by Kevin Douglas Grant
Comparing the Divide: In Los Angeles and Beijing alike, millions of workers who have left their homes and often their families in search of prosperity find themselves at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. L.A. ranks among the most unequal American cities by income with a Gini coefficient of .485 while China’s score is .480. In both places, the odds of making a better life are slim and look to be growing slimmer.
LOS ANGELES — Customers streamed out of the Home Depot parking lot, a fleet of vehicles from shiny four-wheel drive Cadillac Escalades to new Ford pickup trucks laden with cuts of lumber and stacks of drywall, appliances and gardening supplies.
A small group of day laborers clustered around the exit. Jose Perez, 22, and about a dozen other men whistled, waved and shouted at passing vehicles, hoping to get some work. They’ll do just about anything, Perez said, from landscaping to putting together a swing set. He looked concerned but resilient. He said he hadn’t found work in several days.
Then a gray Lexus rolled to a stop and an electric window slid down. The driver extended a manicured finger in Perez’s direction, her blonde perm hardly moving above large, dark sunglasses.
“I need someone who can do cabinets!” she shouted, and a group of five men scrambled toward the passenger side door.
They lingered in the road, bargaining with the driver in her fur coat. A few more moments passed, and she drove away, the five men still on the street in East Hollywood.
“She was offering $60 for the whole day,” Perez said, an incredulous smile on his face. “The lowest we’d go is $120. She sees a lot of people here, she thinks she can get it cheap.”
This brief intersection of the rich and the poor on the road to rising inequality in America happens every day in every corner of Los Angeles. It is a defining reality, particularly in cities like L.A. where immigrant workers, many of whom are undocumented, are constantly haggling to keep their pay somewhere close to a survival wage that will allow them and their families to eat — and to try to send some money home.
If they are successful, men like Perez are often taken west along Sunset Boulevard into the posh areas of Beverly Hills, Bel-Air and Brentwood to install appliances, paint walls, pour concrete and perform other assorted jobs on the estates of the wealthy or on contractors’ projects.
But labor rights activists and the workers themselves, largely from Mexico and Central America, said the road to payday is often treacherous. Wages have been driven down by a poor economy and many impromptu employers exploit laborers’ lack of legal work status to withhold payment altogether, threatening to call police or immigration authorities if they complain.
Although Los Angeles has emerged as one of the immigration capitals of the United States, with immigrants now composing a third of the city’s population and nearly half of its workforce, it has also become one of the country’s most unequal. Wealth and poverty are nothing new in the City of Angels, Santa Monica, Hollywood and Skid Row, but the growing chasm between rich and poor means that these days L.A. is looking more like a developing economy than the second-largest city in the world’s largest economy.
The Gini coefficient of the L.A. metropolitan area, the standard measure of income inequality, is now .485, among the worst scores for America’s big cities.
That puts the level of inequality in this metropolitan area above the level of inequality in the country of China, which registers as high as .480. The US as a country has now hit .450 (up from .408 in 1997), though the US’s per capita income is still roughly three times that of China.
In China, as many as 250 million migrant workers now help power the country’s economic boom, flocking from impoverished countryside areas into cities. As in China, L.A.’s day laborers have come from poverty elsewhere and represent the bottom rung on the ladder toward prosperity. The middle rungs for which they strive include full-time employment, health insurance, a comfortable home, a good education for the children — the American Dream.
Yet tens of thousands of Mexican, Honduran, Guatemalan, Salvadoran and other immigrant day laborers are lucky if they can find work even 25 percent of the time. Jobs come with the requirement that the employee carry a Social Security number, a response to aggressive immigration enforcement policies that have continued under the Obama administration. Finding a full-time job is a nearly impossible dream.
“In the past, it was very easy to find permanent opportunities,” said Jeronimo Salguero program director at the CARECEN Day Laborer Center in the Pico-Union neighborhood, now a magnet for Central American immigrants. “At this time, it’s really, really bad. When I hear on the news that unemployment is improving, I want to invite them here to the center. Here it’s not 9 percent, it’s 80 percent. It really depends what neighborhood you’re looking at.”
Salguero immigrated to Los Angeles from El Salvador in 1990, near the tail end of the Civil War that gripped his country for more than two decades and killed at least 70,000 people.
“I didn’t want to come, to be honest,” Salguero said, smiling. “I didn’t want to come because I had dreams in my country. But my family had taken a big loan and we were in danger of losing our property.”
He discovered CARECEN — an acronym for Central American Resource Center which translates from Spanish as “they lack” — in 1998 as he tried to get US government permission to return to his home country to visit his ailing father.
The permission didn’t come through in time and Salguero wasn’t able to see his father before he died. But the well-built, easygoing 46-year-old said he felt a debt of gratitude to the organization, founded in the early 1980s by Salvadoran refugees.
After volunteering at the group’s headquarters for a year, he was offered a full-time position and began working his way up. Then in 2004, the City of Los Angeles asked CARECEN to manage the Day Laborer Center it planned to fund, near another Home Depot in the shadow of L.A.’s downtown skyscrapers.
