America's Racial and Ethnic Divides

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Day-to-Day Workhorses

The early morning sky is beginning to glow with heat when a van comes into the day-labor yard. The boss behind the wheel is an elderly man, with deep ebony skin and a long snowy white beard, his eyeglasses held together with tape and rubber bands. He is looking for three movers. Cespedes asks the laborers, in Spanish, who wants to work for the man he dubs "Santa Claus."

Manuel Barrera steps forward from behind the fence. Moving is hard, heavy lifting, but there may be shade, even air conditioning. The man with the beard offers him too little. Barrera holds out. He wants $7 an hour but settles for $6.50. Two other men agree to go too.

Later, Barrera confesses, "I was ashamed to fight for pennies."

Now 48, Barrera crossed the Rio Grande while in his twenties on his long journey from Guatemala City to Houston for one single purpose: to work for U.S. dollars. He says that he has neither been welcomed with open arms nor been turned away. He, too, is ambivalent about Americans. His life, he believes, is better in Houston, but also very hard. He hopes his children will do better.

Immigrants like Barrera have taken over entire sectors of the labor market, creating new wealth and offering services that were unavailable or too costly. They have made money for themselves and for the middlemen. But they have also competed, with a ferocity fired by a will to survive, with the native-born Americans who lack the skills required for advancement in the new post-industrial economy.

The job market this current wave of immigrants enter is vastly different from the one that absorbed the last great wave of immigrants earlier this century. Today, the factories are gone, and the economy resembles an hourglass. At the top, the elevator class works in tall buildings shuffling papers and typing on keypads. At the bottom, immigrants paint the walls and clean the carpets. There are fewer and fewer jobs requiring medium-level skills for average pay. It is as if someone has cut the rungs from the middle of the ladder.

Because many immigrants have only modest educations, their ability to move from the lower rungs of the ladder to the higher has grown more difficult. At the top of the economy, the opportunity for advancement is great and salaries are climbing; at the bottom, wages are stagnant or falling. For the lowest-paid workers, a recent Rand Corp. study shows, inflation-adjusted wages are about one-third lower than they were in the 1970s. To be an immigrant day laborer in Houston is to throw the dice every day. Breaking even is enough. At dozens of street corners around the city, men jump into moving pickup trucks, heading for work. Some are stranded at the job site at day's end, with no car to get them home. Some are cheated of their wages.

On this day in the life of immigrants hard at work, Manuel Barrera goes with Santa Claus, first to rent a very large moving van, and that is when Barrera begins to think this day will not be easy. He drives the van with a bad clutch to a storage company, where the entire contents of a now-shuttered store have been impounded as part of a repossession. The job is to unload everything from one van parked at the storage facility, transport the contents across town and unload at another storage site.

Barrera opens the first truck, which is filled to the ceiling with a jumble of garage-sale junk, refrigerators and art from Africa – carved masks and ceremonial spears and huge pieces of mahogany furniture, the heaviest furniture ever made.

Barrera sighs. There will be no air conditioning today. The metal-sided vans are ovens, and as the day wears on, the heat becomes something a man physically recoils from and the loads to lift so heavy that Barrera and his co-workers almost fear them, as if the weight could break a man.

There is no lunch break. No toilets. That is assumed. After a few hours, the men grow dizzy, weave on their feet and demand something to drink. It is so hot that not only is Barrera's shirt soaked with sweat, but so are his bluejeans, lathered in a white froth, like a horse.

Barrera is a man with a happy face but, he says, he has a heavy heart. He believes he should not be here, surrounded by younger men, offering his body for day labor. He has worked here as a baker, a shoemaker. He is a married man and a father of three who owns a simple home and a little white truck. After years of living in the shadows as an illegal alien, his papers are now in order.

"This is work, and I will do it because it puts food on the table," Barrera says. "But I did not foresee that it would turn out like this."

This is how it is in America. This is the kind of work that many of the record-breaking number of new immigrants do. This is the fine print of the deal between the newcomers and the native-born that is overlooked in the thick reports of numbers compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and in the research of think tanks examining the immigrants' impact.

After eight hours of work, Santa Claus pays the men, including the "bonus" he has been promising all day. The two younger workers get $50. Barrera is given $60 because he knew how to drive the van, a skill worth a bit more. "You all sure got me out of a jam," Santa Claus says. "You all are hard workers, hard."

Moving his possessions, including the art and furniture he says is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, cost Santa Claus $217.88, rental van included. A professional moving company in Houston bid the same job for $980.

After his hours in the sun, loading and unloading the vans, Manuel Barrera is about to head home to his wife and children. His last words to a reporter who has spent the day with him: "If you hear about a better job, will you call me?"

