Voices: The Latino Workers Who Really ‘Run’ Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The nation's capital prides itself on being a very professional and nerdy type of town. But here's the thing — who makes things run? Let's just say that it's not who you think.

Yes, we love touting our smarts. Just pop into any bar on “trivia night” and the questions would frighten Alex Trebek himself: What was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite wine? Streets that run diagonally are all named after what? How many Leonardo Da Vinci paintings are at the National Gallery of Art?

It’s the U.S. city with the highest share of residents who have at least a bachelor’s degree – nearly 50 percent – and there are more lawyers here per capita than anywhere else in the world.

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In fact, I bet if I threw a rock down the street I’d hit at least 30 lawyers, 50 policy wonks, countless lobbyists, a handful of media pundits for sure, and probably a few members of Congress who happened to be walking by.

Many of these people help run the world – some actually do – and are truly powerful, or so we’re told.

From left to right: Ramiro Guzman and Jose Lopez. Both are handymen from El Salvador, Jose is the contractor and Ramiro is his assistant. Patricia Guadalupe

But it’s not until your house springs a leak that you realize who truly is in charge.

It’s not the lawyers or the lobbyists or the legislators. It’s not even the U.S, president, but rather the plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, electricians, all the people working in what is commonly called “the trades.”

And increasingly, they’re Latino (with a growing number of Latinas too). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says a majority of Latino workers are in construction and other blue collar jobs, and their share of those jobs is expected to go nowhere but up and up.

It was a Latino, contractor José López, who came to the rescue when water started seeping into the basement. None of the highly educated people who took a first look at the problem — myself included — could figure out where it was coming from.

I imagined all sorts of nefarious situations, my favorite being a giant geyser was deep down in the earth and about to explode, sending us all floating down the street.

We were literally brought to our knees. Not even ISIS could have done that.

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But then Flores, a friend’s stepdad and a plumber, showed up. He gave me a hug and said in Spanish, “Don’t worry, I’ll fix this for you no problem.”

He looked around, took out a sledgehammer, smacked a chunk out of the wall and found the source of the leak — an old radiator pipe. 'No big deal,' he said, 'Don’t worry, oh and sure, I’ll look at your dishwasher too and figure out why it’s not running.'

Same goes for the Latino car mechanic who poked around under my car hood and found in no time that the clanking noise was just some loose thingamajig that had to be tightened. Then there’s the Latino handyman who went over to a friend’s house to fix the gutter and while he was there, also installed a ceiling fan, painted a room and fixed some loose bricks on the front steps.

Ramiro Guzman is a handyman from El Salvador contracted by José Lopez. Patricia Guadalupe

Here in D.C., the trades might not be the most glamorous jobs. But you better believe they're influential, highly influential. These are the people who essentially make our lives possible, who keep the roof from caving in on us, who keep the lights on, who fix it so that our little slice of the earth is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They make sure we have running water, and that it’s not all over the house.

These D.C. workers will never be “furloughed” by a Congress on a tantrum. In fact, they literally and figuratively run things.

They make the world go round. They keep our lives from breaking down completely. They are in charge. Latinos running (and fixing) things. No wonder a certain politician – we do not speak his name -- is all up in arms about them!

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but I bet an electric drill beats both of them by a mile.

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