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Being a Day Laborer in the USA

Juan Thomas Ordonez (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 280 pages
ISBN: 9780520277861
May 2015
$29.95, £24.00
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The United States has seen a dramatic rise in the number of informal day labor sites in the last two decades. Typically frequented by Latin American men (mostly “undocumented” immigrants), these sites constitute an important source of unskilled manual labor. Despite day laborers’ ubiquitous presence in urban areas, however, their very existence is overlooked in much of the research on immigration. While standing in plain view, these jornaleros live and work in a precarious environment: as they try to make enough money to send home, they are at the mercy of unscrupulous employers, doing dangerous and underpaid work, and, ultimately, experiencing great threats to their identities and social roles as men.

Juan Thomas Ordóñez spent two years on an informal labor site in the San Francisco Bay Area, documenting the harsh lives led by some of these men during the worst economic crisis that the United States has seen in decades. He earned a perspective on the immigrant experience based on close relationships with a cohort of men who grappled with constant competition, stress, and loneliness. Both eye-opening and heartbreaking, the book offers a unique perspective on how the informal economy of undocumented labor truly functions in American society.

A Brief Note on Language


1. La Parada de Berkeley
2. Friendship and the Inner Workings of Day Labor
3. Abuse and the Absurd Bureaucracy of Small Things

4. The “Other” among Others
5. Bittersweet Nostalgia, Sexuality, and the Body at Risk

6. Belonging
7. Terror and the May Migra Panic

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.
"Very detailed, frequently intriguing."—Robert Lee Maril Times Higher Education
“This account of broken dreams, hopeful fantasies, mutual betrayals, elusive solidarities, and battered bodies—where the hypocrisies of the American dream collide with the nightmare reality of undocumented day labor—is conveyed with sensitivity and, at times, a humor that almost gives us hope.”—Philippe Bourgois, author of In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio and Righteous Dopefiend

“Ordóñez has written a timely and compelling book about this invisible workforce. Using his razor-sharp ethnographic skills, he takes a close-up look at the lived experiences of these vulnerable, yet determined, hardy men.”—Beatriz Manz, author of Paradise in Ashes: A Guatemalan Journey of Courage, Terror, and Hope

“Read this. Carefully documented, superbly argued, and crisply written, this book avoids the celebratory tones of many an account of urban marginality and dissects la parada (the corners where day laborers wait for work) as sites of deep-seated vulnerability, racialized exclusion, and abuse—veritable traps where men, while seeking to survive and send much-needed money back home, look for respect and recognition. An indispensable and polemic light on the omnipresent, yet invisibilized, busy lives of day laborers in urban America.”—Javier Auyero, author of In Harm’s Way: The Dynamics of Urban Violence

“Ordóñez takes us beyond the stereotyped images of lowly unskilled workers and reveals the quiet dignity of these men by sharing the story of their lives pre- and post-migration, as well as the everyday negotiations they engage in to make it in America.”—James Quesada, Professor of Anthropology, San Francisco State University

Jornalero is a power-packed ethnography of the everyday lives and everyday violence faced by Mexican and Central American undocumented day laborers in a privileged West Coast city. On the street, the men try in vain to turn one-off, underpaid jobs into patron-client relationships. Off the strip, they live in solitude, poverty, and chastity while longing for their loves ones. They fear ‘la migra’ and deportation as much as they fear going home to find that the ‘Sancho’ has seduced their wife and squandered their remittance money. Ordóñez’s nuanced narrative is sympathetic but also frank about the rigid racial and sexual hierarchies held by these men, both among themselves and toward their patrons. Jornalero breaks a code of silence about the political and moral economies that shape relations among employers and their casual undocumented day laborers. It is sure to provoke debate among social researchers, activists, and citizens concerned with immigration, inequality, and social justice.”—Nancy Scheper-Hughes, author of Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil and coeditor of Violence at the Urban Margin

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