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The Hard Road
Daniel Rodriguez snuck into the United States with simple goals. But his months working as a day laborer here have changed his life in ways he never anticipated

By Karin Brulliard
Sunday, March 12, 2006

On a cold and brilliant fall morning, Daniel Rodriguez is standing beside a 7-Eleven in Woodbridge, the brim of his Cincinnati Reds baseball cap pulled down low over his wide-set eyes. His ears had turned numb during the predawn hike from his brother-in-law's house to the U.S. Route 1 gas station, where he had hitched a ride to the convenience store. But he has since warmed himself with black coffee; a vivid sun now cuts the chill; and the long wait for work has yet to dampen his naturally buoyant disposition.

At 8:45 a.m., a minivan pulls off Route 1 and rolls slowly through the L-shaped parking lot of the 7-Eleven, which anchors one corner of a bustling intersection flanked by boxy stores. A few men wave and point to Daniel, a stocky Nicaraguan with a five o'clock shadow, because they know he has worked for the driver before. But Daniel's smile fades, and he shakes his head.

"Too much work, too little money," Daniel, 33, says of the employer, as the minivan moves on.

Daniel has staked out a spot with about 15 other day laborers on the south side of the brick 7-Eleven, a slight violation of store rules, which require the workers to stand in the lot's southwest corner by the dumpster. But the armed security guard -- hired last summer to keep the day laborers from interfering with customer traffic -- is off today, so the men have spread out to maximize their chances of catching a driver's eye. A good job could come from any direction, although today the jobs seem to be coming from no direction.

It is Sunday, the worst day of the week to be a day laborer. Homeowners, who might seek help for landscaping or moving, are worshiping, sleeping or brunching. Most contractors are off until Monday. It is also the end of the month, a particularly anxious time in a wildly unpredictable line of work: Rent is due.

Over the next 15 minutes, a handful of cars enter the lot, but the drivers are coming for coffee, not workers. One laborer finds a slightly deflated basketball by the dumpster, and a soccer scrimmage is soon under-way. Daniel joins in, snagging the ball between his battered work boots. He has taken a break from the game when he spots a white truck in the street ahead of him waiting in a turn lane. It is the length of a mid-size moving van but sports black rails instead of sides. Daniel's eyes widen.

"A truck like that is good for work allá," he says, lifting his chin toward the truck, or maybe toward allá, which means "there," but a faraway there. In Daniel's case, allá is Sebaco, a dusty town at the foot of the mountains in Nicaragua, where his wife and five children wait for him. "Ooh! With a truck like that, you live well."

"Yes," murmurs a worker next to him, also admiring the truck.

"Fill it up with carrots, beets, onions -- just like that," Daniel says.

Daniel had just such a truck in mind when he left home 15 months before. Recently, he arranged with a Sebaco car dealer to have a 1993 Mitsubishi shipped from Miami to Sebaco to await Daniel's return. He plans to use it to deliver farm vegetables to street market vendors in Sebaco and nearby towns. All he needs is to wire $2,500 one week from today and $3,500 more in December.

He has a little less than $2,000 to his name. Of that, $250 is in his pocket, to be wired home this afternoon: $150 will go to his wife of 14 years and their three children. The rest will be sent to the two young children he fathered with another Nicaraguan woman. Next week, he will pay $320 in rent. That will leave him with about $1,430, plus whatever he earns in coming days. Daniel refuses to consider that he might fail to save enough for the first truck payment. With patience and hard work, all things in life are attainable, he likes to say.

The coveted truck from the turn lane, a white GMC, pulls up in front of the 7-Eleven. The driver steps down, leaving the engine idling. Daniel scurries over and asks, in Spanish: "Hey, friend, do you need help?"

The man brushes past him. "No, no."

"That's fine," Daniel says, returning to his spot.

At 10:40 a.m., a woman wearing a shower cap and driving an SUV promises Daniel and another laborer a moving job if they meet her at a U-Haul store about two miles away. The other laborer has a car, so the men take her up on it. They wait at the U-Haul for 40 minutes. When she still hasn't shown up, they head back to the 7-Eleven.

By now, the clutch of workers has dwindled to about nine. They are crouching in the trees behind the dumpster just off the property, because store rules require them to vacate by 10 a.m.

A claret-colored minivan pulls up, and the men mob it. Then they turn away one by one, snickering incredulously. It was a $9 an hour bricklaying job -- too low say the men, who generally will not take less than $10 an hour, especially when it's approaching noon.

Daniel sits in fallen leaves. He says he will stay until 2:30 p.m. "You don't lose desire or hope," he says. But then he contradicts himself. He says he does not think he will get a job today. Not on a Sunday. Not after noon.

At 3 p.m., he gives up. He is one day farther from the truck, and from home.

DANIEL BENDS OVER IN THE GUTTED SUNROOM of a Capitol Hill rowhouse, a circular saw in his bare right hand and a 2-by-4 propped on the toe of his boot. He pushes the saw across the wood, its blade spinning inches from his foot, until the short end drops. He hands the long end to Ruben Romero, who squeezes it lengthwise between the ceiling and the floor.

"There is a church of pure gold," Ruben says in a sweet voice before pressing the trigger of a huge nail gun and sending tremors through the room. He is boasting about Puebla, Mexico, his home.

It's Daniel's turn. "There in Sebaco, there are a lot of vegetables," he says, looking up at Ruben, 27. "Carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, red peppers, green peppers. And the good thing is how cheap food is."

