On Aug. 30, Real Change Vendor Blas Andrés Felix stood in a crowd under the Space Needle, gathered to commemorate the killing of John T. Williams 10 years earlier at the hands of a Seattle police officer. Felix stood solemnly with his friend, Maria Giron, whose son Oscar was also shot and killed by an SPD officer. Felix and Giron held a long banner between them with photos of Oscar before and after he was shot.
Felix often accompanies Giron to protests and vigils for her son, but that day he was also supporting the Indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest. As a member of the Otomi indigenous group of central Mexico, Felix feels a connection to local Native groups. He describes them as “part of the family.”
When I met Felix at the Space Needle, he heartily introduced me to Giron and a few other friends and acquaintances he had met at gatherings and demonstrations. Felix is excellent at making connections, even at mass events, like the protests he often attends.
In his 10 years in Seattle, Felix has built a community around shared struggles for justice and made a name for himself as a strong defender of workers’ rights. As a former jornalero (day laborer in Felix’s primary language, Spanish) who was homeless for a time, Felix understands the value — the necessity — of community.
El viaje hacia el norte
Felix’s journey north from Mexico began, one might say, in Santiago de Querétaro, the town of his birth. At five years old, he moved with his family to Tijuana, where his parents searched for stable work. There, his mother crafted hand-made Otomi dolls to sell to tourists while his father did construction. Felix and his siblings (they were 10, altogether) worked too.
As Felix entered his teenage years, he witnessed friends and acquaintances become involved in gangs and drug trafficking. When a friend’s father offered to take Felix and his friend to the U.S. in hopes of finding safety and stable work, they agreed. At age 14, Felix found himself in Riverside, California, where he worked seasonally, harvesting grapes for wine and returning to Mexico during the off season.
Typically, Felix and his coworkers harvested grapes at night. Beginning at about 6 p.m., workers picked grapes until six in the morning, with floodlight-bearing tractors illuminating their work. At midnight, a truck would roll up to sell burritos, which they ate quickly since their pay depended on the amount of grapes they harvested — not the number of hours worked.
Felix would later write, as part of an anthology of stories titled “La Vida en el Norte” (Life in the North), that he left his youth in the California vineyards. Despite being twice his age, his fellow workers treated him as an equal, another adult. The work was hard, Felix said, but he made good money.
Felix eventually settled in Rivas County, where he married and had three children. With the new century, though, work in California started to shift toward construction as farmers sold their land to people interested in building big, expensive houses. At the same time, his marriage was ending after 13 years. He wanted his ex-wife to be able to stay there and start fresh, and he wanted to do the same. So, he decided, it was again time to move northward in search of more farming work.
“Pero todo el tiempo estoy pendiente de mis hijos,” he told me. “I’m always thinking about my kids.”
His first stop was in Oregon, where he visited his brother. But after about a week, Felix left again, saying that he didn’t particularly want to live with his brother, who ended up returning to Mexico. He was more interested in being on his own — meeting new people and having different experiences. For someone who values community, Felix also appreciates his independence and his freedom to move around. “A mi me gusta andar solo,” he told me: “I like to go it alone.”
When some acquaintances proposed going north to Washington, Felix decided to join them. In Sunnyside and the Tri-Cities, Felix harvested asparagus, apples, pears and cherries (his favorite). He lived with other farm workers in small trailers, and when working conditions were unjust, he encouraged his fellow workers to come together and speak up. Often, he says, they stay quiet in fear of retaliation or arrest (which for some could spell deportation).
Felix has faith that if enough people join together, their voices will be heard. They have a saying in Mexico, Felix told me: “El que no habla Dios no le escucha.” “God won’t listen to those who don’t speak.”
As he got older, Felix found that work in the fields was taking a toll on his body. With bosses hyper-focused on productivity, workers were treated like machines rather than human beings, he said. He decided to make his way west to Seattle. Whereas in California and Eastern Washington, Felix spoke a lot of Spanish, Seattle presented new linguistic challenges.
