By Zach Goodwin
Most years, Workers’ Memorial Day, April 28, is a time to remember those killed or injured on the job and to call on politicians and employers to improve safety.
This year, at a local event by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) and its community allies, the day took on an extra dimension. There was more loss and more grief because COVID-19 has disproportionately claimed the lives of lower-income, Latinx and Black people, many of them workers who could not work from home. This loss and grief fueled demands not only for safety, but for justice — for ending the systemic exploitation of workers laid bare by the pandemic.
Held at Villa Parke in Pasadena on Wednesday afternoon, the NDLON event featured 600 wooden crosses arrayed across the park lawn. Hand-crafted by NDLON members and local jornaleros, or day laborers, each cross represented 1,000 lives lost to COVID-19 in the United States and each one bore the name of a worker who died in the past year. Many of the crosses were decorated with wreaths, flowers, hard hats and personal effects.
The event began with remarks from Angela Sanbrano, co-executive director of NDLON, and Cal Soto, NDLON’s workers’ rights coordinator. Alternating between Spanish and English, they emphasized COVID-19’s unequal and racialized impact and called for amnesty for the workers and families who buoyed the country’s economy during the pandemic. “We demand that this loss of life — which should not have happened — we demand that it be respected,” Soto said.
Pastor Steve Wong of Pasadena Covenant Church and Reverend Alfredo Feregrino of All Saints Church in Pasadena then led in prayer the approximately 50 gathered. Feregrino told the Boulevard Sentinel he participated to show solidarity with those suffering and demand justice. “Immigration is part of the fabric of the Bible,” Feregrino said. “We wouldn’t be here without immigration.”
The tone of the event oscillated between celebratory, sad, angry. Los Jornaleros del Norte and Los Jardineros del Norte, two local bands which include jornaleros and members of NDLON, played sets. “Como quisiera que tu vivieras,” rang out one song, a verse from Juan Gabriel’s “Amor Eterno.” “How I wish you were still alive.”
Speakers including Victor Gordo, mayor of Pasadena, Allen Edson, president of Pasadena’s NAACP chapter, and Brandon Lamar, board member of Pasadenans Organizing for Progress (POP), expressed their solidarity with workers.
Mayor Gordo told the Boulevard Sentinel it’s important for the city to include workers and their families in policy decisions and to work with employers to improve working conditions.
“While they’re deemed essential workers, they’re denied essential services,” said Gordo, whose parents brought him to the United States from Zacatecas, Mexico, when he was five. “I know what it’s like to grow up in an immigrant family.”
Two representatives of the Oxnard-based Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) highlighted the hypocrisy of U.S. labor laws and called for real changes in policy. One example of the injustice: Many employers deduct social security taxes from the pay of undocumented workers, but those workers and their families face obstacles, often insurmountable, when it comes to collecting social security benefits for disability, death of a worker or retirement.
The final speech of the day was from Pablo Alvarado, co-founder and co-executive director of NDLON. His voice breaking, Alvarado denounced the exploitation of immigrant workers. For too many undocumented laborers, he said, “the only paper they got from this government is a certificate of death.”
He spoke of friends taken by COVID-19. Antonio Bernabe, an organizer, an immigrant rights advocate, a popular educator. Godofredo Rivera, the beloved saxophonist of Los Jornaleros del Norte, a renowned musician from Oaxaca, a caring grandfather. The city of Pasadena had granted NDLON organizers a permit for the crosses for just the day. Unacceptable, Alvarado said, adding that they would leave the crosses up overnight.
Los Jornaleros del Norte took the stage to play one last song — “Pueblo Únete,” which means “come together my people” — a hard-driving ballad, one of Godofredo Rivera’s favorites. The music hung heavy in an evening air painted golden by the imminent sunset. Attendees, organizers, and jornaleros slowly trickled out. They would return the next morning, after another daybreak stolen from the fallen, to take down the crosses. One by one by one.