"I Work To Feel That I Belong," Words of a Day Laborer

For many, “work” is simply a place to go and spend one’s time in exchange for their livelihood (read: money to pay the rent). We go, we put in some effort, and we receive payment. And that is completely fine. But for others, including many here at the ReBuilding Center, I am certain that “work” carries a deeper value.

And we’re certainly not alone. Recently, a worker-led organization in Portland, “Voz," partnered with local artist, Thea Gahr, to paint a mural on one of the Rebuilding Center’s street-facing walls. Maybe you’ve seen, walking by our front donation area, a beautiful black and white mural of a man working and the words: “I work to feel that I belong.”

A simple statement to some, perhaps but a brief moment standing before the mural is all you need to realize its artful message of belief, determination, and grit. 

The mural was created in collaboration with Voz Workers' Rights Education Project and MLK Workers Center, an organization that empowers diverse day laborers and immigrants to improve their working conditions. One of those day laborers is Jose Gonzalez. He is the man in the mural and the quotation above him is his own. 

Patricia Vasquez, who organized this project, explained to us that Voz connects hundreds of workers each month with local employers, and that it’s “critical to the day labor movement in Oregon [because it] offers a safe space for workers to build community, participate in trainings that increase employability, and organize themselves towards ending exploitation, discrimination and wage theft.”

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Many of the workers at the Voz MLK Workers Center, like Jose, take pride in their abilities to paint. Therefore, as Patricia explained, it made sense to paint murals to depict the lives and realities of real day-laborers.

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Patricia and the team felt it was appropriate to partner with the ReBuilding Center on this mural because many who come to purchase materials are contractors and many contractors rely on the skill and experience of day laborers. She felt that the ReBuilding Center and Voz were two organizations with related missions and that this project would be a great collaboration. We couldn’t agree more.

On the right-hand side of the mural of Jose is a short biography about his life. It shares about the skills he’s attained while working as a day laborer in Oregon over the past fifteen years. Beneath that it talks about why painting as an art form is so important to him. Without putting words in his mouth, I wonder if for Jose, “work” here could refer to his paintings as much as it could his day-laboring. If so, then “I work to feel that I belong” carries a whole new meaning. Work becomes about contributing to something bigger, about skill, mastery, and passion, and about one’s own community.