Guest post by Deniz Daser, a PhD candidate in anthropology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, US. Deniz is currently conducting ethnographic fieldwork with Honduran migrant workers working in the building trades in New Orleans. Her research examines how the historic banana trade between Honduras and New Orleans has facilitated waves of migration and informed contemporary worker experience.

Review of Jornalero: Being a Day Laborer in the USA by Juan Thomas Ordóñez (University of California Press, 2015)

Amidst the landscape of busy urban intersections and suburban strip malls, a trip through the United States will inevitably reveal the highly visible presence of jornaleros, or day laborers, who are frequently working-age Mexican and Central American men. Often waiting for work in front of hardware (DIY) stores, day laborers provide a reliable labor force for construction, landscaping, moving, and other physically demanding, low-wage jobs in the contemporary US. With many in the country living under informally authorized status, such migrants often experience worksite inequalities ranging from wage theft to work injury to job instability. The anthropologist Juan Thomas Ordóñez spent two years at one such day labor waiting site, or la parada, where he studied Latino day laborers, their work lives, and the social worlds they inhabit under circumstances of extended precarity.

Located in Berkeley, California, Ordóñez’s study is thickly oriented in the Geertzian mold, a finely grained ethnography drawing upon the method of deep hanging out, literally, with these men on la parada. Having conducted fieldwork in 2007-2009, Ordóñez’s research overlapped with the Great Recession, when jobs were drying up, and the post-9/11 deportation regime, which had by then institutionalized its presence throughout the US. Through his detailed analysis, we get a finely tuned sense of the ‘situación (p. 12) of many of the men, a term that indexes the men’s socio-economic and personal struggles. Not only worksite inequalities animate their vulnerable status, but crime, the threat of deportation, health issues, and family problems also characterize their day-to-day struggles. At the same time, through detailed depictions of day-to-day life, Ordóñez skillfully reveals how these individuals mediate these intervening structural constraints through a type of ‘moral economy’ (p. 27) in which workers carefully manage levels of friendship and intimacy and dole out jobs for those most in need. It’s in the depiction of the everyday, from the jocular ribbing of one another to the delicate dance between a potential employer who pulls up in his car and the laborer’s response, to the workers’ articulations of racial bias, that allows us as readers to better understand how these social actors mediate their self-worth, masculinity, and emotional worlds.

Through this analysis of the social field of la parada, Ordóñez additionally makes a number of important contributions to the literatures on transnational migration and citizenship. First, diverging from much of the transnational migration literature of the 1990s and 2000s that examined the rich social ties that immigrants have forged both within and between societies, Ordóñez finds that for the vast majority of day laborers, connections forged through political organizing, alternative family arrangements, and ethnic group belonging are tenuous. The very processes of globalization that make such migration necessary are the same structures of inequality that ensure isolation and precarious day-to-day living while the structures of the labor market itself curtail the possibilities of deeply-rooted camaraderie. Yet, this does not point to a lack of sociality. In fact, the social lives of these men are formed and reformed in the moral economy of la parada, but the structural violence of social marginalization, economic exploitation, and ever-present demands on the fruits of their labor by family back home imbue migrants’ lives with an ongoing need to manage risk skillfully.

Part of balancing that collective risk and potential opportunity is what Ordóñez terms ‘para-citizenship’ (p. 193), in which undocumented migrants engage in certain ‘“legally” sanctioned forms of belonging’ (p. 174) such as obtaining particular forms of documentation, buying cars, paying taxes, and retaining particular rights as workers. At the same time, being undocumented or informally authorized, using more precise terminology, severely delimits actualization of full citizenship rights. As cosmopolitan though also racialized and classed subjects upon stepping foot in the US, informally authorized migrants have to negotiate the parameters of severely limited rights in what is often a new cultural context.

While reading much of this ethnography, I found myself nodding along and writing ‘Yes!’ in the corner of many a page as I saw findings echoed in my very different field site of New Orleans, Louisiana. My research into Honduran construction workers in the building trades revealed many of the same forms of structural violence that inform migrant workers’ lives in Berkeley. Important in a comparative sense, we come to see that macrolevel forces of political economy and crimmigration stretch beyond the realm of Berkeley’s la parada or the post-post-Katrina building industry of New Orleans to point to shared dynamics across the US and perhaps globally as well.

Yet, questions remained that may have shed some light on the ‘local dynamics and global power’ of Ordóñez’s field site. What are the broader patterns of migration to the area, both historically and demographically? What is the place of day laborers in relation to other labor markets in the area dominated by migrants? Why Berkeley for many of these migrants? Have recent developments in the globalized hi-tech industry in the area drawn in workers and if so, how does that inform local inequalities? Such questions are important not only as a matter of curiosity, but in order to better understand the experience of precarity for these workers and their social isolation. Yet, as all anthropologists know, ethnographic writing―and perhaps writing in general―can feel like a zero sum exercise, a constant juggling of focused attention to the benefit of one aspect of research and the detriment of another. Luckily, what this street corner ethnography does offer is something that most cultural anthropologists seek: accurately approximating the lived experiences of people and the social worlds they inhabit and help to produce. In that regard, Ordóñez has produced a valuable contribution to anthropological understandings of transnational migration, citizenship, and labor.

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Daser, D. (2016) Book Review: Jornalero. Being a Day Laborer in the USA. Available at: [date]).