Shortchanged

Houston-based immigrants who flock to New Orleans can get all the jobs they want. Getting paid is a lot harder.

"Normally what happens is, if the guy is here illegally, he's just screwed and he ends up with some big large bill, and now he's really in trouble in our country because he'll never be able to pay it. If the guy is somewhat smart, and he's able to work the system, the homeowners are going to be the victims, because ultimately they end up getting screwed because really they're responsible for it. It's a bad situation."

Spiraling out from this roundabout are miles and miles of semi-deserted neighborhoods, all in need of repair. The roadsides are covered in plastic and cardboard signs, offering contractor services for tree removal, house-gutting and roof repair. Add a workforce willing to do just about anything to get by, and you've got a recipe that'll simmer for a long while.

Many of the laborers congregated at Lee Circle live in nearby flooded houses and cars, hoping to avoid paying rent as long as they can. Manny, a 23-year-old from Brownsville, says he cooked beans last night in a makeshift cauldron crafted from a discarded sink and a pile of wood. The only money he hasn't sent back to his family was spent on food, and on the garden hose he uses to run cold water from a neighbor's house. Just about every laborer out here has a similar tale of postapocalyptic survival.

Workers hop into a contractor's truck before wages 
have been negotiated.
Daniel Kramer
Workers hop into a contractor's truck before wages have been negotiated.
Signs like these frame many of the city's roads.
Daniel Kramer
Signs like these frame many of the city's roads.

Juan Ramon Aguillar actually pays rent at his place -- $600 split five ways -- but his conditions aren't much better than the rest. He lives in a pink Victorian that held five feet of water after the levees broke. Next to it are the scrappy remains of another Victorian that filled with water and burned to the ground. Inside his house, orange electrical cords channel outside power, snaking around beds and chairs found on the street. There is no working fridge, no hot water, no heating, no air conditioning; no chance any of these things will be added anytime soon.

But there is a sense of pride, an unexpected attention to detail in these ruins. All the men's boots are stacked neatly against a wall in the kitchen, which also serves as someone's bedroom. A single cowboy hat hangs on a nail above a bed that, though found in the trash, is made each and every morning.


Juan Alvarez came to the United States in 1981, through Tijuana in the trunk of car. ("Back in those days it was easy," he says.) Like many Central American émigrés of that time, he was fleeing an oppressive military government, but he left for more than philosophical differences: The government wanted him gone, he says, one way or another.

"I witnessed so many killings in Guatemala," he says. "Doctors. Lawyers. On the streets."

Alvarez was a part-time student with a part-time job and a full-time interest in protesting the government. "We would start out peacefully," he says, "but the police would start attacking us with tear gas." He ending up making the government's list of dissidents, and one day four men in dark suits grabbed him off the streets of Guatemala City and shoved him into a car. "They call those cars the death cars," he says, "because once they pick you up, you never come back."

Not a word was spoken to him as they circled the city, heading toward the ravines on the outskirts. Alvarez says he would've been a goner, desaparecido, had his mother not been a nurse for the police.

"I know you," he said to one of the cops, whose face went pale.

This officer had a thing for prostitutes, and he had come by the Alvarez house three or four times for penicillin shots. He denied knowing his captive, but he started mumbling to the driver, who pulled over so the two could talk.

After an interminable moment, they dragged Alvarez out of the car and said he had 15 minutes to get going before they changed their minds. He didn't need a second warning, hopping a northbound train that night.

"I consider myself a product of the policies of the U.S. in Latin American countries," he says, "because Ronald Reagan and all those guys, they were the ones actually supplying the weapons and the training for the army."

Alvarez worked odd jobs in California, eventually meeting his wife, another Guatemalan émigré. He was granted legal amnesty when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, but he moved back to Guatemala seven years later, to his wife's hometown of Antigua. He wanted the move to be permanent, to raise his kids in Guatemala, but his past wouldn't allow it.

"They started knocking on my door," he says.

A high-ranking officer in the police department kept coming by his house late at night, demanding protection money, bleeding him dry. Alvarez says he had no choice; it was time, once again, for him to go.

"I got out, like, at four o'clock in the morning," he says, "like a thief."

That's when he moved to Houston and began doing day labor, soon earning enough money to send for his family. And that's also when he found his calling: organizing laborers and teaching them about their rights.

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