SR: From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, you’re listening to ReWork. I’m Stefanie Ritoper.
SW: And I’m Saba Waheed. Raising a child is no easy job, especially as a single parent and with a high school education. With the growth of low wage work, there are less and less jobs that pay enough to make ends meet much less offer benefits like health insurance and time off.
SR: So when you get that job that has good pay and the flexible hours so you can still make it to your kid’s soccer games, you’ll want to hold on to that job. On this episode of Re:work Radio, Jessica Garcia has this story about how her cousin, Alina Pineda, became a longshoreman.
[MUSIC: “How Did I Get Here” – Odesza]
JG: I was much younger than all my cousins on my dad’s side. After he and my mom divorced, I saw them just once or twice a year. During our visits, I would cling to my dad, overwhelmed by all the people I didn’t know. But I always looked up to my cousin Alina. When I was three, I remember feeling her swollen belly, and her telling me that there was a baby in there. She was sixteen. And still, she was always an adult in my eyes, like a fun aunt who goes to her mysterious job everyday, who takes you to Chuck-e-Cheese’s, moves her kids around the South Bay from house to cool house. I didn’t know then that she was a Longshoreman, a woman in a male-dominated workplace, a single mother, and that she acted so grown-up because she had to.
[MUSIC: Caribou]
As the port of Los Angeles, San Pedro houses an entire community of Longshoreman, including Alina and many of my relatives. Growing up, I only vaguely knew what the word longshoreman meant.
AP: Our saying is we move the world one container at a time. So all the container ships that come in, we load them and unload them. So when you go to UCLA’s student store and you buy a book, it probably came off our ship. So the world doesn’t know, is, everything we buy from these headphones to the iPhones to your sneakers to everything comes from other countries so that comes through our ports, so we unload full loaded containers and we send back empty containers. And, that’s the easiest way to describe it. Everything comes through us and we get it to where it has to go, whether it’s Walmart or Target, whether it’s Home Depot, whether it’s a Mom and Pop store, you know whatever it is, everything comes through us and we send it out and all the empty cans come back to us and we send them right back to wherever, whether it’s China, Japan, Shanghai, anywhere it goes that we import everything from.
J: Longshoremen say they have work “days,” but they are often “nights,” because the port is open around the clock, and the dockworkers are always there to unload. Workers first go to the hiring hall, sometimes even a few hours before the shift starts. In the hall, there is a big screen listing all the jobs available. You pick one, get a number, and wait to be chosen. Some jobs on the dock include driving cranes, unloading containers, stacking containers, none of them an easy task for a woman of petite stature.
[MUSIC: “No Diggity” – Chet Faker]
Because of a lawsuit filed against the union for discriminatory practices in 1982, the docks needed more women. At the time, only 5% of the dockworkers were women, and the courts required that, by 1997, they made up 20% of the workforce. Alina got a call to apply. She didn’t really know what she was in for, but she heard the pay was good, the schedule flexible, so she signed up. But it wasn’t easy at first to work in a traditionally male-dominated job. She remembers one of the first times she was on the job:
A: I’ll never forget. And he wasn’t rude. He was honest and he was adamant. We had a, the ship was finishing, another lashback. There were, I don’t know how many of us were ordered and as soon as we showed up, he looked at all of us and said, all you women go over there. All you men, and he picked out the strong guy, you guys are the lashers. You women, you’ll be on the crane. And the crane means, as the cans come up we put cones on the cans that go up on the, the cans get stacked on top of each other like legos and they’re secured in. It’s not an easy job, it’s definitely a physical job, but it’s 10 times easier than lashing. He didn’t give us an opportunity of do you wanna go up and lash, it was like nope, you’re a woman, you can’t lash but reality is, in the back of my head I was like, thank you sir. Like, but of course you don’t say that, you don’t, you just say okay, he wasn’t rude, he just said you women go over there, you guys are on the crane and he took his lashers and he wanted big strong guys that can lash a ship down and get it done with.
You just give him his respect. He’s been down there, 30, 40, 50 years and he’s, no one’s rude where it’s vocal. Because for the most part, as women if you do your job, nobody really bothers you. But there’s always that one that I’m sure if something happens or they wanna blame it on a woman or something, but for the most part today, in 2014, we are dominant down there. And we do our job and we do it pretty damn good job. And we’ve gotten the respect from men down there. But in any industry you have your bad apples.
J: And the work is extremely dangerous, too. Dockworkers have been severely injured, even killed, on the job.