The two got the framing job from Cruz Sosa, a contractor who is Daniel's brother-in-law. Cruz, jolly but with a quick temper, likes to see them work, not talk. But he has stepped out for supplies, and they are indulging in the free moments.

Sebaco also is home to a butcher who will kill a cow for you on the spot, Daniel continues. "It's not like here, where the meat stays a long time in the freezer," he says.

The main problem with America, they agree, is that it is expensive. It is possible to save, unlike in their homelands -- but you must do nothing but work, says Ruben, a bashful man who carries a washed-out photo of his sons, two goofy, black-haired toddlers, in a wallet under his tool belt. It was taken just before he last saw them in Mexico. Now the boys are 8 and 6.

"Here, winter, summer, Saturday, Sunday -- it's the same as Monday and Tuesday," Daniel says. "It's work."

In Nicaragua, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti, Daniel earned about $100 a week selling vegetables in Sebaco's bustling street market. He was known for his carrots, which he bought from farmers, scrubbed at home and piled high on his stand. The money was enough for the dirt-floored, one-room house he shared with his wife, Nimia, and their three children -- Daniela, 14; Kevin, 11; and Darryll, 8. But it also had to support Danielsy, 8, and Juñior, 5, his two children born of an extramarital affair. There was never any money left over.

A few years ago, the business began to plummet. Customers had run up bad debts. The weekly payments for a truck he had bought were bleeding his earnings dry. When he came home empty-handed, Nimia would cross their unpaved street to her mother's house and ask for a handout. Daniel had to trade in the truck. "I'm just lucky I didn't turn to being a thief," Daniel says.

Daniel left for the United States with two friends in July 2004, tales of $12-an-hour jobs allá swirling through his mind. "I'm going to leave you alone, but not for a long time," Daniel recalls telling Kevin as the family said goodbye under a tall tree in the town square of Sebaco. He carried $230, cobbled together from savings and a sold television. He had his sights set on Virginia, where Cruz and Nimia's other brother, Blas "Ulises" Sosa, live, and planned to be gone one year.

Cruz wired him one-third of a Mexican smuggler's $4,600 fee; Daniel promised the smuggler he would pay the rest when he arrived in the States. After being pushed in an inflatable raft across the dark Rio Grande, Daniel was marched through Texas for three days. In Houston, he fled the coyote without paying, and Cruz came to pick him up.

Now Daniel lives with Ulises in the house Ulises owns in a tidy Dumfries development, where a sign promotes homes starting from the $400,000s. The bedroom he rents has cream carpet, cable and a picture window facing the back of a row of houses that all look alike.

Daniel is better off than many of his 7-Eleven cohort -- Cruz, a construction contractor, and Ulises, who is employed by one, often hire him. These days, Cruz has enough work for Daniel so that he goes to the 7-Eleven only on weekends.

Daniel had three goals when he arrived: Remodel his family's home. Buy a truck. Save about $8,000 to invest in a produce-delivery business. But after one year, only the remodeling -- which turned, at Nimia's insistence, into a $10,000 expansion -- was done. He has pushed his expected return date to this summer, an additional year.

Cruz is paying Daniel $1,000 every two weeks for his help framing the rowhouse, which is in a gentrifying neighborhood near RFK Stadium. Cruz, a legal resident, says no one at the development company that hired him asked whether his assistants had work permits. Legally, it is his responsibility to check.

Daniel has stopped sawing and stands in a cloud of dust. Outside, sunlight squeezes through a fissure in a mottled gray sky. "All these things, you achieve working daily," Daniel says, his goals on his mind.

"Daily," Ruben echoes, nodding as he squeezes the nail gun. Ruben has goals, too. He wants to return to Mexico and buy pigs and cattle.

"Without rest. Bad food," Daniel says.

"Bad food," Ruben says. They explain: You must eat cheap. But Daniel has grown lax with this rule. He used to buy beans and tortillas and crumbly white cheese at Todos Market. Now he often dines alone at an $8.99 Chinese buffet near the 7-Eleven, where he builds small mountains of shrimp and fried rice and scoops it into his mouth with his fingers. Hard work earns hearty food, he says.

In a month, Daniel makes from $2,000 to $2,800. He wires about $400 to Nimia. Another $300 goes to Sandra Toruño, the mother of Daniel's two other children. He spends as much as $20 a day on food and $5 a day on phone cards for nightly calls to Nicaragua. Adding his rent, the expenses total $1,770, meaning he could save around $1,000 in a good month.

He knows he could cut costs by living as many day laborers do, six men in a scruffy apartment. But he believes such roommates might encourage drinking and women -- two things he proudly says he avoids here.

With no car or driver's license, and very few words of English, Daniel leads a narrow life: work every day; church services with Ulises, his wife and three children, devout evangelicals; finally, television. In the evenings, Daniel watches three hours of Mexican soap operas on Univision, the volume low so his hosts, who would not approve of the tawdry material, do not hear. When he does not find work, he heads home and flips between Univision and Telemundo. There have been occasional outings to Potomac Mills and Wal-Mart, where the abundance of shoes impressed him.

But there has been no sightseeing; to Daniel, the District is the inside of a building under construction or a ride through a rough-looking neighborhood. Beyond his relatives, church members and the parking lot crew, there has been little socializing. Other laborers, he says, can never be true friends because of competition. Some have told Daniel it is not fair to supplement his weekday jobs with day labor on weekends.

"I would not like to live here," Daniel says. "To visit, yes. To make a life here, no."

