Local leader honored for day-worker advocacy

Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier
Maria Marroquin cradles the “Bay Area Local Hero” award she received last week, which honored her work as executive director at the Day Worker Center of Mountain View.

When Maria Marroquin cleaned her first house as a day worker nearly 15 years ago, she gazed around at the completed job – and felt pride. The local workers picking up informal jobs hour-by-hour in Los Altos face unpredictable days and legal problems (many lack permission to work in the United States). But they also bring talent and experience to their work.

Marroquin worked for a union and then as a legal assistant in Mexico before coming to the U.S. in the late ’90s. She began to work here before securing the documents that now declare her employment eligibility.

She joined a community of day workers organizing in Los Altos to create a safe gathering space off the streets, and discovered a mission that endured long after she transitioned to having a green card and access to mainstream job markets. She became a volunteer and advocate for the center, ultimately taking on the role of executive director.

KQED honored Marroquin this month as a “Bay Area Local Hero” for her work as the diplomatic heart of the Day Worker Center of Mountain View. The center sometimes faced steep resistance to its existence. Bouncing between rental spaces and church halls, it often encountered neighborhood opposition to the idea of a congregating place for day workers.

Forging a collaborative relationship

Times have changed. As relationships grew over the years – among city officials, local residents and motivated volunteers – the tone of talk about the center changed.

Three years ago, volunteers, donors and day laborers themselves inaugurated a new, permanent space for the center on Escuela Avenue in Mountain View. Their relationship with neighbors, and the city of Mountain View, appears to have transformed into one of collaboration.

“We have neighbors who brought green beans, tomatoes from their backyard – because they love us and want to share,” Marroquin said. “It’s a place that attracts anyone who wants to make a community and, by bringing them together, serves as a glue that makes us a richer and better community.”

The center’s foundational task – to match day workers with employers in a safe, supportive environment – comes with a multitude of ancillary possibilities.

Supported by donations and volunteer help, the center introduces its members to computers – to seek work, make resumes, translate information or even just Skype with family long separated by borders.

“When they realize they can learn, they can write – they can see the faces of their loved ones – it’s indescribable,” Marroquin said. “It’s a new world.”

Daily English lessons and skills development training provide constructive options for downtime when there are more workers than employment. Workers typically face almost crushing financial insecurity when they are first finding ways to support themselves and their families. Marroquin remembered moving with her son into a house shared with 17 other people when she first arrived in the Bay Area.

Maintaining hope under stress requires help. Understanding the human difficulties of life as a day laborer, Marroquin said, has an irresistible effect on volunteers and supporters – and worked on her own understanding, as well.

“Despite many emigrating from other places, day laborers have become an integral part of the community, and people see that, even with so little, they give so much,” she said at the awards ceremony last week.

Expanding focus on children

She sees a growing urgency to serve the children within the day-worker community. The center is expanding its after-school program to two days a week, working with student volunteers to offer homework assistance to students hanging out as their parents seek work.

Parents are a key part of Marroquin’s vision for the young people – children often serve as translators and assistants to parents with limited or no literacy. The center’s youth program focuses on the parent/child relationship, working with families to improve communication and find ways to listen and share with each other.

“Many kids from my community don’t have a lot of good role models,” Marroquin said of her goal to expand the educational aspirations to which children at the center can and should be exposed. “It’s like putting good seeds in good soil.”

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