“When they are part of the center, they are protected,” Salguero said, explaining that it was common for large contractors to offer his workers $7 per hour, below California’s minimum wage. CARECEN sets a $10 minimum. “There are many other places like street corners where workers don’t have any protection and employers take advantage of that situation.”
Salguero said he has found his calling among the day laborers of Pico-Union, who are often living far away from their families in small apartments packed with 10 or more people.
“It’s insane the situation they live in,” Salguero said. “You can open the fridge, and you aren’t going to find anything there. They don’t have the money.”
Starting early each morning, the workers can come by the center to register for open positions with rights-friendly employers and to eat donated food. The center also offers English-language classes, a library and a place to sit, chat, and watch TV as they wait for work.
Just steps away, groups of other young men forego Salguero’s help and hustle for whatever opportunities they can find in the bright L.A. sun. Even more than 2000 miles from El Salvador, Salguero is reminded of home, which he visits every year now that he is a US citizen.
“In El Salvador, we are experiencing the same kinds of situations as here: unemployment; there are many poor people and just a few rich getting the majority of the land and all the good things like that.”
Seven miles west in Beverly Hills, away from the crowded flats, pawn shops and street cart vendors, the story is different and yet familiar. To enter its carefully controlled opulence is to enter another world, as beautiful and pristine as a five-star resort. But it’s only welcoming to those with particular credentials: wealth and status.
Founded as a ‘whites-only’ city in 1914 and attracting some of the era’s premier Hollywood stars, the extremely affluent area remains perfectly kept, its streets featuring rows of tall palm trees, its mansions marvels of architecture, verdant lawns maintained by still more immigrants.
The city has assiduously prevented Los Angeles from building public transportation routes from the east, including a subway in the late 1990s and a rapid transit bus line in 2001.
Rodeo Drive, one of the world’s glitziest shopping districts, attracts moneyed shoppers from around the globe to feast on Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Dior and Rolex. It also features Bijan, a fashion boutique that has been called the most expensive store in the world.
As one of the omnipresent tour buses passed the store, its guide announced that the average purchase at Bijan is $100,000. In short, Beverly Hills is emblematic of ultra-wealthy enclaves around the world where six-figure salaries sit at the low end of a lifestyle that includes hobbies, travel and indulgences with price tags that would make even the petty bourgeoisie blush. Increasingly, such lifestyles take place out of view of the rest of the public, sheltered from the rest of the world by walls, laws and economic barriers.
Behind the immaculately clean sidewalks, polished door handles and beaming showrooms of Rodeo Drive are the service alleys where junk haulers, plumbers, car washers and FedEx drivers work, hidden from sight. An older uniformed worker finished hand washing a black-and-yellow Bugatti Veyron (base cost: $1.7 million) with the vanity plate BIJAN as a man in a finely tailored suit got in and revved the engine.
Eduardo Martinez, 27, was leading a team disposing of wood scraps for a new location of a chain of restaurants called “The Farm.” The exacting standards of Beverly Hills — and the pretentiousness of the moneyed culture — were not lost on him.
“People ask me, ‘Do you have work permits?’” Martinez said. “I say, ‘Of course, it’s Beverly Hills, hello! When we know we’re going to work here, we always do a good job. These people demand it.”
Brought to Los Angeles from Honduras by his mother at the age of 18, Martinez now lives in the middle class neighborhood of Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley and has begun the legalization process.
Asked about the wealth of Beverly Hills in comparison to that of poorer LA areas, Martinez shrugged, “I don’t really care about it. I know there’s a population who are rich… I come from a very different society. I just try to do my best at my job.”
Down the street, Debbie Wilby, a native of Halifax, England was on vacation as part of a trip around the world.
Asked about America’s rising inequality, Wilby had a clear answer as she stood in front of the Beverly Hills sign, a popular spot for picture takers.
“Hard work gets you everything,” she said. “I think our country is suffering because of too much immigration. Our whole identity is getting changed. To come to somebody else’s country and change it…. even the British people get the layabouts. They’ll work for practically nothing.”
Negative feelings against immigrants are not uncommon in Los Angeles. On Skid Row, the most concentrated population of homeless people in the county and in the country, a handmade sign made by one of the residents reads, “If Mexicans can have homes, why can’t I?”
Jeronimo Salguero of the CARECEN Day Laborer Center spoke up for Latin American immigrants in the area, hundreds of thousands of whom are undocumented.
“It’s a misunderstanding about immigrants,” he said. “What we ask for is an opportunity to become better members of this society.”
The optimism so often on display among the workers as they bantered and shared fruit conceals a darker new reality, which at times causes the men to group up against one another by nationality.
“In the past we used to dream the American Dream, and that was the main thing that brought all these communities here,” said Salguero.
“There is a saying in Spanish,” Salguero said. “Ya no existe el sueno Americano. Ahora es la pesadilla Americana.”
The rough translation to English: “The American Dream is gone. Now it’s the American nightmare.”