Video of my Mexican co-workers from San Mateo and Martinez, California to Tlapocoyan, Veracruz, Mexico. I used Son Jarocho music, La Bamba, sung by Los Lobos.
“Don’t shave, don’t shower, don’t care. Be really stinky and wear the same clothes everyday. I think what makes a man sexy is not being self aware. That’s what is really cute to me.”
Gwen Stefani, American singer
Emerging from the shower in the ‘reefer,’ I noticed I was alone and opportunity was at hand.
I quickly put on my clothes and fast-walked to the front of the bunkhouse trailer. Tiny, quick steps so as not to slip.
Wood bunks stacked three high with thin mattresses lined the left wall. Lockers and a table for hotplates and spices lined the other.
Work clothes hung from bunks to ‘air out.’
Carnival workers work extraordinary hours, 60 to 80 hour weeks aren’t unusual. Hundred hour weeks are unusual but happen.
You didn’t want to miss the bus to the local beat-up, coin-laundromat. The bus was always unscheduled and sometimes skipped a week.
Reefers in my San Francisco Bay area carnival smell like work.
Opposite the showers was the refrigerator and sink.
That’s where I went to film the trailer while everyone was outside.
The suspense was crazy high. People in carnivals are always walking around corners. Everyone seems to hear you in the donniker (outdoor toilet).
They know what you’ve been eating because they can smell it. They’ve seen what you’ve been drinking. Everyone is guessing about who might be sleeping with whom.
Nothing is private and not even your dream life, because people speculate about that too.
My camera blurs at the least bit of movement and my ‘gorilla pod,’ which steadies my hold, was broken.
Picture after picture blurred. I cursed and kept taking unusable pictures.
I decided to take a video, I could always take a snapshot off the video.
If someone walked in while I was panning across the ‘reefer’ with my camera, there would be hell to pay.
Bosses would be told. I’d become suspected for the spy I am.
I was spending the year working in carnivals and writing about them.
A colorful carnival owner and ex-pro wrestler, with the stage-name of Bo Paradise, told me he thought the project is stupid.
No owner will allow a writer/reporter in his carnival. Plus, I don’t speak Spanish and the new face of the American carnival is Mexican.
Nobody will hire me. If I’m hired I won’t have access to the dominant work sector.
Yet here I was showering in the reefer, which is the bunkhouse exclusively for Mexicans. They’re called ‘reefers’ because they supposedly have ‘refrigeration’ during the summer but I’ve never seen one that does.
Unlike the bunkhouse I live in, Mexicans live rent-free. I pay $50 a week for a six-foot, by five-foot bunk room. They live shoulder to shoulder and sleep above and below.
I befriended my Mexican coworkers and they were comfortable enough to allow me into the reefer unsupervised.
Being seen with a camera in their quarters would sound alarm bells because we already knew Butler Amusements was being sued by Mexican employees.
My Mexican amigos thought they knew who was suing but their names were deleted from the lawsuit for fear of retribution.
If coworkers knew their identities for sure, they feared for their safety and their ability to ever work again in American carnivals.
Networks of families and friends might blackball them. Agents who recruit workers might take a pass on the trouble makers.
Workers from Mexico are at the mercy of so many forces.
Filed under the name of Doe, the lawsuit alleged substandard living conditions, uncompensated work hours and pay below the minimum wage.
The groups helping with the lawsuit also participated in a study last year called, “Taken for a Ride,” conducted by American University.
The study alleges such abuses are widespread throughout the country.
I eventually worked in carnivals in California, New Jersey, New Mexico, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida.
Nobody worked in more carnivals than I worked.
During my year of immersion journalism, I can’t say abuses are widespread. I can say I’ve witnessed them. I once calculated my hourly wage at roughly $2 an hour.
The lawsuit and the national study were fresh on people’s minds.
Carnivals have a tradition of beating up workers. Sometimes workers are beaten for drinking on the job but sometimes they’ve been beaten up for mouthing off to the owner.
Some carnivals, allegedly one I worked on later, beat people up for leaving before the end of the season.
I wasn’t just in danger of being fired or beaten. My year in carnivals could be defeated by gossip.
Not only do people know everything about you in the carny quarters but carnies talk across carnivals.
I filmed and panned. I tucked the camera in my side-pouch.
Someone walked in as I walked out of the odiferous locker room-like sleeping quarters.
“Was it cold water El Grande?” he said.
We laughed and I walked away into the night.
Grateful for the bracing shower of a cold-hearted spy, smelling of Palmolive and escape.
Last month was the end of my year working and living in traveling carnivals around the USA. I lived on carnival wages so I also hitchhiked between jumps. I’ve traveled through 36 states, Canada and Mexico, for more than 20,000 miles. My 15,000 miles of hitchhiking makes me the #1 Hitchhiker in America. I worked carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. I worked rides, games and one freak show.