When Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Simon Brackley suggested in a Jan. 31 editorial in The Santa Fe New Mexican that day laborers should be “relocated” away from De Vargas Park, he ushered into view more than a few extreme opinions.
Letters to the editor and comments, including several at the mayor’s recent coffee gathering with local businesses, unveiled both deep sympathy for the plight of immigrants trying to make a living and some very hard-line stances against a group some call “threatening” and “criminal.”
Brackley argues it’s no longer appropriate to have laborers lingering in the park and in front of the Santuario de Guadalupe now that tourists and commuters more frequently navigate between the Rail Runner station and downtown.
He’s partly right and mostly wrong.
Brackley is on solid footing when he suggests that a graffiti-riddled portable toilet is not the greatest manifestation of Santa Fe style.
He’s off the mark when he suggests that the De Vargas Park’s problems with trash, vandalism and, allegedly, drugs are caused by laborers standing around waiting for work—and that those problems would transform into a unicorn-filled tourist paradise if we simply edged laborers out onto the Southside. And he’s into dangerous territory.
Brackley’s job is to promote a healthy, happy business environment. If loitering laborers don’t fit his vision, he’s entitled to his opinion and to voice it. But he opened the floodgates to many people who are less politic about the fact that we’re talking about a bunch of Mexicans.
Words like “unsanitary,” “safety,” “harassment” and “intimidating” are being thrown around. There are implications of theft and worse.
One person suggested that workers are controlled by a “boss” who demands high wages and won’t let laborers work until he extracts a promise to meet his pay scale. This person further conjectured that this apparent thug is a kind of organized crime figure who likely extorts a percentage off of the innocent, downtrodden workers.
Maybe they’re organized, but likely not in a criminal way. If Brackley or the anti-immigrant Internet denizens and letter writers who support his view (and take it to a further extreme) actually hung out on the Southside at all, they would probably have noticed the fliers haunting taco stands and small groceries. These advertise worker meetings at which both laborers and tradesmen gather to fight against intimidation by employers who leverage immigration status against fair wages and refuse to pay skilled masons and plasterers the same wages a similarly skilled Anglo employee earns.
As the owner of a 100-year-old adobe house, ie, a never-ending project, I hire a couple of guys to help me for a day or two whenever I can afford it. I don’t feel intimidated walking through the park (though I’m bummed I haven’t yet been invited to play a round of quatros), and I’ve yet to encounter these vandals, criminals and otherwise undesirable characters.
In fact, I’ve uniformly encountered polite, respectful, hardworking people with interesting life stories. Are there a couple of drunks hanging out at the park? Oh yeah. There also are a couple of potheads and drunks working for most of our licensed and bonded contractors. They might even be white dudes. Is there the occasional catcall? Most definitely. It’s rude. But then Americans don’t offer any true greeting before getting down to business talk, which is equally rude according to another set of cultural values.
To ghettoize day laborers and tuck them out of sight from tourists—at Southside big-box stores, Brackley suggests—is whitewashing and, yeah, I mean racially. If a bunch of Anglos in suits were hanging out on the street corner, could there ever be a credible movement to suggest they be given “a small lot fitted with turn-around parking, portable toilets, trash containers and shelter against inclement weather” out near a couple of banks on St. Michael’s?
Interviews conducted by local artist Chrissie Orr as part of the El Otro Lado project determined that many Southside residents, particularly Mexican immigrants, never get farther into the city center than the Santuario de Guadalupe and De Vargas Park. I’d be willing to guess that’s because they know they’re not welcome, if only on a subtle, unspoken level. Brackley’s suggestion that removing the predominantly Mexican laborers from the park will restore it as a public gathering place reflects a narrow view of the “whole community” indeed.
Brackley suggests vendors with colorful umbrellas be licensed to serve ice cream and coffee in the park. After, of course, we remove the Mexicans. I’ll tell you what: Mexicans are the holdup on licensing vendors in the park. How about we let laborers be vendors and customers just like everybody else and we see how it works to be inclusive?
Fear breeds mistrust. Immigrants and laborers are at the heart of commerce in our city. If we don’t like how it looks, the answer is not to sweep it out of view, but to examine the fundamental social dynamics at work.
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