UCLA Spotlight

Abel Valenzuela: down at the car wash (as a scholar)

  • Published Jun 22, 2009 8:15 AM

Abel Valenzuela

Whenever Abel Valenzuela Jr. gets his car washed, he puts on what he calls his “thinking cap” and observes how car washers, usually Latin American immigrants, go about their back-breaking work. A professor of Chicano/a studies and urban planning and director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, Valenzuela's latest research project revolves around the working conditions of car wash establishments in Los Angeles.

“For several years now, there has been a campaign to organize these workers, who face some of the worst conditions in the workplace,” Valenzuela said, explaining that because of this activism car wash owners are leery of their workers talking to researchers — or any outsiders. Interviewing workers who might not have legal documents, or who labor in restricted or closely monitored workplaces, has become Valenzuela’s research specialty.

'On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States'

Valenzuela is one of the authors of “On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States,” the first national analysis of immigrant, mostly undocumented, day laborers, or jornaleros, which offers the most comprehensive and reliable portrait of these workers to date. He has briefed Senate and congressional staffers and analysts at the House of Representatives, impressing on them the need for a reasoned, instead of emotional, debate about the causes behind the phenomenon of day labor.

As an American-born son of Mexican immigrants who realized the American Dream, the young Valenzuela learned through his parent’s example the virtue of hard work and helping others. Years later, he became academically obsessed with jornaleros while pursuing postdoctoral studies at UC Berkeley. The trigger: an article about day laborers in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“It was mostly pejorative — local residents complaining about these men,” Valenzuela recalled. “I read the article and thought to myself, ‘Wow, I remember those guys hanging out in front of the Standard Brand paint store . . . and I used to wonder what they were doing, hanging out in painter pants. I remembered my mother saying, ‘Oh, they’re just waiting for work.’”

Valenzuela was surprised to discover that there was no academic literature about day laborers. “. . . I knew I had stumbled across a topic that nobody else had studied,” he recalled. “And that’s a highly valued commodity, because it meant that I would be the first to make a major scholarly contribution in this area and hopefully improving worker lives.”

Challenging perceptions with data

His work has enabled Valenzuela to “demystify common misperceptions of a certain type of worker, somebody who works in a public corner and is likely to be without papers but who is also a family man, a hard worker, a churchgoer,” he said. “All of that contributes in a small way to changing the discourse over these workers and their search for work.”

In particular, Valenzuela’s scholarship has busted the widespread but misplaced belief that jornaleros are outsiders. His data show that the vast majority of day laborers live in or near the neighborhoods where they look for work. The finding has helped transform a volatile immigrant issue into an urgent topic for communities to address.

Valenzuela has been studying jornaleros for at least 12 of the 17 years that he has been teaching at UCLA. Although he considers himself “an expert on who these workers are,” there have been moments when his scholarship has proved inadequate.

Beyond scholarship

“How are you doing?” he once casually asked a jornalero in Washington, D.C. “The worker paused, and then tears welled up in his eyes, and he started crying,” Valenzuela recalled of his encounter six years ago.

It turned out the man hadn’t seen his wife and kids for three years. “Here he was, 3,000 miles away from them, searching for work on the streets of America,” recalled Valenzuela. “I was stunned — my pain in seeing him cry was incomparable to what he was going through.”

Adapted from a longer story by Ajay Singh in UCLA Today. See the complete story.