Sunday, August 6, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Musical group gives day laborers a voice

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES - In a cramp ed recording studio in East Los Angeles, the musicians pick up their acoustic and mariachi-style guitars and start to play a mournful ballad. They are not professionals, but day laborers, poor immigrants who stand on street corners each day looking for work.

In a town known for Hollywood glitz, they sing about immigration raids and leaving their families in Latin America to seek the American Dream. Their songs are catching on with janitors, maids and other immigrants who human-rights activists say are among the most exploited workers in America.

"A lot of people sing about the light and the flowers and the stars, and never touch the themes of injustice, misery and poverty," says Jesus "Lolo" Rivas, one of the lead singers and composers for "Los Jornaleros del Norte," or The Day Laborer of the North.

The group plays at political rallies, at "coming out" parties for 15-year-old Hispanic girls, even on street corners. They've had gigs in San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago.

Now, with demand for their music growing, they are making a CD - "Canciones Sin Fronteras" (Songs Without Borders) - that they expect to release in September as an independent production. Profits from the CD will be divided between two immigrant-rights organizations and members of the group, who now reside legally in the United States.

Escape from poverty, war

The six men are peasants who fled poverty and civil war in Central America in the 1980s and early 1990s. Rivas traveled clandestinely with leftist rebels in El Salvador as part of their official music group. They're all self-taught musicians who can barely read a note of music.

In America they've done the jobs no one else wants - cleaning up garbage, unloading cargo containers, working on factory lines. Guitar player Pablo Alvarado says one day laborer he knows was hired to remove a putrefied dog that had died under someone's house three weeks earlier.

"You will risk anything to feed your family," Alvarado says.

In Los Angeles, an estimated 25,000 day laborers wait on some 200 street corners each day hoping someone will hire them for an odd job. They make about $600 in a typical week, with no medical insurance, vacation, sick days or other benefits.

Day-laborer corners have sprung up in other cities, including New York, Chicago and Houston.

Songs from experience

Los Jornaleros del Norte was born in 1996. Omar Sierra, a stocky peasant from Honduras, and other day laborers were being given free HIV tests in a mobile county health clinic in a Kmart parking lot in the City of Industry section of Los Angeles.

Suddenly, immigration officials raided the site. Sierra jumped up and started running with the others, yanking the needle out of his arm as he fled. Humiliated, he went home and composed "El Corrido de Industry" (Ballad of Industry):

"I am going to sing, my friends, about something that gives compassion. One day in front of the Kmart, we were ambushed by immigration . . ."

The next day he sang the song on a street corner at an emergency meeting of the day workers, and they loved it. Alvarado, who is an organizer at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, later thought that forming a musical group would be a good way to help organize day laborers.

"It makes you feel proud to see that a group of day laborers can play at a big event," says German Cruz, 20, a day laborer from Mexico.

One of the Jornaleros' most popular songs, "La Frasesita" (The Little Phrase), tells of the travails of newly arrived immigrants wrestling with English and trying to pay the right amount of money on a public bus.

Another, "La Paliza" (The Beating), is based on an infamous 1996 beating of two undocumented immigrants on a highway by sheriff's deputies from Riverside. Television news helicopters videotaped the incident.

In "Soy Hondureno" (I am Honduran), Sierra tells the story of how he left his impoverished home country to try to make some money for his family, only to call home and find out his wife had married another man.

"When I composed that song I was crying," he says.

The music includes "nortena"-style ballads and faster-paced "cumbias."

Message: We are normal people

The members of the group are diverse. In El Salvador during the 1980s, Rivas, 44, was a member of Cutumay Camones, the wildly popular, official music group of Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebels who were trying to overthrow the government.

Rivas and the group performed around the world to raise funds for the leftist rebels' cause. He fled El Salvador in 1990 because, he says, his life was in danger from government-backed "death squads."

Rivas says he hopes the Jornaleros' songs will help Americans see day laborers as human beings with universal struggles. They plan to include an English translation of the lyrics on the CD.

"Little by little we are getting people to see us as normal people and not treat us like animals," Rivas says.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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