Jornalero: Being a Day Laborer in the USA

By Juan Thomas Ordóñez

This guest post is published in advance of the Latin American Studies Association Congress in San Juan, Puerto Rico. UC Press authors share their research and stories that reflect on this year’s conference theme, “Precariedades, exclusiones, emergencias. Come back for new posts every weekday through the meeting.

Jornalero: Being a Day Laborer in the USA
Jornalero: Being a Day Laborer in the USA

Day laborers—or jornaleros, as they are called in Spanish—are a part of everyday urban life in cities all over the United States. Most people see these men standing in parking lots and on street corners all the time, but seldom wonder what their life is like. My ethnography takes an in-depth view of the lives of day laborers in the United States and explores what it means to be a Latin American migrant navigating the informal labor market. Jornalero explores the everyday drudgery of waiting long hours for poorly paid and many times dangerous work in a world where rumor and hearsay shape “reality” and give it contours that most U.S. citizens would not recognize. This is a world where friendship and competition cancel each other out, where loved ones back home depend on one’s absence, and where the state seems to emerge in spectacular eruptions of violence and persecution. Being a day laborer in the USA means living in a realm of precarious uncertainty where inclusion and exclusion seem to blend in to each other in confusing and confounding ways.

Caught between the image of the seedy migrant who is out to take American jobs and the more redeeming figure of the downtrodden but resilient laborer supporting his family, these men’s lives are caught up in insurmountable contradictions. Their masculinity and self-image are threatened, they must learn to be racist “American-style” and they must come to terms with a society that reaps great benefits from their labor but does little to recognize their plight.

Juan Thomas Ordóñez has a PhD in medical anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, and is Professor of Anthropology at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, Colombia.