Mexican Faces and Reefer Madness

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.
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 was alone in the sleeping quarters for more than a dozen Mexican migrant carnival workers.

Unexpectedly, opportunity was at hand. I went to the Mexican reefer for the shower but when I finished it was empty. My camera was in my pack beside the cramped shower. Time to film.

I rushed, putting my clothes and fast-walking to the front of the bunkhouse trailer. I took tiny steps, in order to avoid slipping on the water I was still dripping.

Wood bunks with thin mattresses were stacked three high on the left wall. Lockers and a table for hotplates and spices lined the opposite wall.

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.

Our reefers in my San Francisco Bay area carnival smelled like work.

I went to film from the opposite side of the trailer, by the refrigerator and sink. It was also near the exit, should I need a quick getaway.

The suspense was crazy high. People in carnivals are always walking around corners. It’s like a Shakespearian play that way, someone is always opening a door, overhearing a scandalous comment or bumping into someone.

Everyone knows what you’ve been eating. They’ve seen what you’ve been drinking. Everyone is guessing about who might be sleeping with whom. I imagine people lying awake listening through the thin bunkhouse trailer walls. Nothing is private and not even your dream life, because people speculate about that too.

The lack of privacy is magnified in reefers because people are piled on top of each other. They didn’t need to listen through walls to hear someone sleep talking. Their meals were communal, everyone pitching in a few Yankee dollars for supplies. The donnikers, (carny lingo for port-a-potties)were just a few feet from the front door of the reefer.

My bargain-basement camera blurred at the least bit of movement. Picture after picture blurred in my shaky hand. 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 be unmasked as a spy.

In the days of carnival lore, disloyal carnies were beaten or thrown from the train. Workers have been beaten for drinking on the job. Some have been beaten 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 had no idea what I might face if caught.

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.

A reluctant spy, I was forced by circumstance into working as a carny but writing every spare moment about their lives.

My spy career began with the a colorful carnival owner and ex-pro wrestler, with the stage-name of Bo Paradise. He owned the first carnival I worked for, Classic Amusement in Hayward, California. However, he fired me after he judged my blogging to be dangerous for business. Then he told me he thought the carnival project was a stupid idea.

No owner will allow a writer in his carnival. Even if I’m hired, I don’t speak Spanish and the new face of the American carnival is Mexican. I won’t have access to the dominant work sector.

Yet there I was showering in the reefer, which was the exclusively Mexican bunkhouse. They’re called ‘reefers’ because they supposedly have ‘refrigeration’ during the summer.

Unlike the bunkhouse I lived in, Mexicans lived rent-free. I paid $50 a week for a six-foot, by five-foot bunk room. They lived shoulder-to-shoulder and slept in stacked bunks.

I befriended my Mexican coworkers and they were comfortable enough to allow me into the reefer unsupervised. Showering in the reefers was another way to open communications.

Being seen with a camera in their quarters would sound alarm bells for management because we already knew Butler Amusements was being sued by Mexican employees. My Mexican pals 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, those bringing the suit 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 called, “Taken for a Ride,” conducted by American University. The study alleged 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.

I can’t say abuses are widespread. I can say I’ve witnessed them. I once calculated my hourly wage at roughly $2 to $4 an hour.

The lawsuit and the national study were fresh on people’s minds.

I stood my ground, filming and panning longer and longer and longer. It seemed like forever. Then I tucked the camera in my side-pouch.

A split second later, someone walked in as I walked out.

“Cold water El Grande?” he said.

We laughed. I walked away into the night.

Grateful for the bracing shower of a cold-hearted spy, I smelled of cheap soap and a clean 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.

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