In the middle of a blizzard, shoveling snow is a Sisyphean task.
As soon as a sidewalk is somewhat clear, another layer coats the concrete and the act is repeated over and over again.
But it’s a job, one that Jose Aguilar, 44, and other Central and South American immigrants do willingly winter after winter. In the midst of Tuesday’s storm, much of downtown Boston looked deserted — except for armies of seasonal workers shoveling snow, squeegeeing slush, and occasionally ducking into a warm space to escape the biting winds. Not all who do this work are immigrants, but many are.
“Someone’s got to do it,” Aguilar said in Spanish with a shrug while working Tuesday at the corner of State and Congress streets. The East Boston resident, originally from El Salvador, said he has shoveled nearly every winter for the past nine years. The job isn’t difficult, he admits, but you have to wear the right clothes.
The crews could be found at the base of most high-rises around the Financial District, their neon yellow jumpsuits and orange gloves a stark contrast to the blowing white snow.
Many started working at 4 a.m., others just after sunrise. Some said they were picked up at 1 a.m. in Lynn and transported to their work site to begin once the snow started to fall. Some hoisted shovels, scooping and clearing the same small area, while others pushed loud contraptions that it brushed the snow away. The workers said they would be there until the snow stopped falling. Depending on the agency that hired them, most expected to make between $20 and $29 an hour. Some also work full time in the buildings where they shoveled Tuesday.
“My kids think I’m very strong,” Elizabeth Gonzalez said in Spanish, smiling. “I’m out here showing that women can also do this job.”
Face red from the cold, the 30-year-old mother of three told of shoveling snow for 10 winters since arriving from El Salvador 14 years ago. During the summer, she cleans houses.
Gonzalez is in the country with Temporary Protected Status, an immigration program the Trump administration will end in 2019 for an estimated 200,000 Salvadorans. TPS allows immigrants who cannot be safely repatriated to their countries because of civil disruptions or natural disasters to live and work in the United States legally.
Gonzalez said she’s somewhat concerned, but tries not to worry about the future. Right now, she just needs to work and support her family. She’s adapted to the uncertainty and welcomes the work.
“People need to know we didn’t come here to steal jobs,” Gonzalez said. “We came here to progress.”
Immigration statuses vary among the workers. Some, like David A., 18, are in the country illegally. He’s shoveled in downtown Boston for years, including every storm this winter, to send money back to his mother in El Salvador. Others, like Cristian Melo, are US citizens.
“And yet here I am,” Melo said in Spanish, laughing and looking around at the corner of Tremont and Court streets. “Doing this. We do this work because they don’t want to. Anyone would choose to work in an office over this.”
The Dorchester resident moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic in the 1980s. He has worked as a maintenance man for years, and work is work, he said. When you have four kids, including one in college, you do whatever it takes, he said.
“I tell my kids to go to school so you won’t have to do work like this,” Melo said. “Fifty percent of what I make goes to them, and I’ll work for as long as God gives me the strength.”
Jonathan Novaes, 16, and Paulo Lopes, 18, admittedly have less urgent reasons for shoveling snow.
Both want to get tattoos on their shoulders. Novaes has his eyes set on a crucifix, while Lopes is leaning toward Christ’s face.
Each came from Brazil legally two years ago to live with family. Novaes is a sophomore at Malden High School, while Lopes dropped out of school, but wants to work in construction like his father. Their parents encouraged them to take the seasonal work. They miss Brazil, but love living in the United States. Despite hailing from a tropical climate, neither really minds the snow.
“It’s not that hard,” Novaes said. “You just get used to it.”
Bruno Rodriguez, 19, has aspirations beyond shoveling snow. He’d like to be an engineer someday. But sending $300 back to his family every month leaves him just enough money for rent and food. There’s no time to study, Rodriguez said. If he were back in El Salvador he might be helping his mother by doing dishes. Outside it would be 70 degrees.
But there would be no work, and his brother who is still there makes the equivalent of $5 a day.
“I don’t know what this country would do without Latinos,” Rodriguez said in Spanish as he smoked a cigarette on a break. “We do roofing, plumbing, construction. We do everything.”Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.