Latching On to a Niche

The high summer winds are whipping the American flag against its pole, hard and clanging like a ship's mast in a gale, as Demetrio Luna swings from his wooden bench, suspended against the mirrored windows of a 23-story building, buckled into his long ropes, with a soapy bucket, a brush and a squeegee at hand.

For the past seven years, Luna has washed the windows of the tallest buildings in Houston, among the highest in the world. He has cleaned the glass skins of Texas Commerce Bank and the Transco Tower, each more than 60 stories tall. He is proud of this. "It is a good job," Luna says in an English still thick with Spanish inflections. It is a job for men with courage.

His uncle taught him how to swing from the ropes. Luna remembers the first time he lowered himself off the side of a building. "I was afraid," he says. Now? "It is like walking on the ground."

From his perch high above the city, Luna can see clear across Houston. The downtown skyline and the Astrodome rise from a rumpled carpet of steaming trees. He can see the corner lot where Manuel Barrera waited for his day job. He can see, too, his neighborhood to the southwest, the new barrio, where he lives with his wife and two young children. Luna, now 33, left his home in Saltillo, Mexico, when he was 16. He crossed the border with the idea that he would stay a few years and return, like so many of the transnational "sojourners" in the past. His father back home, a true sojourner who picked crops in Florida for 40 seasons, long ago stopped asking his son when he was coming home. Luna is never going to return to Saltillo.

His decision to remain in Houston, to marry and raise a family, is part of the transformation of this broad-shouldered Texas town and is helping to make Houston one of the most diverse cities in the United States. Its population is 41 percent Anglo, 30 percent Hispanic, 25 percent black and 4 percent Asian. In the last two decades, the number of immigrants in Houston has soared. By 2000, one in five Houstonians will be foreign-born.

Right now, many people in Houston are only too happy to have immigrants such as Demetrio Luna around to clean their windows. The city is booming. Houston's economy, which endured cycles of giddy boom and brutal bust in the 1970s and 1980s, has been transformed. Unemployment now stands at 3.7 percent. Jobs go begging. Immigrants are welcome, at least by those who do not have to compete with them.

Luna, like many immigrants, has burrowed into a specialized work niche. Immigrants wash the windows of skyscrapers in Houston. Native-born Americans do not.

There are hundreds of such niches as those filled by the window washers. In Houston, whole villages of Mayans from Guatemala have been transplanted to work cleaning and stocking the shelves of the Randall's and Albertson's grocery store chains. Nigerians drive taxis. Vietnamese open nail salons. Indians practice medicine. Where once the domestic servants of the posh old-line Houston enclave of River Oaks were all black, today the maids and caregivers are almost exclusively Latino. The precise job niches and the immigrants who fill them change from city to city across America, but the overall pattern does not.

There was a time, a decade ago, when young workers from the Rust Belt and urban blacks washed the windows of Houston's high-rises. No more. This transformation has had two major effects. Those who buy or sell Luna's labor, such as his contractor and the building owners, benefit from lower wages and lower costs. Those who compete do not. They change jobs, acquire more skills or move to cities where immigrants are few.

Ray Cook has been a painter and a union man for 38 years, all his working life. His union local, which represents painters, glazers, tile layers and drywallers – the bedrock trades for the building industry – has dwindled from 2,000 members in the early 1980s to about 350 today because the work is now being done by non-union immigrants such as Luna. The average age of the local's members is 57. "They either retire or die," Cook says.

Cook used to despise the immigrants who stole their jobs. "I called those non-union painters a scab or a rat or worse," he remembers. "But I did a 180-degree turnaround. These immigrants, as you call them, they're good men. Most of them work hard, though they might not know what they're doing. But we're all workers. I don't have a problem with them anymore. I have a problem with the contractors."

In Houston, a union painter makes $17.94 an hour, which includes health, welfare and pension benefits. Demetrio Luna or Manuel Barrera, or any of their friends who can pick up a brush, will work for far less money and no benefits.

"I don't care what the economists say, our wage structure is based on how little the immigrants are willing to work for," says Richard Shaw, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in Houston. "They're bringing our wages down, and we have the pillars of the community employing them at below minimum wage." The reason many Houstonians feel little animosity toward immigrants, Shaw says, "is because they're going to work 'em 'til they use 'em up."

Shaw also says that while Houston wants the cheap labor, the citizens have voted, repeatedly, against raising the minimum wage, improving the public schools or increasing funding for the county hospitals in the areas where the immigrants live.

