Skyscrapers of immigrants

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May 28, 2002 // UPDATED 1:21 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Krista Poplau
Krista Poplau

At night, Downtown's priciest real estate is populated by Minneapolis' newest residents

Somewhere around 5 p.m., most of the white-collar professionals and pink-collar administrative assistants pile out of their Downtown office buildings, heading for home, or perhaps for the bar.

Almost immediately, another workday begins. Minneapolis' late night shift punches in, and the Downtown skyscrapers become a different kind of workplace. The constant chatter between cubicles is replaced by the crinkling of plastic garbage bags and the humming of vacuums; English -- Downtown's daytime language -- is replaced by the soft-spoken Spanish, or maybe Amharic, of the maintenance workers who comprise the night-side occupants of Downtown's priciest real estate.

The Baker Block at 7th Street and 2nd Avenue South is home to four buildings where up to 60 maintenance employees work, the majority late at night. A typical full-time night shift at the Baker Building begins at 5 p.m. and ends at 1 a.m. The Marsden Maintenance Company contracts with the Baker Building's management; every night its employees clean and maintain the different buildings.

The Marsden account manager's bulletin board in the Baker Building's lower level shows an accurate illustration of the diverse maintenance work force. The board contains numerous Polaroid photographs of the different employees with their names written below, most with Spanish first names like Jaime and Elsa, or African and Arabic last names. Beyond these snapshots are stories of individuals who create their own work community during the Downtown's after hours.

A floor of one's own

Marsden account manager Walter Taguila said the four buildings occupying the block are divided by floors; each employee is responsible for a particular floor depending on their shift. A full-time employee might clean two floors in one building, which includes emptying the garbage in all cubicles, vacuuming the entire floor and cleaning bathrooms and break rooms.

Elsa, a 35-year-old who would not give her last name, cleans the 11th and 12th floors of the Investor's Building each night. She grew up in a small agricultural town in central Ecuador where her family owned a farm. After her husband came alone to Minneapolis to find better-paying work, Elsa decided to join him, leaving her three children in her mother's care in Ecuador. She said she wants to keep working so that her children and the rest of her family can live with her someday in Minneapolis.

Elsa's husband worked with Marsden prior to her arrival and recommended her to the company. The jobs are a kind of immigrant legacy; many employees say they got their job because a relative had worked there. Marsden encourages this, paying bonuses to its employees who recommend other family members or friends for work.

Elsa said she works by herself mostly, but knows many of the other Spanish-speaking employees.

Late lunch

Compared to the bustle of the workplace, cleaning up is solitary work. Most employees work alone, with a floor to themselves. The exception comes at 8:30 p.m. -- lunchtime for the night shift.

Workers assemble in a windowless basement room in the Investor's Building, connected by tunnel to each of the four Baker Block buildings. The break room is not much different from ones inhabited by daytime cube slaves: a refrigerator and a microwave; a vending machine with candy and chips. Workers bring their dinner, partly to save money, partly because Downtown's "lunchtime" options are scarce at night.

The workers tend to stick with their own countrymen, or at least those who speak the same native language. The words might be different, but the talk isn't all that unfamiliar: "Placticamos," said Jaime Torres, a 37-year-old who collects every scrap of recyclables from the Investor's Building each night and hauls it to the loading dock -- just chat, small talk.

When Torres was 14 years old, he left his small farming village outside Puebla, Mexico by himself to look for better paying work in the United States. He came to Minneapolis on recommendation from his brother-in-law three years ago, after having worked in New York City and Los Angeles. Minneapolis has better wages than other large cities and has more employment opportunities, he explained.

Torres has earned enough to own a Minneapolis home, where he lives with his wife and three children, all natural-born American citizens. In his free time, Torres said he likes to clean around his house and take care of yard work, much like any other Minneapolis resident.

A check for learning

English

Torres said his wife takes English as a Second Language [ESL] classes on Saturdays while his children are learning English from attending area schools. Marsden's Taguila said his company offers ESL classes on Saturdays to its non-English-speaking workers. He added the employees receive a $100 bonus if they attend all classes and pass their tests.

Like Torres' wife, Elsa has been taking the Saturday classes, but said it's difficult to learn English while working a full-time job.

For now, Torres said he's not sure what more he would like to accomplish in Minneapolis besides working and saving money.

"I came here to find a better life and work," said Torres, "I don't know what more I want."

Pride and politics

To most daytime Downtowners, the image of maintenance work is one of menial tasks, associated with minimum job experience and education. But for the employees at the Baker Building, their work is something to take pride in. The general sentiment from these employees is that their work means something although they work late hours. They are paid $10.07 an hour -- roughly $20,000 for those working a full-time, 40-hour-a-week.

Willie, a project specialist who's been with Marsden for 17 years (and also asked that his last name not be used), said getting his tasks done is good enough for him to be happy at work. To Willie, "just knowing that I accomplished a job" means he's done a good job.

Willie, who grew up in Chicago, is one of several employees born in the U.S. Willie said in his experience the maintenance workforce has always been diverse, so working with people from other countries isn't strange for him. He added that he hasn't had a problem with language barriers between his co-workers. As the other employees learn English, Willie said he too has picked up some Spanish at work.

For Marsden's foreign-born employees, work has the most basic meaning: it is better than living in their native countries surrounded by war or poverty.

Newly engaged 29-year-old Samaao-Adrienne first came to Minneapolis from Togo, west Africa in 1998 when her name was drawn from a national lottery of applicants for a visa to leave her country. Samaao said it's difficult to get a visa because many refugees are leaving Togo due to political turmoil and fighting.

Samaao's brother recommended her to work at Marsden where she is currently a full-time employee, receiving insurance benefits and paid vacations, similar to other full-time paying jobs in Minneapolis.

During her break, Samaao said she likes to talk with other employees who are also from African countries because of their similar experiences.

One is Amina Nuur, who has worked with Marsden at the Baker Building for about a year after moving from Somalia three years ago. The 32-year-old mother of two came to Minneapolis with her parents to find work, abandoning their family-owned business in Somalia because of political instability.

Although her two children still live in Somalia, Nuur said she talks with them constantly and wants them to live with her in Minneapolis. Nuur said she'd go back to Somalia if the political and economic situations were to improve.

"I miss my country," she said. "There is too much fighting now."

Samaao said she wants to stay in the United States because of the political turmoil in her native country. With her new engagement, she said, she hopes to start a new life for her future family.

"I feel good here because one day I want to have a baby and get her a good education," said Samaao.