Juan Ramon Aguillar came to the United States two and a half years ago, traveling by train from his native Honduras to Nuevo Laredo, where he paid a coyote $1,600 to take him to Houston.
It was a calculated risk.
He had to provide for his grandson, daughters, wife and mother, and he figured Houston, where he had some friends, would be a good place to find construction work and send money back to his family.
New Orleans contractors
He was half right. He found the work, but the money wasn't what he'd expected. The contractors who picked him up off the street rarely paid what they'd promised, if they paid at all, and his mother got sick, making what little he earned amount to even less.
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"People come here to better themselves," the 42-year-old says in rapid-fire Spanish, "but it ends up being worse, because you end up losing a lot, sometimes even your family."
After Hurricane Katrina walloped the Gulf Coast, Aguillar hitched a ride to New Orleans, knowing there'd be plenty of cleanup and not enough locals willing to do it. He moved into a flooded house with four other Hondurans and found random work on street corners, eventually scoring what he thought was a sweet gig: gutting houses and hanging drywall for $500 a week. But three weeks later he was owed $1,200, he says, and the contractor pretty much told him he'd never see the rest.
As an illegal immigrant, Aguillar prefers to steer clear of anyone in uniform, so there was no taking this problem to the authorities. When three guys mugged him at knifepoint last month, stripping him of $130, he didn't report it to the New Orleans police; the last time he interacted with a NOLA cop, he was told, "This is America. We speak English here."
More than 30,000 Latino workers flocked to the Gulf Coast in the months following Katrina, according to an estimate from the Gulf Coast Latin American Association. And many of them, like Aguillar, came from Houston. They knew there was opportunity among the flooded buildings and rusted cars, the broken limbs and downed wires. What they didn't know was how much it would cost them.
For the most part, the story of Hurricane Katrina has been told in black and white. The Lower Ninth Ward was devastated, we learned, and the Garden District untouched. White survivors "found" food, while blacks "looted" it. And "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
But Katrina was about more than black and white; it was also about brown. Last month two Rice University sociologists, Katharine Donato and Shirin Hakimzadeh, released "The Changing Face of the Gulf Coast," a report charting how Latino immigrants have been settling in large numbers along the Gulf Coast for the last 15 years. Before Katrina, the New Orleans area was home to some 140,000 Hondurans -- making it the largest Honduran community in the United States -- and to thousands of immigrants from other countries in Latin America.
The evacuation of these immigrants went largely unreported; many of them were undocumented and hesitant to hop on a bus to Houston. But they did come, traveling along an underground railroad of sorts, shacking up with relatives and countrymen whenever they could.
Many found their way to El Coquito, a Honduran restaurant in southwest Houston that became an impromptu hub for those seeking food and shelter. "For the people who didn't have documents, it was so hard," says restaurant owner Cristina Flores, who's also president of a group called the United Honduran Committee. She says she tried to connect evacuees with larger organizations, but the lack of green cards and social security numbers quickly became an issue.
Houston Mayor Bill White's office started directing supplies to community activists, for dispersal among the displaced. One of the helpers was a Guatemalan immigrant named Juan Alvarez, a 52-year-old whose nascent Latin American Organization for Immigrant Rights has been around for about ten months. When the Minutemen announced they were going to start filming laborers in Houston, it was Alvarez who drove all over town, speaking with the immigrants about their rights and passing out his business cards (which, at that point, were the only proof of his organization's existence).
Since Katrina hit, Alvarez has been overwhelmed with calls from Houston-based laborers who've gone to New Orleans and not been paid for work they've done. Many of them went immediately after the waters subsided, receiving a nudge when the Bush administration waived the usual requirement for contractors to prove their workers were eligible for legal employment. The Department of Homeland Security reinstated the requirement two months later, shortly after undocumented immigrants were found working for Kellogg Brown & Root on the Belle Chasse Naval Base.
Alvarez discovered a contractor on Hillcroft was being paid $100 a head to load up vans with laborers and take them to New Orleans for construction work. Some of the passengers saw the vans as free rides back to Louisiana, but many were Houston-based immigrants looking for jobs. Alvarez decided he'd had enough when he had to take five laborers to the hospital; they had come back from New Orleans covered in rashes, with fits of vomiting and diarrhea. They also hadn't been paid for their work.
"Whenever somebody got sick, they would take him back to Houston and just drop him on the street," says Alvarez. "The workers aren't even given the safety equipment they're supposed to get, and the government gets charged for that equipment."
Alvarez started harassing the contractor and, with the help of local Spanish-language media, eventually forced him to close up shop.
But the calls from New Orleans kept coming, so over Thanksgiving Alvarez drove east and hooked up with day laborers in Kenner and other NOLA suburbs. It was there he learned about two Hispanic contractors who weren't paying laborers for their work, stringing them along with promises of "Mañana, mañana." And that's when he did his thing.
"Juan is legit and smart as a tack," says Diana Dale, president of the Worklife Institute, which works with Alvarez on immigrant issues. "He is excellent at negotiating on behalf of vulnerable workers for withheld wages."
Over the next few days Alvarez hung around pickup sites and eventually found the contractors looking for more workers willing to gut moldy houses. All it took was a flash of his business card and a smattering of English to get their attention.