In his service to the elevator classes, Demetrio Luna makes between $1,700 and $2,700 a month, depending on the work, and probably averages around $10 or $12 an hour, with no pension, benefits or insurance. He is satisfied with the money he makes and said he has no intention of joining a union, which he fears would make him less attractive to employers.

Luna has two young daughters – "having more in America is too expensive" – and his wife, who is a Mexican American born here, works as an assistant manager in a pawn shop. She has health insurance for herself and her children. Luna loves his shiny red, late-model Dodge pickup truck and dancing to the Tejano tunes at the neon-lit clubs. "I am okay," he says. Life is much better here than in Saltillo, even though, on average, immigrants across the nation earn 15 percent less than the native-born, and Mexican newcomers earn less than half of what other Americans make.

When asked how his daughters will fare in his new country, this new economy, Luna grows uncertain. "They will need to do better," he says.

The 'Good Immigrant'

Like Demetrio Luna, Mai Tran came to this country as a teenager. She was not fleeing poverty in Mexico, but the communists in Vietnam. Luna's father was a field hand; Tran came from a well-to-do merchant family. She left her home aboard a smuggler's boat, paying her way with bars of gold. She spent months at an internment camp in Malaysia, and then arrived in Houston, legally, a refugee in 1981, following her sister but leaving her parents behind. She was 18 years old then. Today she shops the sales at Neiman Marcus.

Tran went to community college here and studied drafting and worked as a waitress in restaurants, including a place called the Brisket House, where she learned that Texans like baked potatoes with chives and sour cream, and even ketchup. "It was very confusing. And if you got it wrong – 'No chives?' – there was hell to pay." Mai Tran can laugh about this now. She is solidly middle class, and through her clients, gets orchestra seats at the opera.

At her sister's urging, Tran attended a school of cosmetology to study for 250 hours the art and science of the modern manicure. She discovered she was good with her hands and good for the hands she buffed and polished. With money she had saved working in the salon of another Vietnamese, Tran opened her own shop seven years ago on a tony shopping strip near Rice University. Her loyal customers like the care she puts into their nails. They also like Tran, for her smart-alecky, no-nonsense commentary and because she listens to the stories of their lives.

"She's my psychiatrist," says one devoted client, a criminal defense investigator who has been having her nails done every Thursday afternoon for years. "She knows everything about me."

Her salon is the calm in a storm of middle-class angst. Coffee klatch and way station. Tran knows not only her clients' favorite shades of polish, but the names of their boyfriends, husbands and children. She listens, all the while whittling away with her emery board, as they tell her of their travails at work, the boyfriend who forgets to send flowers, the illnesses of their parents.

Mai Tran, now 35, is the kind of immigrant who does not so much compete against the native-born but creates new economic possibilities. She complements the American economy – like maids or nannies or valet parkers or ethnic restaurants for the middle classes. The phenomenon of the nail salon is a new one, created over the last few years, whereby a million women who once saw the occasional manicurist for weddings or proms now visit weekly. There is now a Nail Industry, built largely by Vietnamese immigrants, supporting three magazines devoted to the subject (one in Vietnamese) and dozens of suppliers.

While the nail salon is fun for the clients, Tran herself does not have easy work. She spends 12 hours a day, year after year, at her little table, pushing back cuticles and buffing tips, with surgical precision, but over and over again. It has given her a piece of the American dream, but this is extraordinarily tedious work – and few native-born Americans with Tran's education and intelligence would submit themselves to the task of applying polish.

But Tran is the "good immigrant," the latest incarnation of the mythical Horatio Alger success stories. She did not take a job from anybody. She remade herself into a success story. Tran is about to open a larger salon, with more employees and subcontractors who will offer facials and massages.

"I have heard about the bad things that happen to immigrants," she says. "I've heard Americans are racists and all the rest. But when you come and work hard, they love you."

A Better Life

Kalpalatha Guntupalli came to America, too, looking for a better life, and as she guides a visitor through the pulmonary critical care unit at Harris County's Ben Taub Hospital, where she is chief, it is clear that she has found what she was looking for. Her curriculum vitae runs 32 pages.

Trained first in India, where her parents were lower-middle-class teachers, she and all her siblings are now doctors. When Guntupalli came to America in the 1970s, there was a great demand for physicians, and today, so-called international medical graduates number 160,000 of the 650,000 physicians in the United States. An amazing 26,000 of them are from India, which is one of the world's largest producers of doctors. On the walls of her office at Ben Taub are pictures of her with President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. In the emergency rooms below, however, the indigent patients are lined up, gurneys pressed together, the dinged-out and the damaged, with no insurance, waiting their turns and soiling their sheets. It is a good hospital, but the one that draws some of the sickest patients, the street people, with nowhere else to go. Many of the doctors bustling about in their white jackets are immigrants.

