What do we day laborers do while we wait for a job at the corner or at the job centers? We have no choice but to interact and learn to co-exist with each other; even though many times we are forced to compete for work. Up to now, we day laborers have co-existed among jokes, stories, legends, words, expressions, heckling, nicknames, fights, work, music, and soccer games. But we have to understand that it is not only about co-existence; it’s also about sharing and organizing ourselves in synch with our happiness, struggles, and sorrows created and recreated by popular culture. The goal of the Jornaleros del Norte is to promote this celebration and struggle in order to strengthen the base for an organized, harmonious, peaceful, and intentional co-existence.
Los Jornaleros del Norte want to recover the cultural elements that emerge from the social interaction of people. The second step is to return those elements in a more ordered and critical form to the same people so that they can digest it and consciously begin to create a culture of liberation, a truly popular culture that addresses their daily needs and problems. It is under these theoretical and methodological principles that the Day Laborer Band was created.
For Los Jornaleros del Norte, this popular culture materializes in the capacity that it has to organize, denounce, raise consciousness and mobilize. To achieve these objectives, the Jornaleros del Norte have substituted songs for the common, boring and pretentious speeches that attempt to intellectually interpret the reality of the day laborer. For example, instead of saying “concrete thought is more concrete than the concrete itself,” we say:
I began to study English because I had to
In order to defend myself from an angry American
Over there where I worked they wanted to cheat me
Just because of the Damn English that I couldn’t speak.
As you may know, the life of a day laborer is difficult. Once on the street, we day laborers are exposed to situations of oppression, exploitation, discrimination, and to any kind of injustice that one could ever imagine. However, we do not want compassion. After all, we are strong men and behind the weathered faces and calloused hands, we have not just strength to do the heavy and dirty work, but also to create and recreate art, as expressed in music and poetry, and also to struggle and love. With this understanding, without reluctance, we set out to find day laborers to be part of the group, who could sing or play an instrument. This was the beginning of the story that follows:
The group was born in 1996, on a rainy winter morning. A mobile clinic was administering HIV tests and about forty day laborers were waiting in line. Finally it was Omar Sierra’s turn. He sat down and the nurse began to draw blood. Suddenly, the forty day laborers waiting in line scattered in fear and ran every which way. Upon seeing this, without knowing what was happening, Omar ripped out the needle and with his trusty legs, ran away like the rest. Some of the compañeros were detained by the INS. Fortunately, Omar was able to save himself. He returned home quite sad and, so as to never forget the experience, he decided to narrate the incident in a ballad entitled, “El Corrido de Industry.”
Three days later, with his own initiative, Omar brought his own guitar to the corner and played and sang for his fellow day laborers. The corrido narrates in detail the INS episode and at the same time denounces the abuses that were committed during the raid. For the day laborers of City of Industry and for others, it is easy to identify with the song’s lyrics and melody. By the time new members joined the group, a second song was composed, “La Frasesita” (The Little Phrase). Later “La Paliza” (The Beating), Aguilares, “Sí se puede” (Yes We Can), Las Redadas (The Raids), and other songs were written.
Little by little, Los Jornaleros del Norte have made ourselves known to grass roots groups and community organizations, who frequently invite us to cultural events, celebrations, anniversaries, marches, and other activities. We have performed at “Working Lives. Songs of the L. A. Immigrant Community,” held at the Central Library, the National Immigration Enforcement and Human Rights Conference, and the California Day Laborer Exchange. The Jornaleros del Norte have had an impact not only on day laborers, but also on a myriad of audiences. At one event, a member of the audience wrote a poem dedicated to Los Jornaleros del Norte:
With firm and harmonious notes of hope
The day laborers from the south sing in the north
Living testimony that we left to the north
Without ever having to stop being from the south.
The original members of the group are: Omar Sierra (Honduras), Jesús Rivas (El Salvador), Julio César Bautista (Guatemala), Paula de la Cruz (Mexico), John García (Honduras), Omar García (El Salvador), and Pablo Alvarado (El Salvador). We all share similar histories. We have humble upbringings as peasants and today most of us continue to work as day laborers.
It has not been easy to maintain and consolidate the musical group. Being day laborers, what comes first is finding work every day. But with a lot of sacrifice we continue to succeed, even when we have to postpone rehearsals when we have to work. Not withstanding, just like any other human being, Los Jornaleros del Norte have dreams and aspirations. We want to record a CD, we want to have our own sound equipment, good instruments, and a good income that would allow us to improve our lives and to dedicate more time to music and to our educational/organizing work.
Besides the musical group, the day laborers have also organized a soccer league, a theater group, a union training school, and an editorial collective. Los Jornaleros del Norte are not organizing in a vacuum, they are part of larger effort to organize a Day Laborers Union which would fight for our own human and civil rights. The Union is an emerging reality that responds to the needs and problems that arise with the daily search for work at street corners and day laborer centers, as well as to influence public policy affecting us as workers and immigrants. Los Jornaleros del Norte feel honored to be part of this effort.
The music of Los Jornaleros del Norte makes workers feel proud of being workers, and restores our humanity lost through so much suffering. The artistic spirit of Los Jornaleros del Norte accompanies the leadership and members of the Day Laborers Union wherever they may go, especially when they have to negotiate with the police, businesses, bosses, or neighbors. It also accompanies them in organizing at street corners and day laborer centers. The Day Laborer Band has become a symbol for one of the most rejected sectors of society by reflecting the festive spirit and struggle of our Latin American people.
We hope that when you see those men of all colors and sizes, in their work clothes, with hardened looks, beaten down by the sun, with their faces that project distrust because of the life of poverty and struggle, don’t think only of the worker. Also think of the artist, the musician, the poet, the soccer player, the actor, the journalist, the comrade, the friend, the father, the grandson, the husband, the grandfather, the brother, the human being.