Ruben is crouching in the corner, pounding nails. "Me, what I want is to go to Mexico."

"What I want is to go to Nicaragua," Daniel says.

FIVE DAYS AFTER HE ARRIVED IN VIRGINIA, Daniel borrowed a bicycle from one of his nieces and rode to the 7-Eleven. He joined the crowd of men gathered there, initiating himself into the curbside labor market -- and into a day labor population that, a recent study concluded, is at least 117,600 strong nationwide.

He fit right in: In the Washington region, the typical day laborer is a 35-year-old Central American man who has been living in the United States less than five years and goes to church, according to a 2004 UCLA study of 16 D.C. area hiring sites. This laborer has at least one child, and he sends money to his home country to support his family. He often performs perilous work -- moving, construction, carpentry -- with no safety training or equipment. The typical Washington area laborer makes $1,620 in a very good month.

Like Daniel, the nationwide study showed, three-fourths of day laborers are illegal immigrants. Daniel agreed to be interviewed for this story because, he says, he wants people to understand the difficulties immigrants face in the United States. He says he also wants to counter the negative impressions of Latinos he thinks Americans might form from news reports about criminals with Hispanic surnames.

Daniel became a day laborer at a time of increasing tension over illegal immigration. Informal hiring sites have long drawn community complaints about trespassing, blocked traffic and unseemly behavior. But after 9/11, they have become front lines in an escalating battle over illegal immigration. Day laborers represent a tiny fraction of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. But to opponents, they offer a sidewalk display of the problem: immigrants cluttering the landscape, looking for untaxed work that Americans could do and being exploited by employers who also get off tax-free.

About 35 miles north of Woodbridge, the town of Herndon's consideration -- and ultimate approval -- last summer of a taxpayer-funded day labor hiring site sparked picketing, conservative talk radio censure and a lawsuit against the town. In the fall, a local chapter of the Minuteman Project, a citizen border patrol, began snapping photos of Herndon day laborers and reporting their employers to federal authorities.

According to Abel Valenzuela Jr., a UCLA associate professor who helped author the local and national studies, day labor has triggered the most heated protests in traditionally white suburbs undergoing rapid demographic change -- places such as Woodbridge, in fast-growing Prince William County: From 1990 to 2000, census data shows, the city's white population shrank from 78 percent to 56 percent, while its black population doubled, to 23 percent, and its Hispanic population nearly tripled, to 19 percent.

"These are very sleepy communities where all of a sudden you have 50 to 100 men standing on the corner looking for work," Valenzuela says.

In 2004, Woodbridge, a city of more than 32,000 straddling Route 1, was swept into the conflict. In October, police arrested 24 day laborers for loitering. Eleven were transferred to federal authorities for immigration violations. At least seven were deported, according to Ricardo Juarez, who advocates for the day laborers as coordinator of the Woodbridge Workers Committee. A community task force formed to study the problem, and 7-Eleven agreed to let the laborers stay temporarily. After seven meetings over several months, the task force overwhelmingly voted to urge the county to establish a hiring hall that it said could be funded by donations, user fees or tax dollars.

In the end, the proposal, which drew equal amounts of fervent opposition and support at public meetings, died.

"We feel it's against the law to spend money on illegal -- I hate to say aliens, but that's what we call them," says Hilda M. Barg, a Democrat who represents Woodbridge on the County Board of Supervisors and who formed the task force.

The Woodbridge laborers sense a growing hostility, Juarez says. On one late January morning, Juarez received three urgent calls from workers insistent that a crew of Minutemen had descended on Woodbridge. It turned out to be a state transportation team counting traffic at the busy 7-Eleven corner.

"Psychologically, they understand that the limit for their actions is very thin," Juarez says of the laborers.

Daniel says he has not experienced any overt hostility. His life outside work takes place primarily along the Route 1 commercial strip, where nearly everyone seems to be an immigrant. At the gas station where Daniel wires money home, an African clerk calls him "brother" and sometimes gives him rides. At the Todos supermarket where he buys batteries for his CD player, he speaks to cashiers in Spanish. At the Citgo across from the 7-Eleven, the Sudanese clerk jots down Spanish translations of Arabic words in pocket-size notebooks, because at his job Spanish is more useful than English.

Daniel has watched the news, and he has the impression that many Americans think Hispanics are delinquents. He points out that he does not steal or do drugs -- though he has seen drug dealers behind the Giant supermarket across from the 7-Eleven, which leads him to believe the authorities have more important things to do than worry about day laborers. He says his illegal residency is not a crime but "a violation." While he acknowledges his untaxed work, he says he pays taxes on his purchases and does not use public services, anyway.

Daniel and other laborers see a paradox in American attitudes: You cannot come here, but you will find plenty of work if you do. Many believe that American workers will not do construction, landscaping or moving for $10 an hour.

Despite his confidence in his right to be here, an undercurrent of fear runs through Daniel. "I am in a territory that is not mine, and in any moment they can catch me and deport me," he says. "And the fear is that I would not realize my dream."

ONE MORNING DANIEL INSERTS A $5 CALLING CARD INTO A NEW YORK CITY PAY PHONE. A nearby cell phone shop's stereo pumps a 1990s dance club hit: Please don't go. Please don't go.

He punches in the number.

"How rude!" he exclaims when Nimia picks up, a giddy smile on his face. "I thought you were going to call me early to sing 'Las Mañanitas' to me." It is Daniel's 34th birthday, and "Las Mañanitas" is a birthday song.

