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Manuel’s Story

In many ways, Manuel is a typical teen. He plays guitar, likes to watch TV, listen to music and hang out with his brother Carlos. However, when asked why he dropped out of high school to work as a day laborer, the 18-year-old shrugs.

“You gotta work,” he says.

Manuel, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, works with his brother Carlos as a day laborer to help support his family. Manuel has been living in Southwest Florida since he was 6 years old, attended public schools and says he feels Floridian. Like an undisclosed number of undocumented teens growing up in the US, the only future Manuel says he sees for himself is here in the US.

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Manuel works as a flagger on a road construction project in East Fort Myers. His work varies from day to day, ranging from digging ditches, to sweeping, to working in road construction. Manuel dropped out of high-school to work so he could help support his family. This day, his task was to guide traffic through the construction area. "You get used to it," he said of the monotonous job. He worked from 8am till about 5.30pm for $6 an hour.


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Manuel and his brother Carlos, 16, get ready to go to work in the morning. Manuel has been working as a day laborer since he was 16 years old. Now 18, Manuel says he likes delivering furniture. It’s easy, he says, because the boss tells him what to do and lets him do it. “Those are the best jobs,” he says.

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Manuel follows his father Jose out the door. None of Jose’s 4 children, who are all 16 and older, finished high school. He wishes they could go back, but feels the family needs them right now. He does want a better future for them. “I want them to gain experience and then find a good job,” Jose said.

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Manuel, Carlos, their siblings Virgilio and Maria, seen left to right, rest their eyes a last time as they ride to work around 5.30am on a weekday morning. The family works six days a week, from 7am until the job is done for the day. Who they meet, how they’re treated and their safety are out of their control, said Manuel’s father Jose. “God will decide who we will work for. If we go to a job, it’s because that’s where God wants us,” he said.

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Manuel strikes up a conversation with another day laborer, while waiting with the others for a job. By 6am most of the day laborers get jobs for the day. If it’s more involved work, they might get booked for several days. They’ve done it all, directed traffic under the punishing sun during road construction; mixed and poured concrete – the job they hate the most because it is physically draining. They’ve cleared woods and picked up the debris. “The good bosses aren’t always on our backs, reprimanding us, saying bad words,” said Manuel, whose smile is easy and charisma contagious. The good bosses respect them and their work. The bad bosses take advantage of them. “Some bosses won’t let us take a break during our lunch hour,” he said.

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Manuel and Carlos have a little fun while waiting to get paid.

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Carlos smiles as he counts the money after cashing the check he earned for the day, while Manuel watches. Carlos made $66 for 11 hours of work that day.

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Manuel attends a service at Iglesia La Gran Commission, where he goes at least three days a week. He’s often among the first to arrive at the church. His family sometimes take Saturdays off and goes on weekend retreats with the members of Iglesia La Gran Commission. These are social events not to be missed. They pray vigorously for each other. Their church is small, but lively and loud. The congregation, consisting of about 25 mostly male workers, sets up the altar before each service in less than 10 minutes. “I ask the lord to bless me, to protect me during work,” said Manuel. “If someone comes and asks if you want to work, it’s because God wants you to work.”

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