Immigrant laborers on bicycles

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Friday, March 07, 2008
By Yokota Fritz


Mexican immigrant bicycle


I don't know about your area, but where I ride the vast majority of cyclists ride cheap flea market bikes and speak Spanish. The areas around Home Depot are littered with their bikes chained to trees and fences. These cyclists hug the gutter, go the wrong way, often ride without lights or any other safety equipment, and ride bikes that most of us would consider woefully inadequate. They're not represented by any cycling advocacy group I've ever been a part of, are rarely invited to transportation planning meetings, and have no say in public policy. They're the mostly Latino immigrants who use their bikes every day for transportation.

When I participated on the Bike To Work organizing committee for the Denver Regional Council of Governments, I suggested outreach to the Latino immigrant community. I was pleased that they agreed to provide material in Spanish and paid for advertising in Spanish-language publications, but I'm thinking back right now that more can be done. Look at this flyer, for example:

Denver BTWD Spanish Side 2

This is just a Spanish translation of the original English version of the flyer, which touts the health and environmental benefits of cycling to work. I'm not sure this approach appeals to a recent immigrant day laborer, who likely came to the United States to pursue the American Dream of being a fat cat resource hog. The free breakfast stations probably appeal to them, but on Bike To Work Day every immigrant on a bike I saw biked right past the breakfast stations, though a few did look with curiosity. I noticed last year that the Denver region provided Spanish language signs, but I wasn't around to see what effect they had.

I don't know that recent immigrants need to be encouraged to bike to work -- they already do that. But many (most?) recent immigrants equate bike riding with poverty. While my middle class friends think I'm a little bit eccentric, the Latinos I speak with all think I'm completely nuts for cycling to work when I can clearly afford a car. Can anything be done to encourage the idea that bicycling for transportation can be a positive experience, even for those coming to American to improve their lives?


These thoughts were prompted by Concrete Guy who observes the Latinos on their bikes navigating every day through all conditions in all weather through all traffic on their cheap bikes. Freewheeling Spirit observes that this invisibility extends beyond their death, since we don't build ghost bike monuments to short anonymous brown men. And all of that reminded me of this excellent article on the invisible cyclists from a few years ago in Bicycling magazine. Even if you read it back when it was published it's well worth another visit.
The men who pedal the streets at daybreak with Francisco are invisible in so many ways. Some are here without permission and must hide from the official world. They are not noticed by the cars and buses that roar past, sometimes to tragic effect. They're not even seen by those of us who claim to love cycling. We'll pick out a sleek Italian racing bike from across an intersection, but a dozen day laborers on Huffys dissolve into the streets.

You and I have seen the bikes everywhere--cheap, department-store rigs chained to fences and signposts outside car washes, lumberyards, budget chain restaurants. But we've never seen the riders, not really.

"There are more of them than us," says Aaron Salinger, a public school teacher and bicycle-only commuter who also volunteers as a mechanic for local riders in his Los Angeles neighborhood. The "us" Salinger is talking about is recreational riders, dedicated fitness cyclists, people who commute on two wheels by choice--the readers of this magazine.

Neighborhood after neighborhood revealed surprise after surprise. The Invisible Riders, for instance, log far more hours than most "serious" cyclists. They do so on equipment most of us wouldn't touch and under the most adverse conditions: at the height of rush hour on the busiest thoroughfares. Workers without documentation have no vacation or sick days, so they keep a grueling schedule. One rider told me that last winter, when Los Angeles received a record rainfall, he didn't have a single day off.

Riders like me want to believe we're doing our part for the environment. We want to believe that having the best equipment is an expression of commitment. But I don't know a single rider who commutes more than the people I met for this story, who do it purely out of necessity, and who do so on bikes that, while fashioned to look like high-end mountain bikes, are stripped of so many essential engineering details that we'd consider them unreliable, unsafe and certainly unenjoyable.

Most of the riders I met viewed their commute as a battle, but exhibited none of the smug, anti-automotive posturing many committed middle-class bike commuters wear as a badge of honor. Guillermo Diaz, who works at a restaurant near MacArthur Park, was standing near the entrance of a shopping center, waiting for a friend. He lives in a house with seven others, all of whom ride bikes, all on the sidewalk. I thought of cycling advocates who engage in pitched ideological battles over whether it's safer to mix bikes and traffic or to separate them. There's no doubt that a rider with the skills and equipment needed to navigate alongside cars is probably best balanced between efficiency and safety, but I couldn't argue with Diaz that getting off the sidewalk is simply "too dangerous." What would it take for Diaz to use the streets? He answered instantly, without a hint of irony: "Owning a car."
Read the full article here.


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Comments:
Fritz, immigrant riders thinking you "riding over driving" on the basis of being able to afford a car as craziness is not far fetched - most of them come from the ranch or poor farming communities and aren't even on the same wavelength to give a thought to the environment in relation to pollution. Anyways, an argument to support them *not* riding over driving could propose a couple of good arguments (their time is subject to the low-income traps, etc.).

What will get them thinking about riding more? I'm certainly not in the know and spoken very much from the hypocrite's seat but its probably good 'ol grassroots evangelism on the benefits both personally and environmentally of riding and hoping that their children (the next generation) will somehow be affected by your efforts.
 
