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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Hopes And Dreams Ride In An '89 Dodge A Vanpool "Family" Commutes From N. Phila. To A Chester County Hotel. Jobs Are Waiting There.

By Maria Panaritis

January 5, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved. 

The sky is black above North Philadelphia when Jose Hernandez climbs into the driver's seat of a 1989 Dodge with a Bible on the dashboard and wraps his 69-year-old fingers around the wheel.

With the press of the gas pedal, the man who cleans bedsheets at a Malvern hotel - and his wife, Blanca Garcia, who scrubs toilets and sauce pans there - begins a 13-hour pilgrimage from one of the city's poorest neighborhoods to one of its wealthiest suburbs.

Hernandez will steer this van through North Philadelphia, going door-to-door to pick up nine others who depend on his wheels to reach $8-an-hour jobs 30 miles away.

"If I hadn't bought this van," he says, "the others would probably have lost their jobs. That's the only reason I bought it."

Hernandez and his 10 Latino passengers toil in the shadows of the middle class, bit players vital to the region's changing economy. A recent study showed that new immigrants accounted for 40 percent of Pennsylvania's labor growth during the last decade.

What no number can capture, however, is the extraordinary diligence with which many foreign-born laborers must pursue their modest paychecks. To understand, you have to ride along with Hernandez and the rest of the housekeeping crew bound for jobs at Summerfield Suites by Wyndham in East Whiteland Township, Chester County. Take-home pay: $270 per week.

The men and women shoehorned into the van neither live near their jobs nor work near their homes. The region's division of wealth has become too wide for such commingling.

They fill low-rung jobs in places too wealthy to supply such labor: Faraway communities like East Whiteland, a mostly white suburb with big new houses, $70,000 median household incomes, and glitzy corporate offices of the sort that formerly clustered in Philadelphia.

They live in predominantly Latino city neighborhoods like the one Hernandez calls home: Census Tract 195 in North Philadelphia, where squat rowhouses predating World War II bustle with $15,000-a-year households. There are so few jobs here that more workers have to wake up earlier and travel farther than those who live in East Whiteland.

Through a common desire for a regular paycheck, this group has bridged the divide by creating a vanpool "family."

Martha Alicia Sanchez, 38, the supervisor who hired them all, says: "I have worked in 500-room hotels, 250-room hotels and one [that] was 375 rooms, but I haven't seen people getting along so well [anywhere else] as the people here. I don't mean perfect, but caring for each other."

Hernandez used to get to the hotel in his own car. But a few months ago his coworkers pleaded with him to buy the van because its driver - another hotel employee - was selling it.

Hernandez inherited the previous owner's arrangement: Each passenger gives him $5 a day for gas, insurance and repairs - half the cost and half the time of taking three or more buses and trains each way. The $25 saved amounts to nearly 10 percent of a net paycheck.

In return, Hernandez is chained to the gas-guzzler up to four hours a day, seven days a week - even his days off.

With this delicate deal, the joint pursuit of a paycheck continues, its fate resting on the stamina of an elderly laundry man with a trim mustache.

6 a.m. The van pulls out of a spot just two blocks beyond the Fairhill neighborhood of Philadelphia. Statistics capture the reality of a place in distress: In all of Philadelphia, Fairhill has the highest number of homicides, the lowest household income. It also has the highest percentage of people who don't speak English at home.

Sixteen minutes after 6, Judith Rios settles into a seat. "I'm the first to get on in the morning and the last to get off at night," says the 22-year-old mother of two from Mexico.

For a 13-year-old van with countless miles on it - certainly more than the roughly 42,000 showing on the five-digit odometer - the engine runs smoothly.The body creaks as it thunders over uneven blacktop.

The van passes clusters of early risers standing at bus stops. Perhaps they are headed to steady work. Perhaps their destination is a part-time or under-the-table gig - jobs that the van crew are driven to avoid.

"We are happy with this job," Hernandez says. "Every day that we wake up, it is here. They don't ever call us and say, 'We're slow today, stay home.' "

The pallid glow of dawn unveils storm clouds.