J: Now that I have it on the brain, did you have any accidents ever? Where you were physically injured?
A: Umm, only once. And it wasn’t necessarily anybody’s fault but I was on the ship and there, we were on what’s called the hatch, and the crane driver was, discharging 20 foot cans and somehow he lost control a little bit and he came up and the 20 foot cans just came swinging and it swung into the beam and the beam just kinda pushed me back and I went flying back and I was bruised. I thought my legs were broken, they weren’t they were just very much bruised, I was in pain. It scared me. I left after that and then I, I was off of work for a good six weeks just, I had a lot of bruising a lot of swelling, stuff like that. And it scared me, but you know, you get back up there and you do it again, it was just kind of a freak accident and it’s the only one I’ve had down there.
J: So why would Alina choose to stay in a job that’s so hard and so dangerous? My grandma sometimes starts off her stories by saying “to make a long story short..” and then tells stories that end up being super long. So following her tradition, I’ll start by making a long story short.
[MUSIC – “Midnight In A Perfect World” – DJ Shadow]
J: I always think of Alina as being friendly, warm, and energetic. You can hear it in her voice when she tells stories. So when I asked her to describe herself growing up, I was surprised when this is what she said:
A: I was very angry. I was the exact opposite of what I am now. I was very angry and I had a lot of hurt. And a lot of unanswered questions. And um I didn’t have the relationship with my mom that I really wanted.
My father unfortunately had schizophrenia so I couldn’t really have the relationship with him. But when I was around him, he would be as loving as can be. So for me, I loved my daddy. I loved him. But I didn’t know that at 12 years old 10 years old that he was playing dolls with me because mentally that’s where he was mentally. Unfortunately, now that I’m 40 and he obviously still has schizophrenia, we still don’t have a relationship because as I look so much like my mother, it triggers it. And he’s not good around me and he’s not good for a few days after I see him, so it’s just better that I don’t see him which is a daily struggle. But I know I can’t take it personal because I know growing up he was the best father he could possibly ever be.
But that was still a lot of unanswered questions. And my mother and I didn’t have the best relationship and so I was a very angry child. I was angry through junior high. I was angry at high school. I didn’t know where I belonged because I was at a predominantly caucasian elementary school. And I liked people. I was attracted to them, I guess. And so when I entered junior high and I was fighting all the time and in high school, I was fighting and I was angry and I had this kid, I just felt that this was, I felt that I was gonna live my mother’s footsteps. And the cycle would never break.
J: Despite some of their rough patches, Alina admired her mom for the beautiful, strong woman she was. I must admit, when I was little I remember being scared of my aunt with the long acrylic nails, black hair, and stern voice, but there’s no denying that she was fierce.
AP: I can say that my mother is a beautiful woman. She was a beautiful woman growing up and I think when I was younger I always wanted to make sure that I looked just like her because she was just stunning and I knew everywhere we went, men would look at her. Women either liked her or didn’t like her for obvious reasons. She was a very very strong woman — physically, mentally. My mother was actually one of the first licensed woman boxers to fight in the ring, which was another attraction growing up, because my mom you know tough. No one messed with her.
Unfortunately, she had poor choices in men which led to choices in our household that I couldn’t understand. Because on a scale from 1 – 10, I had my grandparents who were a 10 who were the most amazing, loving, peaceful, non-violent, non-drinking family and she was a 1 where in our house there was violence. There was every kind of abuse you can imagine and it was ugly and it was just dark. Um, I don’t think that if she could relive her life, she would make those choices today.
And so I was a softer child. My mom didn’t like that. I was kind of a sweet kid, a loving kid, and an emotional kid. And she wasn’t happy with that. She wanted me to be more like her and I wasn’t, so we had a lot of conflict. I was more like my grandmothers, so she eventually made me into what she wanted me to be and I was like that for years until it came to a point where I said, “That’s not who I am.” I’m not that angry person.
J: Lucky for Alina, she had our grandparents, who stepped in to raise her when her mom was not around. They played a huge role in her life and the lives of her brothers and sister.
