Day Laborer Landscapes: Seeing Informal Hiring Sites

[What follows is an abbreviated version of the master’s thesis I wrote for the Visual and Critical Studies program at California College of the Arts. The project involved field research, interviews, and the collection of data from various sources. Please note that information is current as of date of publication, May 2008.]

An autumn afternoon in San Francisco’s Mission District, and two men I have just met offer to walk down César Chávez Street with me. They say they will help me talk to the day laborers standing along the wide street at the neighborhood’s edge. Milton, from Nicaragua, speaks English and Spanish and agrees to translate. Antonio is from Guatemala. Both have worked as day laborers—temporary positions, paid under the table, usually doing manual labor, often obtained by standing in public places. We begin at César Chávez and Mission. Wide sidewalks stretch before us, empty except for the corners. At each right angle, men lean on garbage cans and sit on fire hydrants. They stand under bus shelters that provide the sidewalks’ only shade. Milton says: “I will introduce you as an art student. But don’t stand directly in front of them when you ask questions, because that is too much like being interviewed by the police.”

I nod, but I don’t know what it’s like to be interviewed by the police. I don’t know what it’s like to stand on a street corner to look for work. And I don’t know what it’s like to be a day laborer. The statistics I’ve read, the ones that tell me 117,000 look for work as day laborers in the United States each day—40,000 in California, nearly 100 along this street—are the same ones that tell me I am unlike the majority of day laborers. The National Day Labor Survey says the average day laborer in California is a thirty-year-old male from Mexico with limited schooling. An 80 percent chance exists he is an undocumented resident of the United States.[1] He may have migrated because of poverty in his home country, the result of globalization or political strife. He might stay connected to relatives back home by sending a portion of his U.S. wages there. I am a woman, white, and I was born in the United States, and have gone to school here eighteen years, and in high school when they asked if I wanted to take French or Spanish, I chose French. I can hold the statistics in my hand. I can flip through the pages and say I understand their implications. But differences are starker on the street. Here men, some older than me, some with faces like boys, stand on the corners. And as I approach them, they look at me with eyes that say they know I am not one of them.

Milton asks the first question. “Where are they from?” Guatemala. The men on the next corner are from Mexico. “Why do they stand where they stand?” When Milton translates my question, they smile and look at each other. “Luck,” or “I always stand here,” they say. They stand where they have been hired before in hopes of being hired again. It sounds so simple.

Informal day laborer hiring sites like the one along César Chávez Street are informal points where employers and workers have intersected before and will intersect again to negotiate a day’s work. Laborers wait, sometimes for hours, on the street. Employers pull over and stop for only as long as it takes to get what they need. Informally understood and informally used, hiring sites are nevertheless persistent and necessary intersections within U.S. landscapes.

I’m going to tell you about three hiring sites, each located in a distinct Northern California landscape—urban San Francisco, suburban San Mateo, and the alpine town of Truckee. San Francisco is the city, where sidewalks course with pedestrians and signs of industry dominate the gaze. The city is created by intersections and overlaps of people, cultures, and cars, too multifarious to control. Within the landscape, the hiring site is tolerated. The city’s traffic, its routes of commerce, and its crowds contribute to the hiring site, increasing laborers’ likelihood of finding work.

San Mateo, population ninety-two thousand, is one of the many suburbs that surround San Francisco, one stitch in a spreading blanket of strip malls and highways. To the city’s chaos, San Mateo offers insularity and isolation. Empty sidewalks provide motorists with tranquil views, while manicured versions of nature flourish. In 2003, San Mateo passed an ordinance banning street-side solicitation, discouraging day laborers and employers from using its Third Avenue as a hiring site.

Truckee is the rustic retreat, a mountain town of sixteen thousand located near Lake Tahoe. Its sublime landscape of granite peaks is dotted with second homes and ski resorts, while its commercial downtown caters to tourists, many from the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2007, town officials relocated the informal hiring site away from this downtown.

Whether tolerated, prohibited, or relocated within their environments, day laborers at all three sites provide the labor necessary to maintain their surrounding landscapes. Painting, gardening, and construction are three of their most common jobs. Within these supposedly bounded communities, informal hiring sites come to represent the transgression of boundaries, symbols of labor networks that routinely cross both regional and national borders.

