By Rini Templeton

It has been exactly a week since Rafael picked up the work he once found so easily in construction, plastering, painting or doing any sort of work around a site. His last offer—one he took—was to help someone move furniture for six hours.

On a recent sun-filled Friday afternoon in the Mission, Rafael stands among a couple dozen men who, like him, have had trouble finding any kind of odd job.

“Back then there was work,” he says, referring to 1999 when he first arrived from Veracruz, Mexico. “But starting about a year ago, it has gradually been decreasing from two weeks a month to almost nothing. Now we’re lucky if we get three days a month.”

Rafael’s calloused brown hands crumple the brown bag he used earlier in the day to keep his toast warm. His 35 years have taught him a thing or two about the need for persistence.

“I have an 8-year-old daughter, Yesenia,” he says, smiling at the thought of her. “She lives in Washington with my ex-wife.” Unable to provide for them there, he moved here, but now the recession has hit San Francisco.“I’m over here trying to work, but there is none” he sayss and his smile disappears.

Like many of the male Latin-American immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, Rafael is used to standing along Cesar Chavez Street for hours at time, often from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Like the others, he has been forced to grow accustomed to living alone in the U.S. He hasn’t been able to return to Mexico since he left 10 years ago, not even for his father’s funeral five years ago.

Rafael leans on a parking meter thinking about this. “It is just not possible because I don’t have the money to return,” he says. “It really feels bad not being able to go back, but it’s what I have to do to. I don’t really have an option.”

The parking meter blinks “expired” in red capitalized letters.

Already Rafael has sold his gray 1990 Buick—one that at least offered him reliable shelter.

Now he is sleeping in homeless shelters and abandoned houses.

Rafael explains how he and the other men have to move around so police won’t suspect them of selling drugs. Sometimes drivers ride by and make fun of them, asking them “how much they cost” as if they were prostitutes.

As he admits this embarrassing reality, we are both quiet. Then we contemplate the possibilities of work in the dozens of drivers immediately in front of us at the red light. They appear almost robotic.

Suddenly the light changes and the cars move. One slows, its tinted window rolls down and a hand appears out of the shadows. A middle finger is directed right at us. For a moment, we share his reality. But Rafael moves on. He’s used to it.

“Hopefully I will be able to find some work to save up for the $105 Greyhound ticket to Washington so I can try working in the agriculture fields over there and be close to my daughter,” he says, looking toward the horizon. “All I can do now is wait, and keep looking for work.”

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I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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  1. Rafael might benefit from the bus ticket “home” program… then again, maybe not.

    For him to find out more he can contact a Homeward Bound Outreach worker at 533-3475 or visit the Homeward Bound Team at 1235 Mission Street.

    More info:

    (This was a good story. My heart goes out to him and his family.)

    1. Yes, of course you are right and thank you–that slipped right through. Best, Lydia Chavez, ME

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