American dreams in miniature

Latino laborers build houses for display

July 22, 2008|By Jessica Anderson | Jessica Anderson,Sun reporter

Construction worker Victor Valencia, an immigrant from Mexico, can finally build his dream home - at least a miniature model.

Valencia was one of 10 Latino day laborers constructing a small model home for an hourly wage of $10 at CASA de Maryland yesterday. The Latino advocacy group, in collaboration with the Floating Lab Collective, will display the houses in 10 places around the city and eventually in the "floating museum," a truck that moves the works to different locations.

"I want to show my dream house, the one I want to build," Valencia, 45, said through a translator.

The public art project aims to promote conversation about Latino day workers in the city, said Bessie Torres, an organizer for CASA de Maryland. She said many day laborers face difficulties because of language and cultural barriers and face unfair employment practices. Furthermore, low wages and the slow economy have eliminated many of the construction and landscaping jobs that serve as a primary source of employment for day laborers.

The Floating Lab Collective, which works with organizations such as CASA to address community issues, chose the day workers because "many communities are trying to push the workers out," making them "a perfect population to connect with," said Daniel Dean, an organizer from Floating Lab. The project is supported by a $15,000 grant from the Washington Creative Fund.

"We're providing them with the materials. The structure was up to them," said Sue Wrbican, an organizer from Floating Lab and an art professor at George Mason University. "It's a role reversal. We're hiring them to build the house that they want."

Valencia acknowledges that his house, less than a foot tall, is very simple. It is larger than some of the other structures, but he said he is planning a two-story house because he has four children.

Valencia, who has been in the United States for nine years, said he has never had the opportunity to get an education or learn English. He said he came here because "I was tired of extreme poverty that I was in, along with my children."

As he placed a level on a roof crossbeam, Valencia said he is confident that he will one day achieve his goal - he plans soon to start computer training, so he can make more money. "I am very thankful for this country," he said. "I've obtained opportunities that I never would have at home."

Jose Antonio Rodrigues, 36, originally from El Salvador, said he, too, came to the U.S. for a better life.

With the help of a translator, he said his goal is to get a "nice job."

His is a one-room, one-story structure; he said it is "not a luxurious house." Rather than spending time on building numerous amenities, he said his house would be "a melting pot" of building styles from the U.S. and El Salvador.

Filiberto Zapet, from Guatemala, said he hopes that when people look at his house, they ask "who made this house, what kind of person?" Also, he hopes people will enjoy looking at his house, and criticize it, and realize "how hard it is for all workers."

Zapet, 54, has eight children in Guatemala. "It's difficult for them to adapt without me and not to have them around, but it's the only way to provide them with a better life," he said through a translator. "Many of us are born into extreme poverty, and it's hard to improve since we didn't have the blessing of an education."

The houses will be on display next week at several locations, including Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, 700 Light St.; United Church of Christ, 1728 Eastern Ave.; St. Patrick's Church, 321 S. Broadway; Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave.; Kids on the Hill, 2117 Brookfield Ave.; and Amazing Grace Church, 2424 McElderry St.

jessica.anderson@baltsun.com

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