|| By Giovana Soria
The mission spirit guides a former Maryknoll student from Peru Like thousands of people in the world, Daniel Castellano jumped at the opportunity for a guestworker visa to the United States. He came, he saw but he didn’t conquer.
Castellano’s dream of a well-paying job turned into a nightmare when he was paid half the hourly rate he was promised and given only part-time work. He was housed in a building with holes in the roof, sleeping eight people to a room and getting just one meal a day. When he complained to his supervisor, Castellano was told that if he didn’t like his job, there were plenty of other Peruvians who could replace him. But memories of his childhood as a pupil at a Maryknoll school in his native Lima, Peru, stirred him to action.
“I felt like a chip activated in my brain since my childhood that helped me to discern between good and bad,” says Castellano, who credits the teachings of the Maryknoll missioners at St. Rose of Lima School, founded by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers.
Castellano became a founder, leader and researcher of the National Guest worker Alliance (NGA), a non-profit organization that advocates for employment rights for thousands of guest workers like himself, who come to the United States with temporary H-2B work visas.
The H-2B program allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers temporarily to work in nonagricultural labor force jobs.
About 100,000 foreigners are contracted annually under the program, but for many such guestworkers, the program falls short of its promise due to a lack of transparency, monitoring and consistency, says Castellano.
The NGA, which currently has 3,000 members nationwide, works to educate employers and labor unions so they will understand and respect the rights of guestworkers. “Many employers think guestworkers are undocumented and exploit them,” Castellano says.
The NGA has found cases of workers who were recruited for factories, where they work and get fed and then are transported to apartments to sleep, without access to the outside world. The NGA lobbies the government to provide more protection and benefits for guestworkers.
Recently the NGA went to New York to hear the case of four Jamaican workers who paid thousands of dollars to obtain work visas and then were abused while working as housecleaners at luxury condominiums in Florida. The workers were required to put in excessively long workdays for low pay and live in an overcrowded two-bedroom apartment for which each worker had to pay $375 a month.
“I’m very thankful for the support of NGA,” says Shellion Parris, one of the Jamaican workers. “Despite the difficult times, I have faith in God because he brought me here and is going to take care of me.”
The NGA is asking that these workers receive extensions on their legal stays in the United States so they can work under fairer conditions.
Reflecting on his own journey, Castellano says that when he came to the United States to work on rebuilding the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2006, he was promised $15 an hour for 60 hours of work a week. He paid a recruiting agency in Peru $5,500 for an application and guarantee of a job. In addition, he had to cover the cost of his visa and flight to the United States. When he arrived in Louisiana, Castellano’s dream collided with reality.
Instead of a construction job, he was employed in a hotel for $6 an hour, given only 20 hours of work a week and crammed into deplorable housing. “In Peru, I came from a humble family, but I never lived in such an undignified manner,” he says.
That’s when the education he received from Maryknoll missioners came back to him. “They made us reflect on the unequal distribution of wealth in Peru and in the world,” says Castellano, who graduated from St. Rose of Lima in 1987. “They would ask: Why are there poor and rich people? Why don’t other children have access to the same education and food?” says Castellano. “They didn’t give us the answers; instead they made us think.”
One missioner in particular who inspired Castellano was the founder and principal of St. Rose of Lima School, Father John J. Lawler, a Maryknoll pioneer in Latin America. Castellano recalls him as a joyful priest with great devotion to the people he served.
The school Father Lawler began constructing in 1951 was the first parochial school in Peru. In 1952 the Maryknoll Sisters began teaching there and later Maryknoll Brothers joined them as teachers. Father Lawler died in mission in 1977. Maryknoll has since turned the school over to the Archdiocese of Lima, and it remains a prestigious education center.
Castellano says he is still guided by the Maryknoll spirit instilled in him as a youngster. “Life has brought me to serve God as leader and researcher of the NGA,” he says. “God has given me a mission. It’s nice to dedicate my life to helping others.”
Now on a student visa, Castellano is studying business administration at the University of New Orleans. Following the example of Father Lawler, whose mission in Peru was to educate and train leaders at Castellano’s school, Castellano works in the United States to ensure the human rights and dignity of fellow guestworkers.
(Featured Image: Inspired by the teachings of Maryknoll missioners, Daniel Castellano founded the National Guestworker Alliance. (G. Soria/U.S.))