Our guest blogger is Memo. Memo works at the Central Library. Besides reading history and literature about Latinos, workers, and immigrants, he enjoys re-reading the great literary works of nineteenth and twentieth-century realist writers.
It has been years since I last worked as a day worker. I was never a fan of day labor. I hated the idea, in part, because of the work itself. Day work was temporary, backbreaking, low-wage, and dead-end. But what I found most distasteful was the poor treatment I sometimes received.
Weeks after I read Dagoberto Gilb’s short story, “Cheap,” I found myself reflecting about my time as a day worker in California and Texas. Unable to answer questions that kept bringing me back to the time when I labored at the lower end of the service sector job market, I decided that it was time to check out Before the End, After the Beginning again, and re-read “Cheap.” I asked myself, 'What is it that brought me back to Gilb’s fictional world of immigrant day workers?' as I prepared to re-visit the short story, and continued to ask myself that question over and over as a re-read “Cheap.”
In one word: consciousness.
Carlos and Uriel—father and son characters employed by Luke’s Construction, the company the narrator uses to paint inside the house—are aware of who they are as workers hired for the day. They know that they don’t have much say in the hours they toil and in the wages Luke pays them. They don’t even express disaffection when Luke denies them their entitled noontime lunch hour. Instead, Carlos and Uriel stay silent while he tells them what they need to do for the day. They remain quiet, because they know that it is hopeless to protest. But once Luke departs to check another worksite, they consciously take control of the workday to regain their dignity.
I wasn’t happy or sad after I finished re-reading “Cheap,” even though some of the passages reminded me of my time as a day worker. At the same time, I felt sympathy and respect for Carlos and Uriel because of their tenacity. While both characters understood the limitations of day labor, their drive to finish the job in spite of the way Luke treated them said more about them than the job itself.