Wage Theft

José Martinez is bundle of intelligent energy managed by a body that has seen better days.

“I am a double transplant—kidney and liver,” he stated animatedly. He peered up at me through his one good eye and then stated the obvious, “I am disabled.”

José then glanced back at La Bella Hacienda, an adult day care center in Edinburg, Texas,  and lowered his head. “I like to work,” he told me, “and I started coming to this place with my aunt and volunteered to help, and then one thing led to another and then the owner had me driving clients back and forth, cooking meals, and whatever else needed doing. She told me that she would pay me and after a week she said that she was on a biweekly pay schedule and then she told me that she paid her employees by the month, but I never got anything, so I quit.”

It was noon on Thursday, November 15th, and Fuerza del Valle, an organization of  hourly wage workers and others interested in employee rights, had gathered to participate locally in The National Day of Action to Stop Wage Theft. After numerous complaints by employees, and a stubborn refusal by the owners to make good on the workers’ just claims, Fuerza chose La Bella Hacienda as the site of our action.Workers at La Hacienda had been complaining about not being paid since before July. At the time of today’s protest, the owners owed their workers more than $6,000.

Or, to put it in less polite, but clearer terms, the owners of La Bella Hacienda had stolen more than $6,000 from their employees.

The owners offered a series of excuses for their theft, the saddest being  “Well, since  now there is Obama Care, we had to pay for that and that meant we had no money left.” Sad because it was wrong, and sad because she said this as she pandered to the TV cameras (Obamacare and its effects on small businesses has not started, and, once it does kick in, it would only affect this very small business in a good way, offering it tax credits to allow them to actually offer some health insurance to their employees—if they actually paid them).

The protest finished after an hour and after the owners promised to make good on their restitution. Several of the workers took turns at the microphone, thanking those who had come out to support them. San Juanita, one of the workers that Bella Hacienda had victimized, passionately promised her presence, “should any of this ever happen to any of you!”   

The many workers who had taken a lunch hour off for the protest headed back to their jobs, the LUPE membership packed up their flags and set off to see to their many  responsibilities and the Fuerza leadership stood around to review the protest.

Hector, coordinator of Fuerza, was enthusiastic about the participation during the picketing,  and a bit cynical about the results. “The owners have been promising to fix this for weeks. We’ll see. And if not, well, we will be back.”

Shot Dead from the Air–"We thought that they might be carrying drugs"

Thursday, November 1, 2012
La Joya, Texas

As the sun blazed its afternoon blasts of heat down onto a desolate stretch of a west Hidalgo county road, close to fifty Rio Grande Valley residents gathered for a press conference and a prayer vigil.

We were standing in the middle of nowhere, at the corner of FM 2221 and Mile 7 road, north of a town called La Joya, in western Hidalgo county. We huddled around two white crosses, and a small “altar de los muertos”. Aside from the roar of the occasional tanker truck hauling gas from the wells that dot this part of the Rio Grande Valley, it was eerily quiet.

A week earlier, roughly at the same time of day, six Guatemalan men had been hunkered down in the back of a pickup truck. They were fleeing from a Texas Parks and Wildlife officer who had tried to pull them over. A fourteen year old was driving the truck down the narrow, gravel road when a sniper with the state troopers, following the pickup in a helicopter, began shooting at the truck with a high-powered rifle. Three men of the men were hit by the trooper, and two of them, Marco Antonio Castro and José Leonardo Coj, died.

According to Alba Caceres of the Guatemalan consulate, both men were from a small village in western Guatemala. Marco Antonio Castro, she said, left behind two children, and his wife pregnant with a third. José Leonardo Coj had never wanted to make the journey, but when his eleven year old son injured his arm and need surgery, Coj saw no other alternative than to come north to find some work to be able to help his boy.

According to initial reports by the Department of Public Safety, the state trooper opened fire thinking that the pickup truck was carrying drugs — not people. The Guatemalan consul, however, after speaking to the survivors of the shooting, said that the men in the back of the pickup could clearly see the helicopter and the sniper, and they claimed that they had motioned at the sharpshooter not to fire.

As the story began to unfold, the bizarreness of the police action became more apparent, and, to residents, disturbing. “Is this going to be the way that it is from now on,” said Daniel Diaz, a LUPE organizer, “police shoot at people from a helicopter just because they suspect something?” Terri Burke, the Executive Director of ACLU of Texas, on a radio interview later in the day, pointed out that the truck could well have been driven by area teenagers “out drinking and acting stupid, like teenagers sometimes do.”

The DPS undermined public confidence even more when director Steve McCraw, asked the Texas Rangers to head up the investigation of the incident.

The Texas Rangers are a branch of the same Department of Public Safety.

A week after the incident, the DPS issued yet another press statement, this time saying that the pickup was fired upon as it was traveling towards schools that would be letting their students out that that time, and felt that the speeding pickup truck would create a danger to the public.

Those of us gathering around the crosses representing the lives of the two men that died, wondered if that were the case—if in fact the trooper was trying to disable the truck before it got near the schools—then why didn’t they say that in the first place? Why all of the talk about shooting at a truck suspected of  carrying drugs?

Thus a press conference, with its demands for an independent review of the case by a group not associated with the Department of Public Safety. According to the Associated Press, these demands were echoed by Representatives Lon Burnam of Fort Worth and Armando Walle of Houston, who said they want the committee to review the trooper’s conduct and the agency’s policy on firing at moving vehicles.

The back-and-forth about who did what, when, how, and why was clearly a concern to those gathered yesterday near the site of the deaths. But there were also the names of the men on the crosses, and their stories. Steve McCraw himself called the shootings “tragic” and so they were—particularly for the families of these two men.

A rancher who lives just up the road had the last question at the conference. She quietly asked the Guatemalan consul if there was some place where she could contribute some money for the families of these men.

It was a question that led us into our prayer, that offer of help rising up from that very dusty, dry patch of Texas and heading far south, to a green village in the mountains of Chimaltenango, where surely the wives and the children, the parents and the siblings of Marco Antonio and José had awoken last week perhaps with the same taste of dust in their mouths, but with a far deeper sense of this tragedy then any of us could ever imagine

The event ended, and we all left to return to our own lives. As I headed back to the highway, I passed three Border Patrol units, speeding up the road, and then a county constable’s car, and then two La Joya police units. I scanned the sky. I did not feel safe.

News sources are reporting that the shooting incident is now under review by the FBI.
A video interview with the families can be found here:
http://youtu.be/O6Z4swp47HI