A: The one thing that my grandparents did is honesty, you don’t lie about anything and we have a saying in our family, I wanna hear it out of your mouth, I don’t wanna hear it on the street. I don’t care how good it is, I don’t care how bad it is, it needs to come from you so, Saturday mornings and Sunday mornings when we were teenagers and he’s making pancakes and she’s making bacon, whether we got in a fight, whether I kissed a boy, no matter what we did, we could say it at the table, and there was my grandma who was, if we got in a fight would say, did you hit her good? And we laughed. And he would listen and then when it was all said and done there was a bible story and we’d be like, why is there a bible story? We just told you we just got in a fight and there’s a bible story. But everything led back to the lord in his eyes. And now that as an adult, I see that every story did lead back to that. But they were open and they were loving and my grandma was, grandma’s funny. And grandma wants us to love and love everybody and anybody and enjoy your life and you don’t, you just keep going, you don’t ever stop and life will come and it’ll throw bad things and it’ll throw good things at you but you, she’s one of the strongest if not the strongest woman I have ever been honored to be around in my entire life and she had a hard upbringing and she married the most amazing man she could find and he loved her til the day he died and she loved him and they raised six kids and I don’t know how many grandkids. But there was never anger, there was never any disappointment. We could never do anything that they would be upset with us,
A: I think you’d agree about grandma. She’s,
J: Oh yeah, she’s feisty.
A: Yeah.
J: Like she still works at San Pedro High School.
A: She’s 80 something
J: She’s 82.
A: Yeah, and she still works at the high school and those kids don’t have a chance against her. She stands her ground. Yeah, she’s the one that, umm, that asks for ID’s at the entrance. So she always tells us stories about who she won’t let in and she’s very strict. I had a, my business agent at longshoring, we had had a talk today and said something about his daughter at Pedro, and I said oh, my grandma works the gate, he goes that mean lady that tries to run me off, I said just tell her your my friend and she’ll be nice to you. I’m gonna tell her cause she’s mean.
[MUSIC: “Aminals” – Baths]
JG: Alina had big dreams of going to college like some of our aunts and uncles, who paved the way for us. She admired the fact that they left home, became independent, and molded their own futures. But when she turned 16, the course of her life suddenly shifted. She found out she was pregnant.
A: I remember my mom telling me that I had to tell them I was pregnant at 16 and I was petrified and my, first words out of my grandparents mouth were, the more the merrier. The more family we have the better. And it was just loving, and open and you need to eat, you need to eat, you’re pregnant and there’s, you know you’re feeding for two, and I was like, who’s the other one? But it was never, I had no clue I guess that in some people’s lives sixteen and being pregnant was a bad thing. Because they didn’t make it feel that way. But they did insist on staying in school. They did insist on an education.
[MUSIC: Caribou]
J: Still, Alina didn’t know what to expect with this baby.
A: Well, when I was pregnant, I lived with my mother. And when she was born, believe it or not, at 16 back then in the 1990, we didn’t talk about sex; we didn’t talk about abortions or pregnancies and so when I was 4 months old pregnant, they found out. So when they said you’re keeping it and I was like keeping what? What is it that I’m keeping?
And there was a lot of things that I didn’t know until she was born on October 24th, 1990 and then when she came home, she cried and I was like what do I do? You know, it was just an experience. You live day by day with it and I had no clue when I look back at 40, I was responsible for somebody else’s life.
I could have really ruined her life. I could have made a lot of bad decisions. I could have made a lot of worse decisions that I have made. It was kind of like what I tell people that she held on to my back pocket and she just said, “Don’t forget me. Don’t leave me.” And she kind of went along for the ride. I was 16. I didn’t have any clue in the responsibility of having a child and what that meant.
J: A new baby in the house brought on a lot of friction between Alina and her mom. But after high school, she and her daughter lived on their own. This is when times got tough.
A: You know, there’s a joke that my daughter and I have now that my son doesn’t understand… We would search our car for change to get food at Taco Bell and it was a game who can find the most change in the car between her and I.
And to this day, she thought it was a game. She had no clue that that’s how I was gonna feed her. We could have gone to grandma’s house, but there’s that sense of pride that you can’t do that and that maybe you spent money in here that you shouldn’t have and now you have to feed this child. I had a lot of responsibilities at once
[MUSIC: “Jets” – Bonobo]
J: Alina needed a job, but not just any job. She needed one that would keep her from just scraping by, one that would support her and her daughter. She was working at an office when she learned about a rare opening for Longshoremen at the docks.
A: At that time, I was making I think 15, 16 dollars an hour, doing payroll and stuff like that in an office. It was good and I thought that’s where I’d probably be for years to come. But it was, you know you work in an office with women and you have to request time off and sometimes it’s given and sometimes it’s not, and I had heard that longshoremen you pay your dues every month and you go to work but the days that you take off, you don’t have to check in with anybody. So, something like that to me is appealing, I have, I’m a single mom and I have a kid and she has a soccer game and I’ve now missed half of her stuff and grandma takes her because I’m at work full time, so someone tells me you don’t wanna go to work you don’t have to check in with somebody, where do I sign up?
