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On the Mean Streets of Las Vegas, Making a Living Can Be Moral Liability

BY William Murray

January 5, 1997 Issue | Posted 1/5/97 at 1:00 PM

 

LAS VEGAS—It's an age-old story. Immigrant comes to the big city in search of a job. He finds one, but only after a great deal of struggle. It's less noble than the work he had in mind.

It's a story that describes the situation of tens of thousands of Latin American immigrants who come to the country's gambling capital, one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. Since many have a limited command of English, are poorly educated, and have few contacts, they're forced to take less than dignified work, often eking out a living distributing pornographic materials.

The immigrants, most of whom are Catholic, say they'd rather not work passing out the booklets that list information about local prostitutes and strippers, but they are unable to find other work. In Vegas, there are more than 100 sidewalk distributors working on any given night. The vast majority of them are Latinos, even though they only account for 11 percent of the town's general population, according to the most recent figures from the city's Chamber of Commerce.

“I don't want to beg,” said Ruben, a 50-year old Mexican immigrant. He began work two years ago and makes $5 per hour passing out a booklet that features pictures of topless women that includes their phone numbers. The booklets standard offer is a nude striptease dance, but services beyond stripping are “negotiable,” according to one of the escort company's phone operators. Prostitution is legal in a county an hour's drive away from here.

Ruben, a legal alien, has worked as a casino porter, but has made ends meet by occasionally passing out the porno booklets. He said he regularly attends Sunday Mass at one of the three Spanish services offered in the city. When asked if he sees a contradiction between his worship and his work, he responded in Spanish: “If it's legal, I can pass it out on the street.”

“Look at these five people,” he said, pointing to his fellow sidewalk distributors from competing companies. “They all work hard, they don't smoke, and they don't cause problems.”

Another distributor, Jose, a 55-year-old Catholic from Mexico, came to the United States three months ago and expects to go back soon. Although friendly, Jose had to cut the conversation short. His Salvadoran boss is interested in rapid distribution and doesn't like him speaking with people on the sidewalks.

Eduardo, a 20-something Guatemalan with five earrings in his right ear and a withered left hand, had saved enough from his $65 per eight-hour workday salary that he can afford to go back home for Christmas.

Luis, a young Salvadoran working up the sidewalk from Eduardo, put it simply: “If you don't work, you don't eat.” He'd rather work in a hotel, where he said unions help to protect the employees' benefits. On his fourth day of work he remembers seeing two employees of a rival company get browbeaten by a beefy bleached-blond man.

“That's not my book!” he yelled at the distributors of a competing company's booklet. He then scolded his young employees for not positioning themselves in front of rival companies to get the first shot at the thousands of convention-goers and tourists making their way back to hotels on “the strip.”

The sidewalk distributors also get hassled by passersby. “Repent!” sneered a man with a white fedora as he pointed his arm out to Jose, as if to stiff-arm him. Only a handful of those walking by actually take the materials.

The sidewalk distributors huddle in groups in front of construction sites and vacant lots near the strip, because the city's gambling barons expelled them from the sidewalks in front of the casinos. In trying to appeal to vacationing families, local merchants have passed ordinances banning distribution of the booklets in front of their buildings. Even with their living distributors relegated to the fringes, the pornographic booklets are hard for visitors to miss. Stacks of them wait in the free newspaper boxes that line the city's sidewalks.

William Murray is based in Kensington, Md. He recently visited Las Vegas.