For the past six weeks, I’ve been interning at the Southside Worker center in Tucson, Arizona. The center connects day laborers skilled in trades from landscaping and roofing to electrical work and welding with employers who will pay them a fair wage. Workers begin to show up at 6am or 7am for la rifa (the raffle) to find out what position on the list they will be that day, which determines the order that they receive work. Respecting the list is paramount – you can’t be a member of the center if you don’t respect the order of the list.
This, amongst other acuerdos (rules) the workers agree to upon joining are part of what keep the center together and what distinguish them from los chapulines (“leap-froggers”) that hang out on nearby streets also looking for work. These range from treating every race, gender, and sexual orientation with respect and never showing up to the center drunk or high, to wearing the long-sleeve worker center t-shirt while waiting for work and never accepting less than $10 an hour for work.
When I first got to the center I didn’t really understand the difference between the Southside workers and the people who hang out in the street. To me they were all just guys who were trying to find work. After two months at the center though, I think there’s more to it than that – I think the difference is in their attitudes. The Southside workers are respectful and not rowdy; they don’t hassle passing cars or people. They’re extremely invested in personal development and actively participate in English classes, OSHA occupational safety training and the many other workshops the center offers. However, both groups still have to struggle every day to find that work and to deal with the police and la migra (border patrol), and in spite of it all they’re still happy, they still smile, and they still joke around.
What most impressed and inspired me came when I interviewed Gerardo, one of the prominent members of the center and the old center coordinator. I asked him what the main impact of the center has been on him and he said it was definitely the opportunity to gain more knowledge. Through leadership workshops and know your right clinics, the center helped him to gain friends, to learn about leadership and how to deal with the police and la migra, and above all to grow as a person. He believes that the tools exist and are out there, but the most important thing is to use them.
Talking with him made me think about how all the extra opportunities I’ve had (including this trip) and will continue to have and the importance of fully taking advantage of them. I love that the center has these great workshops and clinics and how the workers really value improving themselves and learning more, whether it’s how to make and install solar panels, how to be safe on a roofing job, or about culture and art in the leadership workshop.
The internship also opened my eyes to the situation a lot of good people are living in right now in Arizona and all over the country. People who are undocumented face a constant fear of any run in with the police; even a routine traffic stop could result in a call to la migra and possibly detention or deportation. It’s lucky that the center will help pay the bond for those who’ve been detained or support those going through wage theft cases, but most undocumented aren’t so fortunate to have access to those resources. Interestingly, there is a sizeable minority of English speaking workers at the center as well, which is something that I didn’t expect before coming to the center.
The center’s work in helping support workers navigate the hostile environment of Arizona is nothing short of incredible and it has been truly a privilege to intern there and interact with these awesome guys. The time went way too fast, and I hope I can return soon.
By Garrett Post
For the past two months, I’ve spent my time volunteering at the Southside Workers Center in Tucson. The workers center is a center that provides workers — many who are undocumented — an opportunity to receive a living wage, while providing workshops to the workers in themes such as wage theft (a problem that occurs frequently with undocumented workers), safety training, etc. One downside with the workers center is that there just isn’t enough people or volunteers — there’s only one paid employee who has to run everything around the center and make sure everything is in order. While Garrett and I participated in some of these workshops around the center, our main focus was teaching an English class for the workers, promoting the center by canvassing around the neighborhood, and creating new long lasting resources for the center, such as creating databases and updating the center’s website.
The thing I liked most about working at the center was building relationships with the workers. A big part of building these relationships with them was teaching them English. Even though these classes were only twice a week for an hour each, the time spent with the workers was fun and special. Although these classes were extremely fun, it was difficult at first knowing how and what to teach them because so many of the workers spoke and wrote at different levels of English. Another issue that I experienced at first was knowing my comfort level of talking and teaching the workers. The majority of the workers are nearly twice my age, and it felt weird teaching them because I felt I was lecturing them more than talking with them about how to say certain phrases and words in English. I’d never been in a position before where I taught in front of an audience that was significantly older than me. After the first couple of classes, the teaching became more relaxed, the workers opened up more, and the class became less structured. In the end, I loved teaching English to the workers because there was always laughter and happiness during class time, and the workers were so eager to go to English class.
What I’m most going to take away during my time working for the Southside Workers Center is the experiences I had when talking to the workers. Most of the workers I talked to are undocumented, and they’ve told me their hardships of leaving their home countries and living in the United States. Even though they told me their stories of their hardships, I can never fully comprehend and grasp the intensity of the struggle they had to endure to make it here. Listening to their stories was both heartbreaking and inspiring. Having to leave everything behind to hopefully find a better life in the US is something I don’t think I can do, yet so many workers and people have to do it everyday. Despite everything the workers had to go through, they were always telling jokes, smiling, and laughing; seeing them being happy gives me so much hope.
By Anthony Rodriguez