The Seattle Woman Who Made A Home For Day Laborers
It’s 7 a.m., time for the morning lottery inside Casa Latina’s worker center.
One guy shakes a blue canister then pulls out plastic ID cards for the 40 or so workers here today. Most are Latino men, but not all.
Names go up on a white board; the lucky ones will get sent out to jobs today – doing construction, yard work and other manual labor.
Migrant workers in Seattle know where to hustle for odd jobs. They might wait outside of home improvement stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s. Or they might head to a day worker center near downtown.
It’s a major change from 20 years ago, when this job market had more of a Wild West vibe, and when undocumented workers were often exploited.
Casa Latina exudes an aura of calm. Here, a few men eat breakfast together. An elderly man reads his Bible. This is their living room, their office, their shelter from the rain.
And it took a long, uphill battle to build it.
Hilary Stern is the founding director of Casa Latina. She got the idea for the center in the 1990s.
On a recent morning in Belltown, Stern stood on Bell Street, next to a busy highway off-ramp that dumped into the city. She was bundled in a scarf and hat with silver hair poking through.
“In Seattle, when we first started, this was the only place where the workers were standing on the street,” she said. “People weren't standing outside of the Home Depots.”
There would be about 75 workers every morning, layered in coats and backpacks. Employers looking for extra work crew would pull up, and the men would muscle their way forward.
It was part turf war, part mob scene.
“All the Hondurans were together, all the Guatemalans were together,” Stern recalled. “The Mexicans were together, but not all the Mexicans. The Mexicans from southern Mexico were one area, and the Mexicans from northern Mexico in another area.”
Their presence on this corner was part of ongoing tradition. In the early 1900s, longshoremen gathered here to jockey for a day's work at the docks. The unofficial labor market continued on here through the decades in different forms.
In the 1990s, more Latino migrants began to arrive in Seattle, looking for work. The sudden devaluation of the Mexican peso had sparked a crisis, and pushed people north. Seattle’s tech boom beckoned.
“There was a lot of construction,” Stern said. “There were a lot of opportunities for day laborers here.”
The workers had little protection. Most were here illegally. And shady employers often underpaid or stiffed them on wages completely. Some ended up homeless.
Neighbors increasingly saw this street scene as an eyesore and a magnet for crime. They wanted it swept away.
“They tried various ways, like calling immigration or calling the police,” Stern said. “They would do a sweep, and people would all run away for that day. But the very next day they’d be back again.”
Stern taught English classes to some of these workers, and she saw the controversy heating up.
She co-founded Casa Latina with a grant to help homeless migrants. But the mission soon evolved to move this chaotic day labor market off the corners and into a safer system.
It was a humble beginning – basically, a 20-stall parking lot downtown with no running water.
“When we first started out, we had nothing here,” Stern said. “It was just a parking lot but then we ordered a trailer, a porta-potty. And then we built a small little shelter, which then turned into a classroom.”
The centerpiece was a job dispatch service, a way to connect employers and day workers. At the time, there were only a few worker centers like this across the country. Now there are more than a hundred.
It remained controversial in the neighborhood, but for nine years, the center stayed at this temporary location.
Eventually, Casa Latina raised nearly $5 million to build a permanent home. But like Belltown, new neighbors didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet.
“When we decided to build a building and move to a different neighborhood, we got a lot more resistance and conflict from neighbors there who were saying that they didn't want to have this problem move into their neighborhood,” Stern said.
Steve Nakamura, a dentist whose office is across the street from where Casa Latina planned to re-locate, in the Central District, recalled that time.
“There were a few people in the neighborhood that were going around, trying to keep them from moving in,” Nakamura said. “They assumed they would bring in crime to the area. And they were trying to get people to sign a petition.”
Nakamura refused to sign it. He said it reminded him a bit of when nobody wanted the Japanese here during World War II. “Everybody deserves a fair chance,” he said.
Casa Latina moved here in 2009.
And today, as we look out across the street at the center’s tidy, modern buildings, Nakamura said his neighbors’ early fears did not bear out.
“Not the case at all, they’ve been great neighbors,” he said.
Back at Casa Latina, Stern said she initially planned to stay on at Casa Latina just 10 years. Now past the 20-year mark, she’s ready to retire.
Casa Latina has become recognized across the country for its work with day laborers – and for Stern’s role in a starting a national network to help organize workers.
Workers like Blas Felix, a 37-year-old from Tijuana.
“Thank God I found this worker center,” Felix said. “All the workers here, we’re like brothers. Like family, encouraging each other. It means a lot to have this place.”
About Hilary, he said, “She’s been like a mother to us, to each one of us.”
Thousands of workers have passed through Casa Latina. And eventually found permanent work, learned English or even started their own business.
Stern says they’ve been like family to her, too.