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They pour drinks. They clean rooms. Latin American workers wish they had more say at Summit of the Americas

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When Ana Diaz, a Salvadoran immigrant who lives in Van Nuys, found out she would be mixing cocktails for world leaders at the ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, she got excited.

“I could probably serve Mrs. Kamala Harris or Mr. Biden,” the 48-year-old said she thought to herself.

Diaz is scheduled to work as one of the bartenders serving libations at the closing ceremony Friday evening at the Los Angeles Convention Center — the nerve center of the summit, which brings together political leaders, civil society organizations and business executives from North, South and Central America and the Caribbean.

Diaz believes that some “good change” could come from the leaders talking about important issues, particularly immigration — a cornerstone of the summit. Diaz just wishes she had more of a say.

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Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader arrives at LAX for the Summit of the Americas being held this week in Los Angeles.

(Chandan Khanna / AFP/Getty Images )

“I think there should be a seat for people like me — an immigrant,” she said.

This week, domestic and foreign dignitaries from across the Western Hemisphere are delivering speeches and brainstorming big ideas behind closed doors under heavy security, while Latin American immigrants, and their latter-generation U.S.-born children, form the infrastructure that keeps the conference humming.

The Latin America diaspora — one of the largest immigrant populations in the U.S., with arguably the biggest stake in the summit’s results — was on the periphery.

These immigrants served coffee and bused tables at the luncheons and dinners. They made beds and vacuumed hotel rooms where many summit attendees spent the night. They shuttled attendees to events scattered throughout downtown L.A.

While they were grateful for the work, many didn’t quite know what the summit was all about. Some felt privileged to be in the room with influential people. A few hoped the summit would result in something positive for them or family and friends living in Latin America.

President of Ecuador Guillermo Lasso arrives to an event held by the Wilson Center

Ecuadoran President Guillermo Lasso arrives at an event at the Summit of the Americas.

(Chandan Khanna / AFP/Getty Images)

Others didn’t think the summit was consequential to their lives, and believed it was more talk than action. But almost all of them felt that they should have more of a voice at the summit.

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“You need to talk with the ordinary people in these countries and ask they what the really need,” Diaz said she would tell summit leaders if given an opportunity.

On Tuesday, Teresa Trejo, a 48-year-old who lives in Inglewood, spent most of her day setting up and decorating the concession stands at the Los Angeles Convention Center. She is scheduled to whip up lattes, cappuccinos and other specialty coffee drinks at the summit.

“I see working this summit as a privilege,” said Trejo who was born in the U.S. but grew up in Michoacán, Mexico. Though she previously hadn’t known much about the summit, she was excited to discover its importance when she found out about it a few months ago.

At 4 a.m. Monday, Blanca Alas, a 59-year-old immigrant from Guatemala, left her Lancaster home for her early morning housekeeping shift at the Intercontinental Downtown Los Angeles, which is hosting many of the summit’s foreign leaders.

Alas usually gets home at 7 p.m. She eats, sleeps and does the same the next workday. She doesn’t have much time for the news. She didn’t really know much about the summit until her workmates told her about it. She was upset that Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei wouldn’t attend and speak with U.S. leaders.

“So many of our people have left these countries out of necessity … because they have to. These countries have many problems,” Alas said. “These leaders should at least show up to talk with each other about it.”

Maria Mejia, 55, outside the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites where she works in downtown Los Angeles.

Maria Mejia, 55, outside the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites where she works in downtown Los Angeles.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

On the 19th floor of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites, Maria Mejia of El Salvador pushed a cart stacked with cleaning supplies, towels and mini soaps. By 8 a.m. she’d started her shift as a housekeeper. Nearby, guests in dapper suits walked briskly to grab the nearest elevator to the lobby floor.

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Mejia, 55, said she’d heard something about the summit at work after managers advised her to leave home early because traffic would probably be more congested than usual.

Just outside the Westin, and in the employees’ cafeteria, Mejia and her co-workers — many of them immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America — were abuzz about which leaders weren’t coming and which had boycotted the summit.

A Mexican housekeeper shook her head when she found out Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had declined to attend, in protest against the Biden administration’s decision to exclude the autocratic leftist leaders of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua from the summit.

Mejia was disappointed that Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele wasn’t coming. She’s a fan of the former mayor and businessman, and considers him to be “her president.” She feels the same about President Biden and is stoked to play a small part in what she described as an “important event.”

Police officers patrol in preparation for the Summit of the Americas at the L.A. Convention Center.

Police officers patrol in preparation for the Summit of the Americas at the L.A. Convention Center.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Mejia, who fled El Salvador during their civil war in the 1980s, said she’s happy with her life here but hopes that she can gain legal residency someday soon. She was able to save up to buy a house in Huntington Park, said she’s optimistic about the future and what may come of the summit. For now, she only has temporary protected status, which allows her to work legally in the U.S. and protects her from deportation but must be renewed every few months.

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“I would ask the U.S. leaders to pass some kind of immigration reform and for the Latin American leaders to push them and support them on that,” Mejia said.

Reyna Hernandez spent the first two days of the summit shuttling attendees around town. The 61-year-old, who drives for Uber and Lyft, said she’s followed the event for years.

She’s happy for the work, but she believes not much will result from all those meetings.

“They just meet within four walls and talk amongst themselves. That’s all,” said Hernandez, an immigrant from Puebla, Mexico. “Yes, sure, they talk about important themes. They’ve done that for years, but they don’t come up with real solutions. I don’t really see these governments caring for their people.”

Hernandez said she’s heard something about an immigration declaration but doesn’t believe there will be a tangible positive impact for immigrants like her. She rents out a room in a house in El Monte for $700 a month, and has more immediate needs. She’s more worried about soaring gas prices than immigration issues.

“How am I going to make the rent with gas prices so high?” she asked.

She scoffed at the theme of the conference: “Building a Sustainable, Resilient, and Equitable Future.”

Hernandez left Puebla for Los Angeles in 1995 when she became a single mother to five children after her husband died. She thought she’d find a better life, and, in some ways, she did. But after years of toiling away in low-paying jobs as a nanny, housekeeper and now driver, she no longer believes in the American dream.

“I think it’s a lie. To be able to do this … to build a sustainable future, we’d all have to be employed with the opportunity of good wages that allow us to live with dignity. With good healthcare so we don’t have to rush to the emergency rooms for sickness.

“That’s not going to happen,” she said.

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