Thursday, May 28, 2009

Jobs after the junkyards go

Gustavo Zerón, 52, a Honduran immigrant, works at a junkyard in Willets Point while taking English and computer classes in a program financed by the city.

The area is quite disgusting, almost a microclimate. Once I drove through, and the dips, the potholes, the hillocks on what can marginally be called roads were threats to my car. I wouldn't buy a hubcap there, but many people do buy many things.

The movie Chop Shop takes place in that area.

It takes a certain humility to head back to school at the age of 52 and learn as a child would, through picture books and basic words sketched on a blackboard.

But Gustavo Zerón, a Honduran immigrant who works nine hours a day at a junkyard, swallowed his pride and signed up for the classes, which the city is offering in an effort to give laborers of soon-to-disappear businesses in Willets Point skills to find new work.

“That’s the only opportunity I have to get out of this place,” Mr. Zerón explained in Spanish as he headed for the No. 7 train to travel the 12 stops to class one recent evening.

Nine hours of that work, then school; that's more than humility: that's drive, ambition, determination. Admirable.

Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times -Working with an instructor at LaGuardia Community College. Many of the students are illegal immigrants.

There are those who want to learn English. Others have bigger ambitions, like Mr. Zerón, who spends his days climbing in and out of the piles of cars in the junkyard, fetching mufflers, radiators, bumpers and other used parts that customers want.

He came here from his country’s capital of Tegucigalpa in 1999, after a hurricane left him unemployed and destitute. He has made a living at Willets Point since then, and with the money he has earned, he put his four children through school, paid for the youngest to spend a year in Denmark as an exchange student and is building a house for his family back home.

Paychecks from that work, which surely can not have been very big, were enough to put 4 kids through school, one of them sent to Denmark for a year, with some left over to build a house back home.

How can anyone demonize such migrants? Documented, or not, they simply want work. Who was clamoring for the job he did?

He said he had a degree in mechanics from a Honduran technical school and worked as a contractor for the American Embassy in Tegucigalpa before the hurricane, fixing typewriters. His goal is to return there and open his own business, this time fixing computers. The problem is that he knows nothing about computers, so in addition to English classes, he is taking a Spanish-language course called Aprenda Microsoft Windows y la Internet, or Learn Microsoft Windows and the Internet.

“I want to update my knowledge,” Mr. Zerón said.


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