We begin on César Chávez Street. Some say the street has been a hiring site forever. Others say thirty years. Still others say twenty; they say it coincided with a surge in immigration from Central America.[2] But all agree that a paint store once stood at César Chávez and Mission, and the hiring site developed around the paint store. Workers stood there in hopes of being hired by its customers. For years, the store’s shell stood—an empty building with blurry windows and a fence bordering the parking lot. But construction on a new project began last week, and the building that housed the paint store is gone. Now workers and foremen stand behind the fence, while day laborers stand in front of it. Some still wear painters’ whites, as if the store and its customers were still there.

The hiring site stretches down the street, from the old paint store east to Highway 101. It is densest near the highway exit, where men hope to catch cars before they join the city’s confusion. The street works as a hiring site partly because of its heavy traffic flow—approximately twenty thousand cars each day. It is one of the city’s main vehicle thoroughfares, widened in the 1940s to facilitate traffic among neighborhoods.[3] Today, the dotted line of vehicles stitches together separate pieces of the city: the Mission District to Bernal Heights, Noe Valley to Potrero Hill. San Francisco is made up of over a dozen heterogeneous yet interconnected neighborhoods.[4] Day laborers capitalize on the street’s moving audience of cars and the convergence of traffic corridors and neighborhoods that occur there.

Home to few businesses, César Chávez Street’s exposed sidewalks discourage other pedestrians. And so the men looking for work stand out on the otherwise empty walkways. Their bodies become highly visible against the pale-colored homes and blank backdrops of garage doors that extend along the street in one continuous expression. They communicate their availability to employers through this visibility within the landscape. Despite the laborers’ visibility, much of their identifying information remains concealed on the street. Names are rarely taken and work records seldom kept. In lieu of paperwork, the day labor market relies on visual cues. The market’s visibility, in this case used to preserve anonymity, contradicts our notions of what it means to be seen. It is not always to be known.

This disjuncture is the first thing I notice when I drive to San Mateo. Exiting the highway at Third Avenue, the first thing I see is a sign. “Workers located at Fifth Ave. at Railroad,” planted at the first intersection. Most signs tell you what you see. But this one tells me what I don’t see, what I’m not supposed to see.[5] By giving workers’ location as Fifth Avenue, it tells me the men I see along Third Avenue are not workers. Which to believe, the writing on the sign or my own senses? Three men stand on the sidewalk in front of me, wearing heavy sweatshirts, pants, and work boots. They might be day laborers, or they might be waiting for the bus. The sign encourages me to believe the latter. But despite the sign, up to fifty men continue to look for work on Third Avenue each day.

The city put up the sign in 2003, the same year it passed an anti-solicitation ordinance and opened a formal worker center. The same year it received so many complaints about day laborers it set up a hotline. Between 2003 and 2005, San Mateo city police arrested 183 people for street-side solicitation. Ninety percent were day laborers; fewer than ten percent were employers.[6] Some day laborers were caught by police officers who posed as employers, offered them jobs, and arrested them when they accepted. The only way to know if the men on Third Avenue are day laborers is to ask. But I don’t ask. I just walk by.

Condominiums rise tall on the sides of the street. Since the mid-1990s, San Mateo city planners have funded a downtown revitalization project, hoping to draw people away from remote shopping malls and back to the downtown. As part of this effort, Third Avenue has been transformed from a strip of ramshackle single-family homes, commercial businesses, and vacant lots into chic, towering condominium buildings whose residents were some of the most outspoken critics of the day laborers standing near their front doors.

I follow more signs, erected at intersections and corners, looking for workers like following a treasure map. I turn right on Fifth Avenue and walk to the railroad tracks, arriving at the Worker Resource Center. The blue sign has led me here; it has led others as well. In the lot surrounding the center, men wait in and outside of the main building, sitting in discarded office chairs, telling jokes, sharing stories. Today, of the 126 who have signed up for work, only 13 have gotten jobs.