For the first five or so years of his life, Felix spoke Otomi with his friends and family. It wasn’t until the move to Tijuana that he began to speak more Spanish. Still, Felix carries a sense of pride for his indigenous roots; he came up with the title for this article, wanting to include reference to his people. With that pride comes a desire to stand in solidarity with other indigenous communities. Growing up indigenous in Mexico, Felix heard racial slurs more than once. His parents, he said, experienced worse racism. Today, Felix can still understand Otomi — which is now classified as endangered — but doesn’t speak nearly as much as he used to. The more time he spends in the U.S., the more his native language recedes into the background, making room for English, which he mostly picks up on the streets of Seattle.
From Home Depot to a Seattle home
On many a chilly Seattle morning, Felix made his way from the tent where he slept to the parking lot of Home Depot in SODO. He arrived at 7 a.m. and waited with a group of other day laborers for someone to pull up and offer work. He’d wait until noon and if no one came, he said, he would leave in search of food for the day. Normally, he’d find help at a local food bank.
Felix also found work through Casa Latina, a local organization that supports day laborers. Soon, he began to integrate himself into the community there, attending protests with the staff in solidarity with various political struggles in the city. Protests, Felix found, were places where community was formed and connections were made. He also found that attending protests helped with his English and his confidence.
“Activism helps me by teaching me how to defend myself,” Felix said. “In the field, at work — or by showing me how to help others.”
For the first few years he was in Seattle, Felix lived on the streets. This wasn’t because he couldn’t afford a place to stay, but because he wanted to send any money he made back to his children in California and to his parents in Mexico. He called his kids whenever he could; he’d say he was fine, and he’d avoid mentioning he was homeless — even imagining an apartment he lived in and telling them about that.
In his wallet, Felix carried a photo of his daughter, the youngest — the only picture he had of any of his kids. When he got stressed or sad, looking at her smiling face calmed him.
When Felix talks about these years, he breaks his Spanish to say “homeless” in English, as though the word was unknowable before he came to the U.S. At the time, he was sleeping under bridges or at the camp on Edgar Martinez. At one point he acquired a tent, which he shared with a friend who was also in need of shelter.
Still, Felix woke up and went to work every morning.
When he wasn’t working, Felix walked around Seattle. If he happened on some kind of gathering or demonstration, he would stop and listen, curious to learn more about what people were fighting for.
“I didn’t know a lot of people,” he said. “But I went and analyzed things and met people.”
The more protests Felix attended, the more he wanted to learn from activists and organizers. While he had always been an outspoken defender of himself and his fellow workers, he began to appreciate the value of organized movements and made connections with leaders from California, Yakima and Bellingham. At protests, people started to recognize him as well — partially due to his characteristic straw hat. He’d chat with other jornaleros outside Home Depot who said they’d seen him on the TV or in a video of a protest. For Felix, this was an opportunity to start a discussion about worker or immigrant rights.
Poco a poco
Felix is no longer homeless. He has more money to keep now that his kids are older.
Most every day, he wakes up at 4 a.m. in his apartment, makes coffee and hops on a bus to get downtown to Pike Place Market. One way he found to make money is helping workers at the market set up early each morning.
Felix told me the majority of his story perched on a concrete ledge outside Seattle Central Community College, where he posted up to sell Real Change papers. He walks by the college often and hopes to take classes there one day. We had hung out earlier that day while he unloaded buckets of flowers from vans at Pike Place, just as the sun was coming up.
When Felix finishes with the flowers, he takes a short break and then heads over to the intersection of Lenora Street and Elliott Avenue, where he sells Real Change to passersby. Many of them have gotten to know him. Felix calls his kids regularly and is able to visit sometimes. He still attends protests wherever he can find them and gets excited when he talks about the recent farmworker strike in Yakima. If we can harness farm worker power there, he says, we could do the same in smaller cities in Eastern Washington.
For now, Felix focuses his efforts on supporting Giron. The first time he attended a vigil for her son, he said, there were only about four or five people present. This year, a group of 70 marched to Westlake. He said the success of that march was also due to the support they had from indigenous women.
“That’s how it starts,” Felix said. “Poco a poco. … Everything in due time. That’s my mentality. Meanwhile, we have to go out and support [one another].”
Christy Carley is a freelance journalist in Seattle and former English teacher in Spain. Find her on Twitter @christy_carley.
Read more in the Sept. 16-22, 2020 issue.