Somebody literally called me in the morning and he said they are handing out applications at the unemployment office for the longshoreman. You need to get down there and — it was a rumor, we didn’t know if it was true — so me and every other person in Pedro went down and waited in line at 6 o’clock at night until 8 o’clock the next morning when they opened up and sure enough, we all got applications and we turned them in and I don’t know how much later — few months later — we got something over the mail saying that our application got picked and we had to go through a series of testing.
J: Alina passed the test and soon she was headed to the docks to start work. It was rough at first. She didn’t initially know what to expect, the dangers of the job, the physical exertion that the job demanded. She started off as a casual longshoreman, this meant non-union, no guarantee that when you’d show up an hour or more before a shift, you would get to work.
After a year and half working as a casual, she became a union member. As a Longshoreman, Alina had stability, a steady income, and most importantly to her, the chance to be active in her kids’ lives. That’s the part I remember. She never once missed her son’s practices or games, and could easily take off several days to go to an out-of-state tournament.
[MUSIC: “Tuytus” – Odesza]
Even though the job is hard and dangerous, she genuinely enjoys it. She says it’s a man’s job, but since she’s been working on the docks for over 15 years, she must be doing all right.
A: Onem I like, the people. You work with different people everyday, a different lifestyle of people, and of course in every industry you have your bad apples. I love working with people that I went to school with, I love working with people that knows my mom, that knows my grandma, that knows my sister, that knows my aunt, but I do love, as a woman, my job, because as much as it is a man’s industry being able to be strong and to work down there and be around that, and I drove machines for 9 years and I was damn good at it. So being able to go to work and know that the foremen see you and say, I want her tonight, it’s like compared to the guy next to me that doesn’t drive as fast as my 5’4 body can, I loved it, I love driving machines for 9 years when I did that, but I love excitement of our job, I love everything we do from driving to work that lives two minutes from, I mean my job is 2 minutes from me, to seeing all the big ships come in, to watching the crane drivers take off cans and our job is fun as much as it is dangerous. You have to embrace it. And there’s times where it’s not fun and you get upset.
Now that I’ve been in for so long, I love that we do what we do. That every ship comes in, that every container that comes off, every time we step on that yard, we’re a family.We work together, we make sure everybody’s safe, we look out for people. If we hear that there was an accident on another terminal, everybody is texting everybody to make sure somebody’s family member, somebody’s kid, somebody’s mom, it wasn’t them. Our union is that, we are a huge huge family. Even if we don’t like them and we went to school with them, they can end up being your best friend for the next 20 years at work.
J: Alina’s vision for her future shifted when she had her daughter. Things turned out differently than she expected. But she just picked up and went with it.
A: Um, well, again, because I was pregnant, I really didn’t know what that meant. I don’t think I looked at that. It was just like “Okay, this kid is here now. I have to graduate high school, I have to get a job,” and her being as adorable as she was and as easy as she was, she was a very easy child. I don’t know if that was natural or that was just because she kind of knew “again, don’t leave me! I’m right here with you.”
I did not realize what I had missed out as far as you can say first college until her senior day at college. She played softball at college. And her senior day she took me to her locker room and walked me through everything and for the first time I looked at her and I cried and she said, “What’s wrong?” And I said, “Everything that I missed out on was worth it, because you have it.” Because you got it.
You went to college for four years. You had the dorms. You had the friends. You got to do everything that you wanted. You played sports. So for me, it was worth it, because she’s here. And I didn’t realize what I had missed out until then. But I don’t think I missed out on it. I think that’s just where my path was suppose to be and if anything, she saved me.
[MUSIC: “Jets” – Bonobo]
J: Alina and her daughter have always been super close. So, when her daughter was reaching the age of 16, the very same age that she herself got pregnant, she noticed her daughter behaving strangely. She started to get worried.
A: And so she was 15, 15 and a half and I knew something was going on and I didn’t know what because I paid so much attention to my daughter because I didn’t want her to feel like me with my mother, so I knew she was either doing drugs, or she was pregnant. I’d walk in her room and the computer would go off. She’d stop, she’d get off the phone, and there was just a lot of things, and I told my brother something’s going on with her.