One weekend morning I attend an English class for day laborers at the center. Posters of garden tools and construction equipment cut out from magazines line the makeshift classroom’s walls. Images of tape measures, paintbrushes, ladders, scrapers, leaf blowers, goggles, earplugs, and hoses sit above the English word for each item, surrounding students in a vocabulary of labor. A practical approach, it nevertheless limits their prospects and sends a message. Manual labor becomes the only language they learn to speak, manual laborer the only role they are trained to inhabit. A man at my table has been in the United States only one week. The other students and I help him with the worksheets. They involve matching occupations with appropriate tools. I have tried to explain I am a student, too, but not one of English. I keep trying to explain who I am, but the language barrier is too much. So we talk in terms of shovels and goggles, leaf blowers and paint trays. We draw lines across sheets of paper, connecting words to pictures, trying to make them match up.

After class I go on a tour of San Mateo. I drive down Hillsdale Boulevard, a winding residential road that climbs the hills behind the town. Tightly packed front yards separate horizontal houses from the street. Oval shrubs, artfully spaced native grasses, and beds of ivy frame each house. Given such a landscape, it is not surprising that the most popular job at the Worker Resource Center is gardening. On Hillsdale Boulevard, the streets are quiet except for the buzz of a leaf blower echoing in the afternoon, as a landscaping crew tends to a one-story ranch style home.

Suburban landscapes like this one originated in the mid-nineteenth century as an ideological reaction to the urban. Seeking relief from the city’s crowded sidewalks, industries, and stunted version of nature, early suburban dwellers sought privacy and greenery. They cultivated tall hedges that functioned as fences and relished visible suggestions of a rural lifestyle, appreciating nature for its picturesque, rather than productive, qualities. Suburban wheelbarrows don’t haul soil but serve as flowerbeds. Suburbanites garden by choice, not by necessity—for pleasure, not income. Sometimes, they simply hire someone else—maybe a day laborer—to garden for them.

Monotony can hang heavy in the suburbs, where sameness is cultivated and strip malls blend into homogenous residential neighborhoods. For a change of scene, many suburbanites choose to take the message of one of the many billboards beside Bay Area highways advertising Sierra Nevada ski resorts, some of which are located in Truckee.

Some say the best way to get to Truckee from the Bay Area is by train. The Amtrak Zephyr will skate along tracks paralleling Highway 80, through fields of migrating birds and flooded flatlands outside Sacramento. It will begin to climb the Sierra Nevada at Auburn, where foothills mature into mountains. Inside the train car, a prerecorded voice will narrate the story of the transcontinental railroad that connected California to the rest of the United States in the 1860s. Somewhere near the rest stop town of Gold Run, the voice will tell the story of the Chinese laborers, whose dangerous work dynamiting tunnels and chiseling granite was instrumental in the railroad’s construction. The voice stops there. It leaves the story of what happened to the workers after they finished the railroad for someone else to tell. But I’ll tell you. The ten thousand Chinese workers settled in Truckee until 1878, when the town’s Caucasian League burnt down their houses and boycotted their businesses and forced them to leave.

The Amtrak drops you at the Historic Train Depot, a yellow building that houses the Truckee Donner Chamber of Commerce. In March 2007, I sit on the bench outside the depot and take a picture of three men standing in the parking lot. I learn later the location is used as an informal hiring site. I return over a year later, and the men are gone, and the lot is empty except for signs explaining the town’s new pay-for-parking system. I talk to the assistant to the town manager, and he tells me what happened to the day laborers. The town moved the informal hiring site after several of them misunderstood the cars and trucks that pulled into the parking lot to ask for directions, thinking instead they wanted to hire them for a job. “When you’re on vacation and in tourist mode, you’re not aware of your surroundings like you would be back home, so you’re taken aback when someone jumps in the back seat of your car,” he said.

“We wanted to approach it respectfully, humanely,” he continued. “They’re just trying to get jobs and money for their family…. We just wanted to move them to another place that wasn’t in the middle of the downtown.” The new hiring site, half a mile away on the road out of town, is safer. It’s easier for cars to pull in and out. Fewer people are being wrongfully swarmed. But safety wasn’t the only consideration. “The Chamber (of Commerce) would’ve said the hiring site was negatively affecting the tourist experience,” he said. “We are a tourist economy.”[7]

Truckee is a rapidly growing tourist town, whose population has nearly doubled since 1990. In 2007 the town issued the most building permits in its history. Most of the new developments are upscale resorts catering to tourists. Although day laborers’ contributions to these construction projects allow tourists to visit Truckee, their appearance is considered detrimental to the tourist experience. Such a contradiction can be understood through the lens of the sublime landscape ideal. In his book Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, Denis Cosgrove describes this concept. As with the suburbs, the sublime landscape was a mid-nineteenth century construction that emerged in response to capitalism and industrialization. As farming gave way to industrial production, the land was re-conceptualized as a place of spiritual and philosophical purity. Rugged and dangerous mountain scenery provided the perfect setting for this realization of self. Through its perceived absence of societal influence and human presence, such settings were conceived as an inspiring refuge for the individual seeking solace from society. But in order for a landscape to persist as sublime, the social relations of capitalism must remain concealed.