The streets are slick from a wet night.

With six stops to go, the van rolls past corner grocery stores in Latino neighborhoods. In urban enclaves such as these - Juniata Park and Feltonville among them - families used to work at nearby factories that have long since gone dark.

"Buenos dias, familia," chirps Adriana Pachon as she enters with a cup of coffee. Compared with her previous job - part time at a McDonald's - this one is a plum, the 36-year-old Colombian woman explains later.

Lucia "Lucy" Mendoza climbs in right behind her. The 52-year-old Salvadoran is planning a Christmas party for the housekeepers.

The van crosses Roosevelt Boulevard into Logan, where nearly 1,000 houses were demolished in the 1980s because they were about to collapse.

Martha Peralta lives in one of the houses spared the wrecking ball. The 23-year-old Dominican woman has been in the United States for five months, having left her toddler in Santo Domingo. She hopes they will reunite. But for now, the priority is work.

Almost an hour into the commute, Hernandez makes the final pickup, near Temple University Hospital.

"That's the last one: Julia. Julita. Julie," he says, playfully.

Julia Maria Cecheco closes a wooden door with a caramel gloss and an oval window. The black iron screen door swings shut. On a block punctuated by plywood-plastered houses, hers is a beacon of pride.

For the next 45 minutes, the van and its passengers engage in the stop-and-go of morning rush hour on three metropolitan highways.

Garcia takes the Spanish-language Bible off the dashboard and recites passages aloud. A few women chat. Others nod off. One draws faces on a foggy window.

After a tricky merge from the Schuylkill Expressway onto Route 202, Hernandez pulls into the parking lot of the Summerfield Suites by Wyndham to begin an eight-hour shift.

It is 7:39 a.m.

Jose Hernandez is awash in white: the washing machines, the dryers, the laundry bins and of course the linens - piles upon piles of hotel-grade sheets, towels and pillowcases.

Settled into the laundry room, he is bathed in fluorescent light. It reflects off the white towels, ricochets off a navy shirt, and shoots a blue sparkle into Hernandez's brown eyes.

Upon arriving at the hotel, the workers stopped briefly in an icy alcove off the laundry room, placed belongings into small lockers, and heated up breakfast snacks from home.

Then, they slung bags of cleaning supplies over their shoulders, trudged through a cold courtyard, and climbed to second-floor suites.

They must scrub kitchens, clean toilets, change sheets and vacuum carpets in 78 suites on this day.

Hernandez, meanwhile, begins a solitary routine: He pulls soiled heaps out of bins, stuffs them into industrial washers, shifts them into dryers, dumps them onto a huge table, and folds them. He repeats the choreography throughout the day.

Just off the lobby, in a section that the housekeeping staff has no reason to visit, guests chat over a sumptuous breakfast.

Two couples from Washington share a table: An FBI agent, an investment executive, and two federal pension administrators.

They are in town for a weekend competition sponsored by the Philadelphia Curling Club.

They have no idea who cleans their suites, but they speculate.

"I would think that they're fairly new immigrants to the United States and in a lot of cases they might work more than one job," says Mark Curtis, 51, of Alexandria, Va., who runs a Guam-based investment firm.

"A lot of them are probably very well educated," says his wife, Susan, 50, an FBI agent.

These visitors are staying in rooms that run as much as $199 a night - a big chunk of what a housekeeper clears in a week.

Carol White, 56, of Arlington, Va., who handles pension benefits, says she can only imagine what life must be like to know so little English.

"If I had to live in another country and be dependent on the economy, I think it would be terrifying," White says. "You feel like a 2-year-old. You're very frustrated because you're an intelligent human being but you can't communicate."

Even though these hotel crew members commute long hours for low wages, White says they likely have it better than those seen waiting along D.C. highways for the mere chance that they will be hired for a day's labor.

"As bad as it is," she says, "people have it worse. And that's sad."

Standing as stiffly as a cadet, Hernandez folds sheets . All the while he explains how he came to the States from Puerto Rico 30 years ago.

