The day laborer band

Paste Magazine| February-March 2006

By Leslie Guttman

Los Jornaleros Del Norte, a Los Angeles band of day laborers, sings about life on the other side, where to stand on a US street corner is to be invisible. I first met them in San Francisco on a Saturday night in the Mission District, at a day-laborer convention held in a long, narrow, incredibly stuffy room. Up front stood the band, composed that evening of six men – two electric guitarists, a drummer, a conga player, a keyboardist and an accordion player. They opened their set with an extra-crispy Tex-Mex hip-hop song:

“Llegaron Los Jornaleros! Llegaron Los Jornaleros!” (“The Day Laborers are here!”)
“Queremos trabajo! Queremos trabajo!” (“We want work!”)
“Nadie te va eschucar! Nadie te va escuchar!” (“Nobody’s going to listen to us!”)
The crowd of nearly 100 cheered and clapped. They were mostly young- to middle-aged Latino men dressed in jeans, baseball caps and white T-shirts or flannels. I see hundreds like them on corners in my city every weekday morning. But in this place they looked happy and relaxed.

With Pablo Alvarado, one of the band’s members and coordinators, I danced the cumbia – a folk dance originating in Colombia – protesting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s treatment of illegal immigrants. Afterward we walked out into the hall as he told me how the group began. Alvarado is a respected national day-laborer organizer. He’s average height with brown hair and is guardedly friendly without being prickly.

In 1996, he told me, a day laborer named Omar Sierra visited a mobile health clinic in a Kmart parking lot in Los Angeles County.

Sierra and other laborers were getting blood drawn to test for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. Despite rainy weather, the mood was festive, since the clinic had brought a mariachi band and food as enticements. Out of nowhere, the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided the fair, sending the workers running and leaving the nurses and doctors bewildered. Sierra pulled the needle out of his arm and ran home, where he wrote a song about the experience on a guitar he’d found in a trashcan. That song, “Corrido de Industry” (Ballad of Industry) was featured on the group’s first CD, Cruzando Fronteras (Crossing Borders). This accordion-led ranchera recounts the day:

The doctors were shocked / To see the people running / One friend of mine / Has never known fear / But they had him tight / By the hands and throat
Los Jornaleros grew from there and now has eight members including singer Gabriela Mateos, a female day laborer. They’ve played for thousands in the Los Angeles area and around the country at community events – political rallies, day-laborer conventions, church services, and union and university-student gatherings.

Cruzando Fronteras combines ambient sounds like sirens and helicopters with traditional Latin rhythms, tejano, rumba and cumbia. The music sounds clean, tight and melancholy. Some tracks stretch out like long, flat roads at night. The group’s recently released second CD, Únete Pueblo (People Unite) continues this tradition, however, it feels more authoritative, and the rhythms smoother and brassier. Some tracks are more contemporary: “Juana” is a fruity, soft-rock ballad, almost like Barry Manilow, with a power strip of trumpet, sax and accordion. The song recounts the daily struggle of a band member’s relative, a domestic worker and single mom. (“She cleans the floor impeccably / Enough to see her sweating reflection.”)

Alvarado believes that Los Jornaleros performances shatter audiences’ media-reinforced day-laborer stereotypes (that they’re all aliens and criminals). “People,” he says, “[start seeing] them as human beings.

“And when we go to play for the day laborers,” he says, “you can’t believe how proud people feel. We go through a lot of shit every day, from really racist cops to really racist residents who insult workers. And then when you go to the workplace, you see all the discrimination and exploitation. Even if we won lawsuits to reinstate the rights of people, the reality is – one always feels like an outsider because that’s how people see you. But music changes everything; I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a feeling nobody can take away from us and from all immigrants in general. That’s what the day-laborers band represents.”

“Juan,” a track on the second CD, employs a rhythm called cumbia sonidera – a slower, more relaxed brand of cumbia. Cumbia on vacation, perhaps. Back in the hallway at the convention, Alvarado spoke about the story behind the song.

“Juan was from the poorest village in Oaxaca, and he decided to go north for work. His sadness and loneliness were his only luggage. As he got away from his family, he felt as if he was dying, but at the same time, this courage lifts him up, and that is the courage of having a better life. But when he was crossing the border, he died in the river.

“Three months went by, and his mother was really anguished from not hearing any news of him. She doesn’t know what to do. And then this man who was with Juan comes to her house to tell her the story of what happened. And she doesn’t believe him. And from that day on, she went out of her mind. She would walk the streets crying and praying for Juan.”

Alvarado stops talking and turns away. He turns back and wipes his eyes with his green T-shirt. “It’s a real story,” he says. “It’s a true story. It is the story of thousands of people who die. You know, when they play that song, everybody identifies with it.”