A few years ago, I had a meeting with some women who had been hired in Brownsville, Texas as domestic workers — as maids. I had been working on a small pamphlet that would orient young women who were just getting started working in homes.
I had asked these women to figure out what kind of advice they would offer these new workers.
Minerva, who rarely speaks in these kinds of meetings, started off with a snort: “Primero, hay que limpiar la cocina, las recamaras, la sala, los baños, y, por supuesto, el ‘playroom.’”
The entire group burst into laughter.
“They need to know what they are getting themselves into. You all know how it is — first, you have to clean the kitchen, then the bedrooms, the living room, the bathroom, and then, of course, the ‘playroom.’”
The reference to the “playroom” was what drew the laughter, driven by these women’s experiences of growing up in one-room shacks in south Veracruz, Mexico, of having to work in the fields as soon as they could walk.
The idea of play was curious enough, but the notion of an entire room set aside for that sort of leisure demanded some comic relief.
Most of the advice in the meeting came in the form of warnings.
“You can’t get a bank account and they will pay you in cash, but don’t let the woman who hires you keep your money for you. That would be her way of keeping you there as long as she wants.”
“Do not ever think that the family that you work for are your friends.”
“As soon as they start accusing you of stealing things, leave. That’s the way the ones who don’t have the guts to fire you get rid of you.”
Then, there was a long silence. This was not a group that was short on ideas. So, I wondered about the sudden quiet. Finally, young but so very wise Alma sighed.
“The best advice that I would give them is not to come. Dying of hunger in Mexico is better than the years of humiliation here. We are nobody here, nobody. So that is what I would tell them. That’s my advice.”
Recently, there was another gathering of people. These folks had also been thinking about domestic workers, and the extraordinary situations in which they labored.
Leaders at the FUERZA de Valle Workers’ Center held a press conference, where they launched a “justice for domestic workers campaign.”
A banner described the truth behind the action, reminding the public that, “They work so that we can work.”
In turn, attorneys and labor organizers reminded the community that, documented or not, all domestic workers were due at least the minimum wage — as well as other rights that America guarantees employees.
There were three domestic workers at the press conference that offered testimony, describing the shameful conditions they had endured while working in the homes of local families.
As I studied a photograph of the press conference, I noticed, sitting in the crowd, a young woman that I knew. Her mother is a domestic worker.
For years, the mother had suffered the humiliation of cleaning playrooms and bathing dogs and being on call, 24/7, for the families that she worked for — often for as little as $2 an hour.
I noticed how this young woman was leaning forward in her seat. I know that she must have been enthralled with the women who spoke that morning.
It is always an extraordinary privilege to witness those who courageously — and in public — name the evil and the injustice practiced by those who live nearby, particularly when one is as vulnerable as a poor woman in a land not her own.
That testimony must be particularly poignant when given on the behalf of your own mother, a woman who as a child had not known much in the way of play, and who had worked, for years, so that the mothers of the families that had hired her could work, and in that way, offer their own children the goodness of play, if not the excess of a playroom.
Michael Seifert is a community activist in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. This essay first appeared on July 14, 2013 in his blog, “Musings from Alongside a Border.” He recently was interviewed by CNN for a story about security along the U.S.-Mexico border.