Hernandez comes from Aibonito, a town in central Puerto Rico dubbed "City of Flowers." His childhood dream was to become a U.S. soldier.

As a teenager with only a fourth-grade education, Hernandez was able to pass the physical but failed the written exam. It was administered in English.

"I still wish I had become a soldier," he says. "Even today, if they sent me to the military, I'd run toward the chance."

Instead he married, had 11 children and became an auto mechanic. He had no desire to leave Puerto Rico; he was happy with his job. And the owner had promised him the repair shop upon his death.

But in 1972, he reluctantly followed his wife and family to Philadelphia. His first job would be a harbinger of lifelong low wages: Washing dishes at a hotel near the airport.

In three decades, he would divorce and convert from being a Catholic to a Pentecostal. A few years ago, he survived a year of chemotherapy.

He has returned to Aibonito only once - for his mother's funeral.

At $8.25 an hour, this is the best-paying job Hernandez has ever had. It's so good, in fact, that he would like to buy the house in which he lives, one with a floor of bare wooden planks and a single electric space heater.

Garcia, whom he met at church and married in the 1990s, sends most of her money to the oldest of her nine children in El Salvador. She has known hard times, having entered the United States illegally, on foot, by way of a Central American mountain route in 1991.

She cherishes even the paltry tips left behind by travelers.

"Sometimes they leave you a dollar, a few quarters," she says. "But what can you say? Even that's something."

Julia Maria Cecheco rips apart and reassembles a room with machinelike speed.

The 47-year-old Dominican has been cleaning suites for nine years - longer than any other housekeeper at the hotel. Such seniority has made Cecheco the vanpool's top earner at $9.94 an hour.

With that, she maintains a small rowhouse and feeds two grandchildren, three children and a husband. She plots an upgrade to a nicer place.

But as with many immigrants, the road to modestly upward mobility has been costly for her. Working far from home and knowing only enough English to knock and say "Housekeeping!" has made it tough to keep an eye on her six children.

"When they were cutting school, the school would call me at home" and leave a message, she said. "Because I don't speak English, I couldn't understand what they were calling for."

Only a few finished high school. But all avoided drugs and alcohol - her biggest fear.

The work, however, has also taken a toll on Cecheco.

Before leaving the Dominican Republic in 1991, the small, strong woman did not imagine so grueling a future. In Santo Domingo, there were few jobs, so she did not work.

Still, there is dignity in what she has found. "Here, at least, one works and makes enough to pay the rent," Cecheco says. She says she and her husband will not return to Santo Domingo "to live the way we were living before."

It's the growing aches and pains of this old job that are the incentive to find a better one.

Snapping clean sheets onto a bed, she explains her dream: "I would like a janitorial job at a university so that I won't have to clean bathrooms, kitchens and change sheets."

The afternoon has turned into the kind of wet, cold day that soaks into the bone.

During a lunchtime downpour, the crew members pile into the van and cash their checks at a bank. Hernandez parks at a McDonald's and dashes in for takeout for himself and Garcia.

The others sit in the musty van, joking about who will treat. There will be no splurging, even on payday.

Once back at the laundry room, they heat up rice, beans, plantains and tortillas.

The van hits the highway for home at 4:44 p.m.

No one speaks. The fatigue they feel is palpable, the sky is dimming, and the traffic seems somehow worse than it was 10 hours earlier.

With most of the crew asleep, Garcia chants. Judith Rios thinks about having chili and beans for dinner.

Then, like a prisoner unshackled, the van bursts out of a morass of vehicles and throttles forward. Garcia's voice hits a crescendo as the van thrusts into a clearing.

But the opening vanishes and the rattling van again slows down.

With three drop-offs done in North Philadelphia, Hernandez breaks his silence and sings. The end is tantalizingly near.

He drops off Judith Rios and lets out a sigh.

"The trip tires me out more than my job," he says.

With a quick left and right, he is all but home.

He parks along a curb and walks up the block, a few steps behind Garcia.

They slip through the front door. It is 7:23 p.m.

And the sky, once again, is black.

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