The phone in Nicaragua is passed around quickly, because the card allows only 11 minutes of conversation. At one point, Kevin's high voice crackles through. He is singing "Las Mañanitas."

Soon Nimia is back on the line, and she says she needs money. "Don't worry about money," Daniel says. "I have money here. Okay. Take care. I love you a lot. And Daniela? How is she?" At that moment, the minutes run out.

For his birthday, Daniel has allowed himself a rare day off, riding by bus with his brothers-in-law and other members of their church to a religious conference at a Harlem high school. His cheeks are shiny, shaved for the occasion. Daniel had dreamed of seeing New York City, which he believed to be the world's most beautiful city. He knows New York is home to Madison Square Garden, and he thinks Las Vegas might be nearby.

He has also come because of his involvement in the Apostolic Assembly of the Faith in Christ Jesus, an evangelical Hispanic denomination. Three nights a week, Daniel heads to a cozy Dale City church, where Pastor Rafael Arbaiza, a small Salvadoran, preaches jubilantly and parishioners sway, their eyes locked shut and arms outstretched. Daniel's brothers-in-law are faithful members, and Daniel attends with them.

Daniel says he was "saved" in 1991. He and Nimia were unwed but living together. He was drinking a lot and was "argumentative," he says. So when a van drove by, its loudspeaker extending an invitation to the Assembly of God church, Daniel felt a pull. He put on a neat brown sweater and went to the service. When someone asked if he wanted to accept Jesus, he said yes. Days later, Nimia accepted, too. To be baptized, they had to be married. On July 15, 1991, they wed in an inexpensive civil ceremony.

The church became a focal point in their lives. But as the years went on, Daniel says, work -- and evening trips to bars with friends -- prevented him from worshiping regularly.

In this country, his faith has entered a renaissance, he says.

"In general, one remembers God in the place where one feels the most danger," he says. Believing, he says, gives him strength -- to ignore his loneliness, to work harder. In a way, America's orderliness also pushed him toward religion, he says. In Nicaragua, he says, no one minds if you're late. Here, you must be on time, or you lose work. Even the traffic is more organized and polite. All of this, he says, "reforms you." In this environment, church feels right, he says.

Juarez, the workers' advocate, says many of the day laborers he helps become more religious in the United States. He says many feel isolated -- most do not have family around, and finding work is their focus. Often, church is the only place they feel truly welcomed, he says.

Whatever the reason for Daniel's devotion, Nimia is overjoyed, he says. "When you go to church, you make me the happiest woman . . . when you went to church with me here, I felt happy content, I felt protected, and I said in my mind that you loved me a lot because you listened to me," she wrote in a letter.

After the phone call, Daniel walks around Harlem and decides it looks like a town near Sebaco -- lots of pedestrians and loud shops with signs in Spanish. During the cab ride later to Times Square, depressing balconies and worn awnings become Park Avenue, where silver Mercedes-Benzes gleam in a dealership window.

"It looks like the other side of the coin here," Daniel says, mesmerized. "But it has few Hispanics, huh?" He contemplates this and the news he has heard about the growth of the U.S. Hispanic population in both size and status. "They are taking position little by little. In five years, they'll be living here."

Later, in the Harlem school auditorium, it's like a merengue concert. A mosh pit of worshipers jumps as a raucous choir sings about whacking the devil with a stick. Daniel jumps in, and soon his hand is waving above his head, and his cheeks are wet with tears. On the ride home, he retreats to the back of the bus, pensive. His brothers-in-law are urging him to become baptized in his new church, but he is leaning against it, partly because Daniela asked him not to because she would have to switch to the Apostolic Assembly school and wear a veil to church. The day was wonderful, he says, but being surrounded by families left him feeling hollow. "Next year, if I'm lucky, I will not celebrate my birthday here," he says.

DANIEL'S TELEVISION SITS ON THE LOW TABLE IN HIS BEDROOM. Squeezed next to it are his three bottles of cologne and a few family photos. Under his bed are letters from home. He says he treasures those from Nimia, outpourings of sweetness in neat writing on lined notebook paper.

"Love, I am writing this letter to tell you how much I miss you. I live only on memories, remembering all the pretty things that we lived here together . . . Love, I would like to ask you to please make the money so that you come soon, if possible for Daniela's 15th birthday," one letter begins. In February, Daniela will turn 15, the age when Latin American girls have grand, wedding-like galas.

Another begins with a cheery "¡Hola!" but soon changes tone: "I suffered a lot also, for all the things that you did to me, and sometimes I start to think about if you come back and do the same thing again I start thinking about that, and it makes me afraid . . ."

In 1990 Daniel first spotted Nimia as she was getting off a bus. Smitten, he stumbled beside her down the street, professing his love. In 1995, four years after they wed, the marriage started to falter. Daniel says Nimia suspected he was cheating. He says it was not true, but the jealousy led to horrible fights. Then, he says, he met Sandra, a curvy woman with a quick smile who sold meat at the market.

Nimia found out a few months later and was devastated, he says. But she did not leave. And Daniel did not end the affair. "Sincerely, I was not strong enough to finish it," he says.

Nimia would sob sometimes and belittle him other times, he says. They separated for one year, and he lived with Sandra; sometimes they did not speak for weeks on end. "Horrible. Ugly," he says of the memories, although he is quick to place blame on Nimia, who he says is difficult and cutting.

