of the businesses in the area call the cops a lot,” explains Arturo Tolentino, a 23-year-old Santa Ana resident whose thick glasses and shock of wavy hair make him look like a Mexican intellectual circa 1968. “But they come and explain [to the people who complain] that we’re in complete compliance with the law.”
And the Bean Bag and Futon Factory? “The owner never hassles us. He doesn’t mind. We leave before they open.”
The Colectivo, which numbers about 12 core members but counts dozens of supporters, was founded in 2004 by a group of progressive, mostly Chicano activists who had cut their radical teeth during the Taco Bell boycott campaign earlier this decade. They’ve been a familiar presence in the county’s many immigration skirmishes, and individual members have also become county newsmakers: Naui Huitzilopotchli is notorious for his confrontational YouTube clips of anti-immigrant rallies, while Coyotl Tezcatlipoca beat a lawsuit filed by the Costa Mesa City Council for disrupting the peace when he refused to stop speaking during the public-comments section of a 2006 meeting.
But in the past two years, the Colectivo has concentrated on fighting for the rights of day laborers in a county that has seen cities pass increasingly stringent ordinances against them. And few are more adamant about running jornaleros out of town than Orange, the Colectivo’s new target.
“It’s not about public safety,” Tezcatlipoca insists, citing the reason council members give for cracking down on jornaleros. “The council and police aren’t going to round up trucks to take away jornaleros, but they’re going to make it as difficult as possible for them to find work. But it’s their community, too. Only a blind man will not note the underlying situation of racism.”
The Colectivo already has earned a key win against such municipal efforts. When the Lake Forest City Council passed an anti-day-laborer resolution in 2007 that prohibited them from soliciting work nearly anywhere in the city, the Colectivo and local jornaleros contacted the Orange County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The organization filed a lawsuit in federal court on their behalf, arguing such efforts were unconstitutional. Shortly thereafter, the council repealed the ordinance.
Around that time, the Orange City Council was crafting what became the harshest anti-jornalero measure in the county after receiving numerous complaints from residents and business owners. The resultant rules banned soliciting of work on private property without written permission from the owner; from sidewalks next to streets without parking lanes and without public parking; and prohibited jornaleros from standing in traffic lanes, medians and driveways on public rights-of-way. Council members asked the Orange Police Department to step up their issuance of citations to jornaleros breaking the law. As a result, many of the men who currently wait for work under the Colectivo’s watch have amassed hundreds of dollars in unpaid fines.
The city-sponsored McPherson Resource Center, where a small staff pairs workers with employers, also changed its eligibility requirements at the behest of the council: jornaleros now need to present two valid forms of identification and be in the United States legally. This effectively excluded Orange’s jornaleros, as a 2007 city report found 80 percent of them were undocumented.
At press time, neither members of the Orange City Council nor the police department’s public-information officer had responded to the Weekly’s calls seeking comment for this story.
All along the way, the Colectivo has attended council meetings to express its opposition. Shortly after the enactment of the anti-jornalero regulations in March 2008, members began researching, with the help of the ACLU, how to legally circumvent them. The two groups studied city maps and drove around town, trying to match legal locations near areas where jornaleros typically congregate, like hardware and paint stores. By that fall, the Colectivo had identified a couple of spots in the city they felt fit the bill.
Then came the hard part: convincing jornaleros to join them. Colectivo members haunted popular day-laborer spots, handed out fliers informing them of the new ordinances and urged them to not run afoul of the police.
“The jornaleros didn’t trust us at first,” Tezcatlipoca admits. “People have been harassing them for so long a lot of jornaleros just assume you’re going to turn them in to the cops. But once we explain what we’re trying to do, they begin to believe us.”
But the spots the Colectivo originally picked didn’t work, and officers kept issuing citations. Finally, in July, the Colectivo sent a letter to Orange Police Chief Robert Gustafson asking whether the north side of Katella’s sidewalk between Manzanita and Batavia streets, the slice immediately in front of the Bean Bag and Futon Factory, was beyond the scope of the ordinances because it had public parking on the street. Orange City Attorney David DeBerry responded on Aug. 6: yes, as long as they stayed on a specific, 50-foot portion. As a result, the jornaleros constantly make sure to stand between a driveway and a long sideway crack.
Not all the jornaleros in Orange know of the Colectivo’s efforts (or, perhaps, choose to ignore them), so Tezcatlipoca and others continue to hand out fliers. But those who collaborate with the Colectivo appreciate their activism. “The Colectivo helps us a lot,” says 29-year-old Ramiro Vasquez, a native of Veracruz (like a majority of Orange’s jornaleros, according to the Colectivo’s research). “It’s nice to have people who care for you. Those ordinances? They’re not fair—they’re racist.”
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The work the Colectivo is doing with jornaleros “is terrific,” says Hector Villagra, director of the ACLU of Southern California’s Orange County branch. “This is such a vulnerable population. In so many ways, they are the symbol of the immigrant community. It’s easy to scapegoat the day laborers, and in the environment that we’ve been in, it’s been a pretty good strategy for scoring political points. To be able to educate them about how and where they can solicit work is necessary, and that’s what the Colectivo does.”
The Colectivo will stay in Orange as long as necessary, but they’re also monitoring the jornalero situation in other OC cities and want to eventually open a food bank for day laborers.
“Everyone is struggling right now,” says Tezcatlipoca. “If you have something to give, it’s good to give.”