These are the guys that I cross paths most frequently when commuting, and I really think educating them to ride more safely is the most important form of advocacy for them right now. I've often thought of buying a bunch of cheap blinkies and handing them out to those that right at night without any lighting, not sure how they'd respond to that though. They often ride against traffic as well, not sure if this is a cultural thing but combined with no lights it leads to some near misses. The attitude that bikes are only for the poor is really problematic, and maybe more prevalent in migrant communities. But its pretty irrelevent for these guys, they ARE poor, and most of all need help to stay alive.
 
I agree that some advocacy measures need to reach this segment of the cycling population. Safety is important for them to stay alive. And drivers need to be more aware of everyone pedaling the streets.

I think it is ironic that for many immigrants from south of the border the ideal vehicle is a huge chevy truck with oversized tires. The bicycle is just a stepping stone toward that picture of success. Can we change that?

In my neighborhood it's more likely that you are poor if you are riding a bike around town. And it's likely that you either don't have a driver's liscense, or that it's suspended. I got pulled over on my bike on my street a couple months ago because I fit the description of an armed robber. Strange world.

When I ride my bike I feel like I have joined a new fraternity, a much tougher one. One that is in touch with their world in a way that is much more dangerous and physical.

Great article. The day immigrant laborers are truly silent in much of our discourse.
 
Fritz: As we're in a totally different part of the country and don't see as much of this, I maybe have a different perspective on it.

For me here in Iowa, being a commuter is being lumped in with those less fortunate, and the criminal element that have to ride bikes. It is odd, but we have a detention center that allows the inmates to obtain jobs and re-integrate into society here. They almost all ride cheap department store rigs. Also, ironically they all do the same things your immigrant riders do wrong.

Because of this situation here, riding a bicycle as transportation is seen as an undesirable thing to be associated with. In fact, a lot of folks would rather see you run off the roads, because you are probably a criminal, a DWI offender, or just a loser.

The very people that are riding actually see themselves in the same way, so it is a really tough attitude to overcome.

I still think that it's going to take a huge monetary hit to folks wallets to make any real change.
 
I go through a couple of different "regions" on my commute. I start in a lower middle class neighborhood. Most of the cyclists are either kids headed to the nearby elementary school or they're immigrants.

As I head to work the neighborhoods get nicer and nicer. Eventually I get to an upper middle class/upper class neighborhood and then the few cyclists that I see are usually lycra clad and probably not commuters.

The last part of my commute is a very hilly area and a lot of people use it for training...which is where I see the majority of cyclists on my commute.

However I usually don't see very many people on my commute...I MIGHT see 4 cyclists on a busy day...but I don't think I've seen the same person twice.
 
...excellent subject for a post...

...we're already fighting a huge mind-set ourselves, trying to be legitimately accepted as cyclists in this country...
...trying to teach or convince people that are coming to america to "better" their lives, that cycling is more than something to do until they own a vehicle is almost hard to imagine...

...maybe once people are well established, a very small percentage will see the joy, practicality & environmental advantages of cycling but it seems most immigrants are heading in another direction...

...that being said, advocacy directed towards folks in economic transience would be wise for the safety of everyone involved...
...as is noted here, simply learning to ride w/ traffic eases stress & cheap flashing lights considerably raises the safety factor at night...

...anyway, an effort needs to be made & as jerry figueroa suggests, perhaps the next generation will learn & benefit, to everyone's advantage...
 
I think the difference here is choice. If I couldn't afford to own a car and my bike was the only way for me to get around, then I too might covet car ownership.
 
I see these guys a lot, and they seem to *never* wear helmets :(

Another thing I notice, when I have occasion to ride on the "wrong" side of town--road conditions in poor neighborhoods can be really atrocious for bikers. No bike lanes, bad pavement, no/broken sidewalks, no curb cuts (tough luck if you're poor *and* handicapped). Not to mention streets that have basically been turned into freeway onramps.

Middlefield in Redwood City is the worst stretch I know of.

If us politicized bikers-by-choice want to reach out to the "invisible bikers" a good way to start might be to advocate for street improvements (bike lanes, etc) where they ride.
 
Howdy--

The only person killed in Moab in bike-car collision in the last ten years was a migrant worker. He fit many of the stereotypes, working multiple jobs to send money home, and he rode a bike to help defray costs.
However, it was a high-end mountain bike, and he often used it to enjoy Moab's trails. He also used it to help integrate into the community, making friends with folks who'd ride with him and help with his English.
He was riding with traffic, on the shoulder, when a teenager drifted to the side of the road. "The sun was in my eyes" was enough explanation to relieve the young driver of any responsibility. The driver was blinded, and he continued to drive, killing a devoted husband and father. This act of willful incompetence was deemed an accident.
We lost a man who might have provided, at least locally, the bridge Fritz seeks. His sister now runs the Moab Multi-cultural Center, and it's terribly sad to think of what he might have been able to offer the immigrant community by bringing his example to the center.
Ron
 
It would be nice if we referred to them as what they are. They're not "immigrant laborers", for the most part. They don't have work permits and aren't here legally. They're "illegal immigrant laborers".
 
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