A Day's Hard Work

According to a newswire story just a few days ago, Mexico’s unemployment rate had “spiked” to 5 percent in January 2009. That is still almost three percentage points lower than the latest national jobless figures for the United States. Indeed, in some specific U.S. markets like Oregon, unemployment approaches 10 percent.

More incredibly, two years ago one chamber of commerce-sounding source on the Internet trumpeted that the state of Guanajuato, where we live and are building our house, had one of the lowest unemployment rates in all of Mexico.

Don’t tell any of that to the dozens of men, a few teenagers among them, who keep showing up at our construction site every day looking for work. They’d find such statistics both laughable and infuriating, increasingly so as the economies of Mexico and the U.S. continue to deteriorate, and more illegal immigrants return home after their jobs disappear.

Early morning January 19 Stew and I went to the land to water the trees we had planted and found approximately 15 men and their bicycles leaning against the fence. At first we ignored them–were they waiting for someone else?–but then we realized there was no one else there.

I finally approached one who explained that they were looking for chamba, Mexican slang for a “gig” or any type of work.

Who had sent them? It seems that two or three weeks before I had mentioned to another guy working at a nearby construction site that we planned to break ground on January 19. The word spread and those 15 guys evidently circled the date on their calendars.

I had to send them away, apologetically explaining that the project had been delayed for two weeks. They punctually came back when we finally started.

We are on the fourth week of construction, and as many as a dozen men from the neighboring hamlet of La Biznaga now work on our project. The maestro or foreman, does the hiring.

The crew includes a velador, or watchman, in his early 20s, who spends nights and weekends on the site, and sleeps on a wooden platform inside a tar paper bodega or storage shed. He brings along a team of five mutts, including two four-month-old puppies, which are hardly vicious though they bark nervously at anything or anyone not to their liking.

The velador stands guard at the bodega.

One of his guard puppies.

Aside from a pile of blankets, minimal cooking utensils and a transistor radio, there are hardly any signs of human habitation in the bodega, much less creature comforts, even though at this time of year the temperature can still drop to the low 30s.

I don’t know what the mild-mannered velador or his canine crew would do if someone indeed tried to walk off with some tools or a bag of cement, other than make noise to try scare away the intruder.

The work at our site can be very tough, though our architect uses a surprising number of power tools. At many, if not most, work sites around San Miguel the only tools seem to be picks, shovels, sweat and muscle.

Cement, that central ingredient of construction around here, where wood is very scarce, is typically mixed by hand in small mounds and lugged to its destination in five-gallon plastic buckets. Pouring a concrete roof requires a makeshift wooden ramp for the workers walking up and down with the buckets full of cement on their shoulders.

Hundreds of buckets. Each one must weigh, I imagine, at least 50 pounds. Lift the bucket off the ground, swing it artfully on the air so that it lands on your shoulder and then go up the ramp. And down the ramp. Eight hours a day in the blazing sun.

Or busting up rocks down to usable size with a sledgehammer and chisel. Digging holes in desert soil almost as hard as rock. Moving all the pieces around the site.

Working on the cistern that will hold rainwater.

Of course, tough manual labor, usually for very little money, is part of the human condition. Hot-tarring roofs in Chicago in mid-July must feel like a preview of hell, even if the workers at least get paid $25 or so an hour (probably not nowadays, with the half-dead economy, especially the construction sector).

Yet it is almost painful to watch this closely, particularly when it’s all becoming part of your home. Looking down into the pit that will become our cistern for collecting rain water, where a half-dozen guys labor, it can look a bit like a Mayan public works project.

Our crew is surprisingly mechanized: Gasoline-powered ground compactors; backhoes with special attachments to chisel through the rock; a miniature steam roller to further pack the ground; plus cement trucks with snorkels that will pour the floors and the roofs.

The energy of the workers reminds us daily of the unfair stereotype of the lazy Mexican, immortalized in cheap lawn ornaments depicting a guy hunched over his knees, napping, under a huge sombrero. These guys are anything but nappers.

Instead, when lunchtime rolls around most of them hop over to an open field next door for a blood-pumping round of soccer. Along with the construction tools, the bodega hides five or six soccer balls.

If I had to work as hard as them I wouldn’t have the strength left to lift a soccer ball, much less kick it around for an hour, while running.

As if to snap me out from my morbid musings about hard labor, Stew one day wondered out loud how much money our modest construction budget brings to La Biznaga. Probably more than any one single source has for a long time.

La Biznaga couldn’t have more than a few hundred residents. There is no design whatsoever to the town, which lies at the end of a path so rutted that it must become impassable during the rainy season. The small houses are sprinkled about as if they had fallen out of the sky randomly, like a meteor shower. The only signs of planning or forethought are a small dam and reservoir which seem to have fallen into disrepair, and a brightly painted, one-room school building perched on a high rocky point, like a monument.

On one side of the town there is a tiny church that couldn’t hold more than 25 people, though I have never seen the inside.

There are no signs of economic activity in La Biznaga, except an occasional flatbed truck selling household odds and ends or people walking to the main road to catch a bus, presumably to a job in San Miguel, about 20 minutes away. A government vehicle also comes around monthly, to distribute what I have been told is some sort of financial stipend for the elderly.

The closest La Biznaga comes to a hubbub or any public excitement are soccer games at an open field to the left of the main entrance to town. It can attract close to a hundred people, mostly men, who grow louder as the game goes on and the beer flows.

When it’s Stew’s turn to comment about the poverty, I remind him about my travels through Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua. Grim as it is, La Biznaga at least has water, electricity, a school and a nearby road with regular bus service. Not so bad for the Third World.

La Biznaga is a totally different world from what we are used to in the U.S. yet in some respects not that far away. Some of the men speak some form of English, which reveals they’ve spent some time working Up North. Filemón, a very shy, 30-something laborer working on another house construction project, recently mentioned he had worked in the U.S., which explains his English. Others won’t volunteer that much except it’s easy to tell when you are speaking English and someone is attentively following the conversation.

The states of Guanajuato and neighboring Michoacan are two of Mexico’s highest exporters of workers to the U.S. Fifteen years ago, when I was still working for a newspaper, I visited a couple of backwater towns in Michoacan and remarked about the overwhelming presence of women and children in the population. Someone politely explained that the majority of the men had gone to the U.S. to work, many of them in the Chicago area.

There are no hard figures–current, reliable government data are rare in Mexico–but today you often hear about the plight of workers who are flocking back to Mexico because their chambas in the U.S. have vanished. There have also been reports of a dramatic drop in remittances from the U.S., one of Mexico’s chief sources of foreign exchange, either because workers have less money to send or are no longer employed.

One ominous sign of this return movement of workers came last week when an American was forced to surrender his vehicle at gunpoint by a young Mexican guy who spoke perfect English. He was apprehended shortly; a shiny, late-model Lexus SUV with Texas plates proved too conspicuous for a getaway vehicle. It’s not clear yet, but bets are the carjacker had returned recently from the States and was financially desperate enough to pull such an idiotic stunt.

Also squeezing the locals is the plummeting value of the peso, down by approximately 50 percent against the dollar during the past six months, as the global economic crisis spreads. Although some locally produced goods are not affected, the prices of many items in grocery stores have risen dramatically.

So hard labor and all, construction of our house may be prove a small boost to the Biznaga economy after all.

Rain won’t come for at least another four months, but the cacti already are flowering.

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