Daniel bought Nimia a cell phone before he left, and now they speak every night. There are still flare-ups, usually over Sandra's children -- Nimia demands he cut off contact with them, he says -- but he believes the marriage has improved with distance. Daniel says he loves her more now.

"Loneliness has hit me hard," Daniel says.

He ended the affair with Sandra when he left, he says. Now they speak a few times each week, mostly about their children, but also, he acknowledges, about their relationship. He says she tells him how much she loves and misses him and wants him to live with her when he returns. When asked how he responds, he says it is flattering. Then he says he told Sandra once he would live with her when he returns, but now he just says nothing.

"I would not wish these problems on anyone," he says, shaking his head. "It complicates life a lot."

DANIEL'S EYES SQUINT IN THE SUN. "Speak to me seriously. Are you doing badly in school? Are you not going to pass the year?" he says into a borrowed cell phone. "Listen, if you do not pass the year, I will send you money for your health, but I will not bring you gifts."

It is the morning after the New York trip, and he is sitting on the curb between the 7-Eleven and the dumpster, his elbows propped on his knees. He is talking to Daniela.

Daniel is silent for a minute, listening. "Okay, my love," he says in Spanish. Then, in English: "I see you later."

All his children are bright, but Daniela is the star student, her father says. She is planning to be a doctor, but lately she's been slacking off, and her grades are slipping. Plus, at this age, boys are on her mind, he says.

Daniel's parents died when he was 8 -- first his father, a vegetable seller, struck by a car; then his mother, felled by an ulcer. The second-youngest of seven, Daniel shuffled between living in the streets and in the homes of older siblings. For money, he helped market vendors hawk their smoky corn and wash their onions. At 13, he went to school for the first time. But he had no shoes or pencils, and he felt humiliated. He quit after one year.

As a father, Daniel says, he has focused on both disciplining his children and showering them with love. He scolded misbehavior, played baseball with them in the streets and gave them coins after work. He says he gave his children by Sandra the same dedication.

The phone has been passed to Kevin, and Daniel is speaking sternly. "Now you're about to turn 12, and you only cry!" he says. Kevin, whom Daniel instructed to be the man of the house, often breaks down when he talks to his father. "I'm working hard, and you complain."

Daniel pauses. "We can't talk like this, with you only crying. Pass the phone to your mother." Nimia gets back on the line, and Daniel tells her: I did not cry after 8 years old. And Kevin is about to be an hombrecito, a little man.

Three months before, teachers at the children's school told Nimia that an older teenage boy was visiting Daniela at school. Daniel, fearing she would blow her future by getting pregnant, had a long phone session with her, demanding she forget the boy.

"Look at what happened to me for not studying," he recalls telling her. He says she promised to stay away from the boy. He has since asked Nimia and Daniela about this every time they speak. They assure him it is over, and he says he believes them.

"By telephone, you do what you can," he says.

IT'S 9:10 A.M. ON A SATURDAY. Daniel and Angel "Mauricio" Valle are leaning against a moving van at the Citgo, which is kitty-corner from the 7-Eleven and doubles as a Budget rental van operation. An icy wind is blowing, and Daniel is shivering in his puffy Miami Dolphins jacket. Their faces are glum.

"The guy didn't come," Daniel says. He is referring to the man, who, an hour before, hired them as movers and said he would return at 9 a.m., after he and his wife, a Panamanian, returned from the bank. He also told them, in English, to be patient if he was a little late. Daniel and Mauricio did not understand that part.

No price was set, but Daniel is feeling lucky. "One time I worked for a Panamanian, and she gave me $50 for two hours," he says. Daniel is supposed to send the first truck payment of $2,500 in two days. But the dealer in Sebaco will not return his calls. He does not have the money anyway. Cruz paid him Friday, but after rent and sending money home, Daniel has only $1,770 in savings. Now he says he will wait 10 more days to send the payment.

At 9:20 a.m., the couple pull up in a minivan, and Daniel and Mauricio snap to attention.

"How much? How much pay?" Daniel asks, looking up.

The man, whose name is Derek McIntosh, slowly holds up two fingers in a V.

"Two?" Daniel asks.

"Two hundred."

Daniel pauses, searching for the right words. "How much hour?"

"Two hundred," McIntosh says deliberately. "Day."

Daniel translates. "One hundred each for the day." Mauricio nods.

"It's okay," Daniel says to McIntosh.

An hour later, Daniel is lugging a plastic tub overflowing with a Barbie bust and a toy monster truck up the basement stairs of the Woodbridge home McIntosh shares with his wife, Dona Mahoney. They are moving to a larger brick home a few miles away. Mauricio follows, his salad plate-size hands carrying a bucket stuffed with toys, one of which is speaking: "E is for elephant."

McIntosh, wearing a black knit cap, builds cardboard boxes in the pink-walled living room. A remodeling contractor, he says he hires guys at the 7-Eleven all the time. He works job by job, so it doesn't make sense to have permanent employees, he says. He does not ask about immigration status, he says later. "I don't care! They're just helpers. They're not employees."

"They're hard workers," Mahoney says. She hired professional movers for the large items and considered them for the rest, but the prices stunned her.

Sweat is soaking through Daniel's T-shirt as he steps carefully down the front porch steps, carrying what looks to be a futon frame. "Nimia should be really happy that she has such a hardworking husband, no?" he booms. "Of course!"

A few loads later, he is hanging up McIntosh's landline. Using a calling card, he called Nimia to make sure she got the $100 he sent the night before. She was on a bus, en route to a doctor's office. She has been having headaches.

