By Noah Teicher
On March 25, “Jornaleros,” a documentary produced by VOZ Workers’ Rights Education Project and Precarious Egg, will premier at the Clinton Street Theater. “Jornaleros” means laborers in Spanish; the documentary profiles five Hispanic laborers who frequent the VOZ Portland Day Labor Hire Site in their search for work. One of the individuals, however, is a former laborer who now works at the hire site, also known as the Worker Center.
VOZ opened the new Worker Center in June of 2008. Located on NE MLK Jr. Blvd., the Worker Center provides day laborers with a safe environment in which to wait for work and protects workers’ rights, guaranteeing a minimum wage of $10 per hour.
“Jornaleros” is not a straightforward depiction of issues typical to immigrant laborers; rather, the film focuses on the artistic talents and activist spirit of the laborers. The individuals profiled in “Jornaleros” are musicians, artists, and writers.
“We wanted to show to the community at large the tradition and culture of the workers,” says VOZ Executive Director Romeo Sosa, who also served as the general coordinator for the project. “We wanted to show the workers have humanity.”
Francisco Aguirre, one of the individuals profiled in the film, is an assistant at the Worker Center and also owns a computer repair business. He used to be a jornalero. At the Worker Center, Francisco organizes the laborers, helps them find work and performs a marketing role.
In addition to his work at VOZ, Francisco is an activist in the broader community. He is involved in a group that helps keep youth out of gangs. The group meets every Friday, and parents bring their children to listen to Francisco and other volunteers talk about the dangers of gang life. Francisco describes himself as a “tool for anyone in the community who needs help.”
Like the other individuals profiled in “Jornaleros,” Francisco has an artistic talent. He is the leader of a Mariachi band that performs for weddings, birthdays and other events in the community. Francisco plays guitar, violin and vihuela, a five-stringed instrument used in Mariachi music. By highlighting the laborers’ creative talents, “Jornaleros” reveals these individuals’ humanity and depth of character.
While “Jornaleros” focuses on the artistry of the laborers, its purpose is also political. By humanizing the laborers, the film makes them into more than just immigrant workers. They become people in the full sense of the word, and thus it becomes harder to stereotype them as just “day laborers” or “immigrants.” Consequently, the issues of this immigrant community become harder to ignore. Romeo said of the Jornaleros, “I would like the entire community to know we have hardworking people, people like you and me, who are human beings struggling to find work.”
Francisco said he sees the film as a “tool for day laborers to learn and not to be afraid to fight for their rights.” It has been a fight – it took an eight-year campaign for VOZ to receive a grant from the City of Portland to open the Portland Day Labor Hire Site. And although the Day Labor Hire Site provided a more organized and contained environment for laborers to wait for work, protests that took place prior to the construction of the workers’ center continued after it opened. As Romeo explains, “Neighbors were not happy. They opposed having the center there. It was always the issue of immigration. … Laborers are the face of immigrants. When people think of immigrants, they think of the laborers.” The protests, which actually had the positive effect of bringing publicity to the cause of the jornaleros, have now largely stopped.
So who or what is Precarious Egg? Precarious Egg is a local multimedia production company that produces a range of audio and video media with a focus on community issues. The filmmakers on this project are also volunteer legal observers at the Worker Center whose job is to insure the process of hiring “jornaleros” is done in a legal manner. VOZ’s director, Romeo, explained that as the general coordinator for the project, he was the one to connect the filmmakers with the “jornaleros” profiled in the film. He knew which jornaleros had artistic talents, as well as which volunteers at the Center had experience with filmmaking.
Both Romeo and Francisco hope “Jornaleros” is a vehicle for change – change in the jornaleros’ view of themselves, and at least as important, change in the view of members of the community at large. “People,” Francisco says, “if they are against day laborers, they will think differently after seeing the film.”