"I've been here for more than half my life," Guntupalli says, but because of her last name and her lilting accent, even other physicians ask her, "When are you going back home?" She, like Tran, Luna and Barrera, will never go back home to live. They are the new Americans. "Initially, there is this hesitation," says Guntupalli, now 48. "The color of your skin, your accent, your last name. But no other country will offer you what America does."

Immigrant doctors now serve many of the most needy patient populations in the United States. They staff the clinics and hospitals such as Ben Taub, serving the inner cities and rural areas – jobs that many native-born doctors will not do. This month, Guntupalli will become president of the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, which has been fighting to ensure that foreign-born physicians are not discriminated against before licensing boards or medical school selection committees.

As she makes a round of the intensive care unit, filled with the very ill patients, Guntupalli praises the work that immigrant doctors have done in America.

But the door is closing. The medical professions, and the government commissions that oversee immigration of the highly skilled, are forecasting a glut of physicians. As a result, the commissions are reducing the number of foreign-trained doctors who are allowed to practice in the United States.

But at the bottom of the ladder, where wages are cheap and the benefits of keeping it that way are many, there appears to be no similar effort.

No stopping legal immigrants, that is, who come to take their chance alongside Manuel Barrera.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

America's Racial and Ethnic Divides

A White Migration North From Miami

Gated entrances and patrol cars provide Weston, Fla., residents with security. By Andrew Itkoff for The Washington Post)
Fifth in a series of occasional articles
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 11, 1998; Page A1

WESTON, Fla. – Everything here is nice and neat, just the way Joanne Smith likes it. The developers call their new city on the edge of the Everglades "Our Home Town," and Smith agrees. "It's more like America," she says.

Like thousands of others, Smith moved to this planned community 40 miles north of Miami just a few years ago, searching for a safe and secure neighborhood like this one, where both modest homes and rambling mansions sit against the manicured landscape of palm and hibiscus, and gated streets called Wagon Way and Windmill Ranch gently curve around the shallow lagoons and golf links.

Weston is a boomtown filling with refugees. But the migrants pouring into this part of Broward County are rarely those from the Caribbean, Central and South America – the immigrants to the south who have transformed Miami and surrounding Dade County into a metropolis proudly called by its business and political leaders "The Gateway to Latin America."

Instead, the refugees here are mostly native-born and white, young and old, and they have been streaming up from Miami for years now, creating a new version of the traditional "white flight" in reaction not to black inner cities, but to immigration.

While Miami is unique in many respects, because of both geography and politics, the out-migration of whites is occurring in other high-immigration cities. New York and Los Angeles, for example, each lost a million U.S.-born residents in the last decade, as they gained a million immigrants.

According to an analysis of the most recent census data, for almost every immigrant who came to Miami-Dade County in recent years, a white non-Hispanic left.

"I loved Miami, but it's a mad scene down there now," said Smith, who is semi-retired and asked that her occupation not be given. Before her move to Weston, Smith lived in Miami for two decades, "in a nice neighborhood gone bad. People say things, 'Oh that's change and that's progress,' but I like it clean and green – and everybody speaking English," Smith says.

In discussions about the historic demographic transformations occurring in the United States, which is absorbing almost 1 million immigrants a year, most of the attention focuses quite naturally on the newcomers: Who are they and where are they from and how do they make their way in America?

But immigration is a two-way street – and the welcome the immigrants receive from the native-born is crucial for the continued idea of America as a fabled "melting pot." Of course, there are many whites – and blacks, too – who have remained in Miami-Dade County, to either continue their lives as before or accept, even embrace the Latin tempo of Miami, who have learned how to pronounce masas de puerco at lunchtime and to fake a respectable merengue dance step, who enjoy the culture, the business opportunities and caffeinated hustle of a metropolis dominated by immigrants. No one could call Miami dull.

But it is almost as if there are two kinds of native whites – those who can deal with multiculturalism that has transformed Miami over the past several decades and those who choose not to. Either way, if the country is to successfully transform itself into a completely multicultural industrialized nation, what these internal migrants say – and there are millions of them around the country – needs to be heard and understood.

Those transplants interviewed by The Washington Post, including those who asked that their names not be used, take pains to explain that, for the most part, the people like them who are moving out of Miami-Dade to Broward are not anti-immigrant xenophobes.

In several dozen interviews with a cross-section of these "domestic migrants," a picture emerges of a segment of the non-Hispanic white population in Miami-Dade County that feels marginalized, exasperated and sometimes bitter, and who move from Dade to Broward with a mix of emotions.

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