"As soon as you mention you belong to a community organization, they don't want to have anything to do with you," he says. "They will go and try to fix the problem, because they don't want to be on TV."
Alvarez says he shamed them for selling out fellow Hispanics and managed to retrieve more than $10,000 in back wages, later writing up his success in a report for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. No small feat, but he's more concerned about what kind of stuff the laborers inhaled while gutting the buildings.
"These people are going to be sick," he says, "and no matter how much money they made, if they don't get treatment, they're going to be dying in ten years."
Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, says her organization has found dangerously high levels of arsenic, bacteria, heavy metals and other toxic substances in the sediment covering the city. She's especially concerned for the health of immigrant laborers, since their jobs often require them to come in direct contact with contaminants.
She says a recent survey of about 500 workers found only two respirators.
"One guy had the respirator, but he didn't change his refills out," she says. "It was almost really worse than if he didn't have anything."
Every time a truck pulls up to the Shell station at Lee Circle, in the heart of New Orleans, a half-dozen men hop in the back, drywall dust floating off their boots. They jump in before wages have been negotiated, before it's even been determined if the driver's there for workers or just gas and cigarettes. (They hop out in the latter case and sheepishly rejoin the hundred or so workers standing around, eyeing the roundabout for incoming employment.)
"I've lived here for 20 years, and I don't remember ever seeing day laborers standing by a gas station waiting to be offered a job," says Martin Gutierrez, director of the Hispanic Apostolate of the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans. "Those types of things you guys probably see every day in Houston, but we don't see that here. It's a new phenomenon."
Most of the laborers at this site are Hispanic, although there are some blacks and whites. They're all looking for work on this cool January morning, all observed by a giant statue of Robert E. Lee.
A black contractor pulls up and, after some negotiating, signals for two nearby Hispanics to hop in his truck, prompting a black laborer at the back of the pack to yell out, "You gonna take these guys here over a brother? That is wrong."
Racial tensions are running high in the Crescent City. Back in October, Mayor Ray Nagin got some flak for asking business leaders how he could "make sure New Orleans is not overrun with Mexican workers," and last month he made national headlines by declaring it would once again be a "chocolate city." The mayor's comments might have been poorly worded, but they summed up the concerns of many of his constituents, who realize immigrants have something that attracts contractors: the inability to complain effectively about substandard working conditions. (Nagin's office did not return repeated calls requesting comment for this story.)
A truck from ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, pulls up to the Shell station, and out hops Scott Hagy, a mustachioed manager who's running a team of documented workers. He's just here for gas, but he walks up to a group of laborers swarming around a truck and starts hollering, asking what the contractor plans to do if a worker gets injured.
"When this guy falls off the roof and breaks his leg, how's he going to help this guy?" he yells.
Hagy elaborates once the truck has left with a worker in tow:
"The contractors picking these guys up, on the surface it appears like a good thing. But on a daily basis, these guys get stiffed. These guys break their legs. These guys get hurt. People in the homes get sued. Who's going to take care of them?
"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.
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.
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.
"We are all brothers here. There's no difference between any of us. It's not important where you're from. The more we help each other, the more we all can achieve."
Juan Alvarez is standing before a dozen laborers at Lee Circle, telling them, in Spanish, that they can report contractors who aren't paying; they can receive emergency medical care; and they can organize and fight for better conditions.
The longer he speaks, the more workers gather together, some chiming in and others joking around. They share stories, and not all of their experiences are bad. Some say they've made much more than they would have in Montana, California, Texas or wherever they came from. Others plan to stay only long enough to get what they're owed.
Alvarez is in town for just 24 hours. Yesterday he had to take a laborer with a broken leg to Ben Taub General Hospital in Houston, and tomorrow he's going back to speak at Spanish-language churches about a bill passed last December by the U.S. House, a bill with a provision criminalizing anyone who "assists, encourages, directs, or induces a person [who is here illegally] to reside in or remain in the United States." Although unlikely to make it past the Senate, this provision would pretty much make his entire life illegal.
But today he's right in his element, energizing laborers and gathering information. He knows he'll receive dozens of calls over the following weeks, calls to a cell phone already past its minute limit from guys he's not even sure he can help, but he keeps going, talking about a strike he's planning.
All immigrant workers should stand down for one day, he says, and stand up and be counted.
Alvarez meets Aguillar, and Juan the laborer tells Juan the activist about his family back home, his sick mother, his tough times in New Orleans, his missing $1,200. The activist takes down the laborer's information and promises to follow up with the contractor, although he admits it'll be tough to shame someone from 300 miles away.
When contacted the next week by the Houston Press, the contractor isn't too keen on being singled out, but he does confirm Aguillar's employment.
He says Aguillar was a shoddy worker who wanted to be paid every Friday, who kept saying, "My mother is about to die. I need to send money."
The contractor admits he's having trouble paying his workers but says it's not his responsibility; people above him still need to pony up more than $25,000. But he and Aguillar are all squared away, he says, adding that the laborer did a sloppy job finishing some drywall.
When it comes down to it, he figures it's Aguillar who owes him money.
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