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Beyond the Stereotypes

Members of Herndon's day worker population want to be known for more than standing on a street corner.

Jose Hernandez wakes up every morning at 4:30 a.m. As the sun begins to rise, he begins his walk to the 7-Eleven at the corner of Alabama Drive and Elden Street, hoping to find work for the day.

If hired, Hernandez will work close to 10 hours of manual labor in a day, making $10 an hour. When his job at the construction site ends, Hernandez returns home to take a quick shower, grab a bite to eat, and hop on a bus to his part-time job in Reston Town Center where he cleans offices for $6.50 an hour until 10 p.m.

On days he does not find a day job at the 7-Eleven, Hernandez begins to feel the pressure of financial burdens — so does his family.

A native of El Salvador, Hernandez has four sons, twin 7-year-olds, a 9-year-old and 11-year-old, along with a wife, sister and mother in his home country. Each month he sends $600 or more home to them, $350 for his wife and children and $250 to his sister and mother who help watch the children.

"The big pressure's at the end of the month when you have to come up with rent," said the soft-spoken 30-year-old through translation by Jorge Rochac.

Hernandez, wearing workman boots, gray cargo pants, a black bandanna as a sweat band around his forehead and a navy t-shirt that lists "California's Beaches" across it, stands a little under six feet tall. He looks away as he talks about the life he left more than a year ago to come to the United States where he is trying to pay off his debts so he can return home.

"It's very hard to be away from one's family, especially your children and your wife," he said of the family he hasn't seen for 13 months and speaks to once a week via telephone.

"The United States are known as the 'Golden Jail.' If you're here you can't go back," he said. "You're gone three, six, nine months, sometimes your loved ones die and you never see them. Since I have been here I have lost two close relatives."

A MAJORITY OF the men circled around Hernandez could relate as he told his story of leaving school after the sixth grade to become a trash collector in El Salvador.

Many of them tell their slightly differing tales of family back home and why they chose to come to the United States — most of them because relatives live here.

The common denominator for all of them is opportunity — something their home countries did not offer.

"What really is happening, what in a sense made us come here, is the insecurity and delinquency of our own country," said El Salvadorian native Jose-Luis Saravia, through a translator. "Here we don't have to deal with that."

Saravia has been in the United States for two years, but came to Herndon 10 months ago because his relatives live here. Initially living in Florida, his trip to Virginia took a detour.

Saravia said he was kidnapped for seven months by the person who offered to help him get to Herndon. He was held with seven other workers in the "boondocks somewhere" forced to do agricultural work for $40 a day. Threatened with abuse on a regular basis, one night Saravia said he escaped and "just ran away."

At 22 years old, Saravia is not the youngest man on site. Francisco, who declined an interview due to legal concerns, is 15 years old.

Kandi Perdomo, an English as a second language teacher at the Neighborhood Resource Center, said Francisco came to the United States by himself from El Salvador. Unable to attend school because he is supporting himself, Perdomo said Francisco stands at the 7-Eleven every day hoping for work.

Perdomo has met children younger than Francisco in the country alone. She also has heard repeated stories about men not paid for their labor.

"There's about $2,000 to $3,000 that I haven't been paid," said Saravia. "A lot of guys [employers] that don't pay say that if you don't have papers you don't have protection — that's not true, that's a perception."

Sometimes employers will try to take advantage of Latino day workers because they do not speak English fluently, resulting in them working all day for no pay, he said.

If hired every day, he will make $500-plus a week, said Saravia. He added that as of Wednesday, Aug. 3, he had not worked in three days.

"HERE IT IS AN ADVENTURE," said Hernandez. "Some days there is work, some days there is not work. And some days, like today, you just stand around and that's when people misperceive us and think we're just a bunch of bums standing on a corner doing nothing."

Hernandez said if he had the opportunity for a stable, full-time job, he would take it, even if it paid $7 an hour.

"When an American picks us up for work, we do our best," he said. "We want them to have a good concept of who we are and what we do."

Nery Vargas, 25, nicknamed "The Teacher" by the men on site, said there is a misconception in the community about the men that gather at the 7-Eleven.

"Those who are here, we're here because we really want to work, we want to contribute something," said the Honduran native. "We come here to work, not to cause problems. Our contribution is our work in exchange for pay."

Before moving to the United States, Vargas was studying mathematics at a university in Honduras. He left after one year to come to the United States as a "tourist" to see what the country had to offer. Since then he has worked as an electrician, placing his wages in a savings account, while also teaching himself English and helping others adjust to the new culture.

Vargas has also spoken on behalf of the day workers at recent Planning Commission public hearings regarding a proposal for the creation of a formal, regulated day labor site in town.

"Who will speak for us if I don't?" said Vargas, adding it is important residents understand the workers are as unhappy with the current situation at 7-Eleven as anybody else.

"When someone comes and they need someone like a mechanic or a painter, there's no way for them to pick and choose," said Vargas. "The big problem is that there is no order. There is no way people coming into the site have people they can speak to and people on the site have no way to speak to the [employers]."

Saravia added there is also a misperception among residents that stereotypes them as bad people.

"For us, it would be a beautiful thing to take a photo of the drunks who come here and print it in the newspaper so we can get rid of them," said Saravia. "It would be good to get those people in the paper and prosecute them, so the general public opinion would change — it's not us."

HERNANDEZ, VARGAS and Saravia will continue to wait for work at the 7-Eleven because financially they have no other option.

Hernandez said he wants to take English classes, but cannot because of cost and scheduling conflicts. If the formal day-labor site is approved and offers English classes as proposed in the application, Hernandez said he would definitely attend.

Until then, he will continue to pay his debts from coming to the United States — a $6,800 trip that is gaining interest at 12 percent each month until he pays it off — and sending money home to his family. "I am living the American dream to get ahead and get rid of all my debts," he said.

"I am saving $30,000 and then I will go home to my country," Vargas added as a grin spread across his face under a black leather cowboy hat.

"I'll finish my studies and work as a math teacher," said Vargas about his plan to leave in a year-and-a-half. "But, for now, it's good to be here for work."

Even with a large debt hanging over his head, bills and rent to pay and a family to support each month, Hernandez smiles as he thinks about the future.

"My major goal someday — hopefully not too far away — is, I hope to go back home," he said. "I think that is the dream of most of us, to go back home."

[Jorge Rochac, a 16-year resident of Herndon, contributed to this story by helping translate for the men at the unofficial day-labor site.]