3/7/07 The Times-Picayune – Worker's fears prove to be prophetic: 'He hated going under the houses'
March 7, 2007
Worker’s fears prove to be prophetic: ‘He hated going under the houses’
by Mark Waller, The Times-Picayune
He had talked about the dangers of his job raising houses and worried that someday one might fall on him. Alejandro Gonzalez’s comments proved prophetic and, to his former wife, haunting.
“He hated going under the houses,” Christine Gonzalez said Tuesday. “He wanted to go back to school to study engineering.”
Despite their divorce last year, Christine Gonzalez, 21, said she remained close to Alejandro, 25, a native of Mexico who dreamed of obtaining U.S. citizenship and settling permanently in the New Orleans area to help raise their 2-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Marie.
Then the house came crashing down on him Sunday in the 400 block of East Louisiana State Drive in Kenner, killing Gonzalez and reverberating through his family, the house-shoring industry and observers of the dangers faced by immigrant construction laborers.
“Accidents are going to continue happening because the authorities are not tracking these employers,” said Javier Gallardo, a labor organizer with the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
Gonzalez grew up in Culiacan, a city on Mexico’s Pacific coast, his former wife said. Now, she said, his family is spread across Mexico, California, Oregon and Louisiana.
His father was killed during a robbery in Mexico when he was a child, she said. Growing up without a father was difficult, he had told her, and he didn’t want his daughter to have the same experience.
“Any time he saw her, his face would just light up, and he was always playing with her,” she said. “He was a wonderful father.”
Christine, a Kenner native, met Alejandro at El Buen Pastor Baptist Church in Metairie in 2003. He had decided to settle permanently in Kenner after years of visiting an uncle who lives in the New Orleans area and owns a house-shoring company. It was through his uncle that he got into the business of raising and leveling houses, she said. He rose to become a foreman.
She said he had studied engineering in college in Mexico and planned to take English classes to enter college here.
Soon after they met, he asked her to help him learn English, and their relationship bloomed as they sat talking in coffee shops, with her correcting his speech. He grew to be proficient in conversational English, she said, but he needed more training in the written language.
They married in 2004. Elizabeth Marie was born later that year. They divorced in 2006 but maintained a friendship.
She said he was a legal resident of the United States. She was helping him assemble his papers to apply for full citizenship.
“He loved it here,” she said. “He wanted to stay here.”
Although Gonzalez was not part of the post-Katrina influx of Hispanic workers to the New Orleans area, Sunday’s accident focused new attention on working conditions for immigrant laborers since the storm.
Dinia Ledesma, a Kenner resident who knew several of the workers on the job site Sunday and interpreted during the emergency, said Tuesday that many of the laborers had been worried about safety at the site.
Nine of about 28 workers were injured but have been released from hospitals, police said. Ledesma said most of the workers have been in the New Orleans area since before Katrina, although not all have legal status.
The Kenner Police Department and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened investigations into the accident. The owner of Orleans Shoring, the Harahan company that was raising the house, would not comment on how the accident might have happened.
Outreach to workers
Members of the house-shoring industry have said the post-Katrina swell of construction and home elevations poses concerns about the potential for more accidents. Similar concerns circulate among organizations that serve immigrant workers. Reports of insufficient safety gear, improper practices on job sites and accidents are common, they said.
Martin Gutierrez, director of the Hispanic Apostolate of the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, said his organization sends outreach workers to construction zones to provide masks, gloves and other equipment. It also distributes information in Spanish about proper safety precautions.
“We are aware that many of the migrant workers who have come to town to help us with our rebuilding are working in conditions that are very dangerous,” Gutierrez said. “A lot of workers are getting hurt on the job because of unsafe conditions every day.”
And now Gonzalez’s family is left to grapple with one of the most gruesome construction accidents recently in the New Orleans area.
“He was a very hard worker,” said Christine Gonzalez’s mother, Joan Palmer. “He was a good provider for his daughter. It really hurts me that the baby’s not going to know him.”
His former wife, young daughter and Palmer visited the cracked and twisted house Monday and placed flowers near the hole in which Alejandro Gonzalez was trapped. When the toddler spoke, the words staggered her mother and grandmother, Christine Gonzalez said:
“She goes, ‘Bye bye, Daddy.’ ”
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Mark Waller may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 883-7056.