Truckee’s appeal as a tourist destination relies on visitors’ perception of it as sublime, its status as a gateway to a natural state of mind independent from the daily grind. The hiring site is a reminder of labor within a supposedly laborless landscape. As Truckee grows, as its mountains fill with high-end resorts and its secluded valleys are transformed into golf courses, its livelihood and sublime identity depend on its workers: both their contributions and their invisibility. The town’s decision to preserve and relocate the hiring site, rather than disband it, reflects this dual need.

On a Sunday afternoon when the lot is empty, I go to the new hiring site. A green line streaks through its center, stretching from the train yard to the main road. The assistant to the town manager painted the green line after the day laborers began using the new site, located next to a gas station. He painted it after a few laborers leaned against cars that weren’t theirs and one put his drink on the roof of the gas station manager’s car, after some supplies went missing from a truck idling in the station’s lot and the gas station manager complained to the town. He just wanted them to stand on the other side of the parking lot, away from the gas station. After the line was painted, the assistant to the town manager told the men: “Don’t cross the line.” He asked the police to circle the lot a few times to ensure the right people were on the right side of the line.

Before it was painted, the line was there. Day laborers crossed it the first time by approaching tourists’ cars, and they crossed it again when they stood too close to the gas station. The arbitrary border is indicative of the town’s division between its visible tourist economy and its less visible informal labor market. When contractors and second-home owners pull into the lot to hire day laborers, they too cross the line. When the Central Pacific Railroad recruited Chinese laborers in the 1860s and when those workers moved to town following the railroad’s completion, they also crossed the line. The line was always there and it has always been crossed.

Hiring sites in U.S. landscapes like these represent the pervasiveness of capitalism and labor networks, present both in industrial cities and landscapes created to escape the city and its commerce. As U.S. landscapes undergo changes, as distinctions between urban, suburban, and sublime become less rigid, informal hiring sites threaten in their perceived violation of these regional borders. Hiring sites suggest even wider networks of labor and capital. Supposedly distinct, the United States, Mexico, and Latin America are linked through centuries-old routes of trade, travel, and work, routes many day laborers follow by coming to the United States. Hiring sites within domestic landscapes, especially those places founded on principles of exclusion and seclusion, are visible symbols of economic interdependence, a connection that goes beyond borders.


[1] Valenzuela, Abel Jr., On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States. Paper, Los Angeles: UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, 2006.

[2] Different accounts offer different versions of the site’s history. Renee Saucedo, a lawyer and former director of the Day Laborer Program at La Raza Centro Legal, believes the site began in the mid-1980s at Mission and César Chávez streets, coinciding with a surge in the city’s population of Central American immigrants. In the July 20, 2000, San Francisco Chronicle article, “Working for Dignity,” staff writer Tom Zoellner traces the site’s history to the 1970s.

[3]San Francisco, City and County of, SF Prospector, 2004. (accessed January 5, 2008).

[4] The number of San Francisco’s neighborhoods varies. Major neighborhoods include Cole Valley, the Richmond and Sunset districts, Noe Valley, Haight-Ashbury, the Panhandle, the Financial District, the Castro, SoMa, the Tenderloin, Chinatown, the Mission District, Bayview–Hunter’s Point, Potrero Hill, and the Western Addition. However, many of these neighborhoods can be subdivided into smaller neighborhoods.

[5] Muehlbauer, Robert, Neighborhood Improvement and Housing Manager, City of San Mateo, interview by Victoria Gannon (February 4, 2008).

[6] Kinney, Aaron, “Undercover stings target San Mateo day laborers,” Oakland Tribune, September 18, 2006.

[7] Terrazas, Alex, Assistant to Town Manager, Truckee, California, interview by Victoria Gannon (November 2007).