It was bothering my daughter that she was hiding something from me, it was eating her up inside, so when it actually came out, she was so relieved and I was like, you’re not pregnant, no, you’re not on drugs, no, you’re just gay, and I was like I knew that, I was like I was waiting for you to figure it out. And over the years I’d asked her, and she got offended a few times and I realize now she was fighting with it, she didn’t even know that she was gay, she didn’t know what it was. But she knew unlike her mother she didn’t like boys. She knew we weren’t the same. I also knew, because I did like men, because I did like all these girl things kind of, I had to force myself to be a part of my daughter’s life in the sense that I had to learn about softball, I had to learn about sports.
My life became about her because I didn’t wanna lose her, because we were so opposite. And to this day we are still opposite, but she will tell you I’ve supported her 100% because I’ve invested in her, and I tell people, when you become a parent, your life is done because you become a part of your child’s life, your child doesn’t become a part of your life. And so watching her grow up and play soccer and softball and basketball and flag football better than the boys and play ice hockey with all boys. I mean I knew eventually, and sure enough I did, and I wouldn’t change a thing about her. She’s amazing. She’s tough as hell and I love that about her and I love that she knows our life and she knows what it was like but she’s like me in life, she didn’t know any different, she didn’t know that the person down the street had a mommy and a daddy and they had a perfect picket life and she had no clue. All she knew was us and she loves it and wouldn’t change it.
[MUSIC: “Tuytus” – Odesza]
J: And what do you envision for your kids’ future?
A: Two things. One, I hope there comes a day that I don’t have to worry about my daughter every time she walks out of the house, that something’s gonna happen to her because she’s gay. Being a Christian I know what the Bible says but that’s still my child. And I would still support her and love her because she’s an amazing child.
For Seth, I see him going to college and I see him getting married and being married once, and staying married once, and I see him with five kids and see him being the most amazing father, the most patient father there is. I think for him, he will be a father. That will be his thing and he will love his wife because I see how he treats me, how he treats his sister, I see how he treats Gia, his little cousin, and other little cousins, and he’s made it very clear he wants children and I can see it in him.
J: What do you envision for my future?
A: I think you’d be an amazing mom, but I’m not sure if you would have some because you’re on the go. But then I think that maybe that’s normal at your age, and I’m not used to that because I had a kid at 16 and I wasn’t on the go.
J: And lastly I just wanted to share that the reason that I chose you to be on this show is because of how much, since I was little, I always admired you and your ability to do the kind of job that I never fully understood, and you thoroughly clarified that today, of what it is exactly that you do and so much of the community San Pedro participates in, so I thought it was awesome that you were able to do that as a single parent, and it wasn’t ever something that you were worried about, being a single parent, because you always put your kids first and not worried about finding somebody else to fill in the void or anything.
A: I think that that came from Grandma and Grandpa though. It was always this is what life is, this is what you do. You just keep going.
J: Now at 40, Alina’s a very different person from that 16-year-old girl who abruptly became a parent. All of that anger she expressed as a kid is a distant memory.
A: Today at 40, I am at more peace with myself than I have ever been. I have two of the most amazing children that so far have been very happy blessed children and they love life and they laugh and smile everyday. And I hope to think that that came from me. I try to laugh everyday. I try to smile everyday. The thing that you do is give glory to the Lord for what I’ve gotten and for what I’ve been blessed with. I know that without him, I wouldn’t have what I have. And I try to instill that with my children.
I try to be hardworking. I try to be honest. I try to be the best friend that I can be with my friends. I try to be as giving and loving to my sisters and brothers and my niece and my nephews as I can. I’m for sure a mother. I’m a caregiver. I’m a lover in a sense that I just love people and I want them to be happy and if they’re hungry, then I want to feed them. And if they’re cold, I want to give them something warm. And if they’re having a bad day, I want to make them smile.
J: From working in male-dominant jobs to boxing to taking on the role of single-parenthood to supporting their kids no matter what, I think the line of women in my family is looking pretty strong. I feel lucky to have them in my life.
[MUSIC: “How Did I Get Here?” – Odesza]
SW: You’re listening to ReWork a program of UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. Thank you to Alina Pineda for sharing her story. This week’s show was produced by Jessica Garcia, Tyler Milles, Saba Waheed, and Stefanie Ritoper. Music supervision by Francisco Garcia Nava.
SR: To find out more about the show, and to catch up on previous shows, visit our website at rework radio dot org. There you can find more information about how to get involved and also subscribe to our podcast. Tweet your reactions to at rework underscore radio or send us an email at rework at
SW: Until next time re-think, re-work!