Daniel thanks McIntosh for the phone. Not every employer is so generous. At the 7-Eleven, bad boss stories abound. Juan Jimenez, a Honduran with white scars on his once-broken wrist, tells of the boss who refused to take him to the hospital after he fell off a roof. Juarez says he gets at least three calls a week from workers who say employers did not pay.

Mauricio, a 29-year-old Honduran, is saving to start a livestock business when he goes home. But it is hard, especially when the bosses do not pay, he says, rattling off a list of debts he is owed. "There are bad-hearted people and good-hearted people here."

Daniel tells of a bad experience with a man who hired him and six others to rip up tree stumps in blistering summer heat, for $10 an hour. The boss gave them one gallon of water, and one cup, to share. Daniel quit after two hours, getting paid only in curses. Another time, a man hired him to build a deck in Leesburg for $13 an hour. But the man announced once they arrived that he would pay just $9 an hour to dig the preparatory holes in the ground, because that required less expertise. Daniel refused and hitched a ride home, about 50 miles away.

He says most of his employers have been kind. With hard work and dependability, he says, he has cultivated relationships with some who now look for him when they need help. One woman who owns a variety shop near the 7-Eleven gives him jobs and Air Jordans.

Once he, Mauricio and McIntosh finish emptying the first truckload at the new house, they head to a Chinese takeout joint in a strip mall, where McIntosh is buying.

"Buen jefe," Daniel says. Good boss.

But as the afternoon drags on, Daniel starts to wonder if this is true. After a second truck is unloaded, there is still more at the first house. Daniel is grumpy. He will miss church. His disappointment lasts only until 8 p.m., when payment comes. It turns out he misunderstood McIntosh's offer. Daniel and Mauricio each make $200.

DANIELA HAS SHED THE KNEE SOCKS and Mary Janes of her school uniform. In a tangerine top and orange pumps with heels that click on the floor, the delicate girl stands in the dull overhead light before the living room mirror, applying clear lip gloss. The family is taking an outing to the grocery store in Sebaco.

When Daniel was here, they used to take evening strolls through the streets of their town, eating ice cream and mingling. An affable attention-seeker, he knew everyone in town. Even now, tell a taxi driver you want to go to the home of "Daniel, the one who sold carrots in the market," and he will take you there. Now the family rarely goes out, says Nimia, 34. Daniel prefers that they stay at home. They walk out into the still, warm November night, turning left on their street -- dirt, like almost every street in Sebaco. An invisible band of crickets seems to vibrate the earth with its hum. Kevin leads, kicking a soccer ball. Darryll lags behind.

They turn down another street, where televisions illuminate the front doors of low-slung homes. Nimia's cell phone rings in the darkness. "Hello, love," she says. It is Daniel.

"Hello, love," says Darryll, clownish like his father, in his best rendition of a lovelorn woman. Nimia rolls her eyes.

The family members take turns talking as they walk. When they are not on the phone, they narrate the path in a series of Daniel-related landmarks: the baseball stadium where he played shortstop, the store where Mom bought her bed with the dollars Dad sent. And there, next to the Pan-American Highway, is where he stood, his backpack stuffed with three changes of clothes, and said goodbye.

"From here, all the buses leave for the North," says Nimia, who is pretty and warm. After Daniel left, Nimia says, she and the children walked home in silence, then she went to the back yard, muffling her sobs. The truth is, Nimia wanted Daniel to go. The money situation was grim. But mostly, she says, she felt leaving was the only thing that would make Daniel forget Sandra. In November 2003, Nimia knelt at church. "God, I can't anymore," she remembers praying. "I need you to take him and transform him." Eight months later, God appeared to deliver. Daniel came to her and said he wanted to go.

The separation has been heart-wrenching, says Nimia, who gushes about her husband like a teenager. He used to hold her head when it hurt, she says, and take her in his truck when he collected debts from clients. When she cooed as they passed tony houses, she says, Daniel would tell her, "I will make you one." Of course, she says, he also made her suffer.

In Daniel's absence, she and the children have gotten new clothes; among her treasures are red high heels with rhinestones -- too high, but very pretty. The house is now three times as large, with an indoor shower that trickles cold water. And like just two other houses on the block, both belonging to people with relatives who send money from the United States, the house now has shiny tile floors.

By U.S. standards, the house is shabby. There is no refrigerator. Its walls stop a few inches short of its corrugated metal roof, so the neighbor's grunting pig sounds like it is in Nimia's living room. At night, Nimia props a tall scrap of rusted metal against the doorless back entrance to block the mosquitoes. With more American dollars, Nimia plans to install doors and kitchen cabinets. She also hopes Daniel will send Home Depot paint for the house -- bone for the inside, rose for the outside. She saw the store's U.S. ads on cable television and was dazzled by the selection.

But even as it is, the house was enough to draw oohs and aahs from the church members who visited on Kevin's birthday, Nimia says. "Look what Daniel has done in one year!" she says, spreading her arms as she sits down for dinner one night. "Many go and do nothing. They dedicate themselves to drinking or other vices."

Daniel has changed, she says. Yes, he still gets angry sometimes. When Daniel's brother told him he saw Nimia doing errands by herself, for example, Daniel forbade her to go anywhere without the children. ("Why should she go out alone?" he says. "In our country, there is not the same respect for women.") But now when he calls, Nimia says, it's, " 'Love' here, 'love' there. Before, no. Only, 'Nimia,'" she says. "He tells me, 'When I come home, everything is going to be different.' I say, God, I hope it happens."

