Honduran immigrant, Maribel Hernandez, is undocumented and her economic struggles forced her to become one of the few female day-laborers who perform heavy work in the county of Los Angeles.
“I’m very good at painting. I perform electrical work; I work on roofs and even pour concrete. Whatever they ask me to do in construction,” says the 49-year-old.
She is one of the three or four Latinas in Los Angeles who work as laborers in hard tasks, traditionally performed by men.
“I could not find a job and a friend from Tlaxcala, who knew I had experience in painting and electricity, invited me and took me to the CARECEN Day Labor Center“, she remembers.
A Cultural Rejection
At first, her colleagues rejected her. “’You do not know anything,’ they told me. ‘You should be cooking at home.’ I think they do not want competition or anybody who could take their place, because they know that we can be very quick and competent,” says Hernandez.
This immigrant became a female day laborer two years ago. Like their male counterparts, she goes to the streets to seek employment every day. Instead of standing outside of a commercial plaza, she comes every day to the CARECEN Day Labor Center that is located a few blocks from the studio she shares with a married couple.
“We do not always get to work. Sometimes, we only work two days a week. On a good day I make $120 for 7, 8 hours, and on a bad day, $100. At least it helps to pay the rent, and survive,” she says.
“If I had documents, honestly, I would not do it,” she admits.
Last year she began training men and women in construction in Los Angeles area so they have more skills when seeking jobs.
A Forced Occupation
Before becoming a laborer, Hernandez did a little bit of everything. In Honduras she was a nun, a nurse and an accountant. In the United States she has worked as a gardener and in elder care.
She says that she left Honduras because she feared people finding out that she was a lesbian. “They kill people because of their sexual preferences there.
“I did not want to be an embarrassment to my parents as well. They had taken me to Costa Rica to get a medical evaluation. They found out that I had more male than female hormones,” she says.
She had spent five years in a convent and when she was ready to be ordained, she left the convent and made her way to the United States.
She spent three years in Monterrey, Mexico, where she got a job as an accountant at the Office of the Archbishop. When she got enough savings, she crossed the border and arrived in Los Angeles where she began working in gardening.
“It was the first thing I found but it was very poorly paid. Then I went to Florida and validated my nursing degree. I worked in elderly care. But I could not stand the heat and returned to Los Angeles,” she recalls.
Journeyman work has been dominated by male immigrants because many women believe it a job they cannot do because they have no training. Some organizations that advocate for laborers advertise construction training, for both men and women laborers.
Lack of Training: Strike One
Jorge Nicolas, one of the managers of the CARECEN Center for Laborers says the world of laborers is dominated by men and there are not many women.
“The assignment of labor has nothing to do with whether you are female or male. It is made according to each laborer’s expertise and experience. One might think that women are more attentive to detail but you would be surprised to know that many men are very good for cleaning and other tasks that women usually do,” he says.
He adds that while male laborers will try all the tasks, women do not feel ready for the field of construction.
Many of the women are concentrated in the area of cleaning offices and houses, as well as child and elder care, but very few of them do hard work like Maribel Hernandez.
Claudia Bautista, from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), said that in addition to the cultural factor, with its prejudices and obstacles that make many women choose not to be laborers, there is also a lack of preparation.
“They think twice about performing such labor, mainly because of their lack of training and experience,” says Bautista.
Last summer, NDLON along with the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), Day Labor Center at the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA) and Pomona Day Labor Center (PEOC) succeeded on getting the Los Angeles Trade–Technical College (LATTC) to offer the laborers an intensive six-week course in basic construction.
“There was not a lot of effort to train them and to help them overcome poverty. It is important for us that the workers who have experience in construction go to school and get a diploma they can use as a proof,” explains Bautista.
There was a woman in that group of laborers who were trained in the first LATTC workshop. Graciela Cabero,a Brazilian immigrant raised in Bolivia, who is married and has seven children.
“I like construction. I inherited it from my dad. What I do the best, no matter the work, is placing gypsum partitions, plastering, spackling. But I also know electrical work. I know how to fix everything; tiling, plumbing, painting walls,” she lists.
Cabero said that, for a long time, she worked at a building management company which did maintenance work but, when they ran out of employment, she was left in a never ending cycle of job hunting. One day she went by the Youth Policy Institute Day Labor Center in North Hollywood and saw a sign that said ‘work’.
“I went in and I have not stopped [working] since then. I have been a day laborer for four years. I arrive at 6:30 a.m. to sign up on the list of job seekers. If I am lucky, they sometimes hire me for the whole week with a daily wage of $100,” she says.
She says that she has never felt that they look down on her at work or that a contractor does not want to employ a not-so-young woman.
“It all depends on the attitude. I show a lot of confidence because I know how to do the work. I enjoy it. It is very nice to see how a room changes and gets pretty after plastering it, spackling it, and painting it,” she says.