Sometimes Nimia struggles with doubt. She is troubled by the story of a woman at church whose husband went to the United States and married someone else. Now that Daniel has delayed his return date, Nimia worries that it will be one more year, then another, then another. But that would be better than him returning to "that woman," she says -- Sandra.

A doctor diagnosed her headaches as too much thinking. She says: "How can I avoid it?"

A BARBIE TELEVISION COMMERCIAL SING-SONGS THROUGH THE LIVING ROOM. Darryll is lying on the red cloth hammock that hangs from the ceiling, holding his homework packet. "All complete?" Nimia asks, bending over him and paging through it absentmindedly. He nods vigorously, pointing out all he has written, skipping the blank spots.

Nimia turns to sit in one of the four rocking chairs lined up against the wall, and Darryll follows, climbing on her lap and nuzzling into her. She clutches Darryll, rocking. "Did you want your dad to go?"

"Yes," he says, his wide grin showing several missing teeth.

"Why?"

"To send me reales." Money.

"Now do you miss him?"

"Yes."

"How much?"

"A lot."

"Do you dream about him?"

"Every day," he says. Darryll, Nimia says, keeps the family's worn green photo album in his room and pages through it daily, sometimes saying, "Look how handsome my father is!" A teacher once caught him with the album at school, showing off Daniel's picture.

"Do you want him to come back?" she says.

"Yes."

"When?"

"For my birthday," he giggles. Nimia kisses his head. His birthday is March 10. There is no way. Daniela, Kevin and Darryll love the money Daniel sends just for them -- $10 or $20 here and there. They save some, spend some. Daniela buys clothes, such as a shirt that reads "QUEEN" in gold sequins. The boys buy clothes, too, but they also run to the corner store and gorge themselves on candy. That is the happy part about Dad being gone.

There are other parts. Nimia says Darryll has grown rebellious. He sometimes refuses to come inside when she calls. Sometimes he erupts, shouting that he should have gone to America, too. For a period, he sat idle in his crowded classroom while the teacher recited sentences from her textbook -- there are not enough for the students -- and refused to write down her words, as he was supposed to. Nimia spent a few days sitting next to him at school, prodding him.

It is even harder for Daniela and Kevin, both shy children who confided in their father. Daniela, Nimia says, has become even more withdrawn, complains constantly of being tired and often goes to bed at 7 p.m.

"It's boring here," Daniela mumbles one morning, summing up life after Daniel.

Kevin misses being Daniel's special sidekick, chosen to help him sell vegetables in mountain towns. "I was the only one who went out with him" to the markets, he says on the quiet walk home from church one night, speaking softly, but with pride. He demonstrates his sales pitch, copied from his father: "Carrots! Beets! Cucumber! Lettuce! Like that." Kevin handles his man-of-the-house duties well, Nimia says. But when he misbehaves and Nimia reminds him of that role, she says he sometimes responds: "I am not a man! I am still a boy!"

Igdaly Zeledon, Kevin's teacher, is familiar with those emotions. Many of her students' fathers have left, if not for the United States, then for Costa Rica. Kevin is doing well, considering, she says. "It seems like Daniel has good communication," she says. "It affects those who do not communicate with their fathers more." And especially those whose fathers never return.

Nimia says that when Daniel scolds the children over the telephone, they still cry, and when he sends them to bed for fighting, they go. How long that will last, she is not sure. Daniel, hoping to escort his elder daughter down the aisle at the church portion of her 15th birthday celebration, has asked Daniela to postpone the party until he returns. Daniela refuses. It makes no sense to her to celebrate her birthday on the wrong date.

After lunch one day, Kevin presses "play" on the CD player, and for the umpteenth time in the past couple of days, his favorite song thunders through the house. Kevin plops down in the hammock, perfectly speaking the intro to "Sueña" (Dream), by the Latin Christian singer Gerardo.

This song is dedicated to those people who dream but work every day to make that dream reality.

The boy's lanky right arm dangles to the soccer ball on the floor beneath him and rolls it back and forth. He says he wants to make a videotape of himself lip-syncing the song and send it to his father.

"My dad dreamed to get to the United States," Kevin explains. He resumes, singing the chorus.

When they tell you that you are worthless

Keep going

Don't change your path, go on

Don't look back

I'll be watching over you

Dream

If it seems impossible

Be sure

Everything is possible with me

I am the truth

Together we are invincible

Dream

Kevin places the soccer ball under his head like a pillow. His father is still dreaming, he says. "Of coming back and making a good life here," he says, looking to the ceiling. "Of buying his truck and working."

IN EARLY DECEMBER, Daniel is standing near the Five Guys burger shop across from the 7-Eleven with Saul Alban Oseguera. They and one other laborer worked for a woman the day before, and the three are waiting for her to come for them again, as promised. It is supposed to snow that afternoon. Daniel is wearing a gray sweat suit and a blue polo shirt underneath, more appropriate for lounging on the couch than standing in below-freezing weather.

Daniel is edgy. Jobs with Cruz have petered out, and he worked only 1 1/2 days the week before, devoting the rest to television and phone calls home. A month after the first truck payment was supposed to be due, he still has only about $2,000 saved for it, not enough. But the truck is no longer in the immediate picture anyway, he says bitterly. When he finally reached the seller, Daniel cracked a joke about the guy acting like he was Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua's former Sandinista president -- too important to talk to the little folks. The seller hung up. Now Daniel's planned return date is December 2006. He shrugs when asked what Nimia thinks about this.

"We speak little," he says. "There have been some problems that I don't like." Three weeks before, he says, he talked to a friend in Sebaco, who said he had seen Daniela with the boy before and after school. The information enraged Daniel: Here he is, working hard to feed his family, while Daniela gambles with her future.

Nimia says it is a lie, he says. "Nimia is blind." She and Daniela have betrayed him, he says. A beige Acura SUV pulls into the lot at 9:30 a.m. "¡Hola!" Christina Moore, the attractive, dark-haired driver, says warmly. Her blond young daughter is in the car. The men climb in.

A little later, they are eating breakfast out of McDonald's bags, standing in a driveway in a new collection of townhouses, each with a skinny tree in front. They have picked up a fourth worker along the way. They get to work, moving Moore's things from her townhouse to another one around the corner. The new one has a fenced back yard and deck, she says. Moore stands in the light-filled kitchen of the new townhouse, shaking her head over the biographies she gleaned from the men yesterday. Saul, she gathered, was a captain in the Honduran army. (Actually, though Saul was in the army, he says he tried to tell Moore he had hopes of being a captain.)

And the "robust one" told her he has no family, she says. She is referring to Daniel. "He was saying, 'A Spanish man makes a very good husband!'" she laughs, when a reporter corrects the story. "I've had three husbands. That's enough."

The laborers were referred to Moore by a friend, she says. True, their work is not flawless: Yesterday, she found the pendulum of her grandfather clock in the street. But they work tirelessly, and affordably. Immigrants, legal and illegal, are going to come, no matter what, and they might as well work, she says. "To me, it's just against the American mentality to say you can't come," Moore says.

Around 1 p.m., the men have finished assembling a desk in a third-floor room. The space is pungent with body odor. Moore tells them they're done for the day; all that's left in the old house are small items, and friends are going to help her move them. They have worked less than four hours.

"We're going to get some pizza. Pizza okay?" Moore says, once everyone is outside.

"Don't worry. What you want," Dennys Oseguera, Saul's 32-year-old brother, says in English.

"Tell her no," Daniel whines in Spanish. He says he's mad, but he won't say why. Saul thinks it is because Daniel wanted to work more. But Moore is his ride, so he goes along anyway.

At a pizza place filled with senior citizens, Moore orders them an 18-incher with jalapeños. The men are silent.

"So . . ." Moore says, turning to Daniel. "You have wife?"

"No," he says, staring at the soda cooler.

"¿Esposa?" she says, using the Spanish word for wife.

"No." They both laugh.

Later, after Moore deposits them at the 7-Eleven, Daniel drops a bombshell. "I told her I do not have a wife, because I do not have a wife," he says, unemotionally. Last week, amid the fighting over Daniela, he and Nimia decided to call it quits. He says Nimia wants a divorce. Maybe he will look for a girlfriend, he says, because why be lonely here?

"She is very sweet, Doña Christina," he says, referring to Moore, who, he says, called him a "star." He grins at the thought. "And very pretty. And very mature."

DANIEL SAYS THERE WAS NO DREAM, no vision, just a realization: He wanted to be baptized in the Apostolic Assembly church in Dale City. He is taking classes during church each Thursday night to prepare for his christening. "It's the true doctrine," he says. He is excited that once he is baptized, he will be able to lead songs.

On a Thursday night in early December, Daniel enters the church wearing shiny black loafers and toting a hefty Bible. He drops to his knees on the plush blue carpet, rests his elbows on a pew and buries his head in his arms to pray. The music is already going. After a couple of minutes, Daniel rises and shouts, "Glory!" then bounces from one foot to the other, punching the air to the beat.

Before the service, Daniel ate dinner at a new $10.99 Chinese buffet near church, where Christmas garland hung from the ceiling and a stereo played "I Will Survive," a disco hit Daniel has always liked because it sounds happy. At the 7-Eleven that week, he had scored a demolition gig in Falls Church that looked like it would last through the month. It was a another blessing from God, he says, because he wants to wire home $1,000 for Daniela's 15th birthday party, and at least $400 for Christmas presents.

Things remain the same with Nimia, he says. "We are near, we fight. We are far, we fight," he says. "We finished the relationship because we do not have peace." The night before, he called home, and she refused to let him talk to the boys. But his words about Nimia have softened. He says he still loves her and insists they will not be enemies, because of the children.

A week later, they will have made up. By telephone, Nimia will say that Daniel demanded the divorce and that his other children were the ones who said Daniela was with the boy -- a 14-year-old cousin. Daniel does not trust people, she will say in a tone that sounds like she finds the trait endearing.

But right now Daniel sits in this American pew, his two toddler nephews on his lap, his marriage crumbling, his home farther away than ever.

"I want to talk about the importance of baptism," says Elias Sarabia, a church member, standing before the congregation. "The importance of baptism is that something is reborn in us," he begins. Daniel wraps his arms tightly around his nephews and listens. In a meandering sermon, Sarabia cites Biblical passages about baptism, about confessing sins, about cleansing. And about the Israelites, who had to cross a river to get to the Promised Land, even though they were very afraid.

"And so, yes, we must be baptized," he exclaims. "How many say amen?"

"Amen!" says Daniel, who crossed a river 16 months before, hoping for some promise.

Karin Brulliard is a reporter for The Post's Metro section. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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