Domestic workers in the U.S. are increasingly immigrant women who fill low-wage jobs providing care work and household duties for middle-class working families. These women come to the U.S. from all over the world—the Philippines, Mexico, and the Caribbean to make a better life for themselves and their children.
As a potential double-major in Political Science and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale, I am interested in the narratives of these women, who often undergo physical and verbal abuse from their employers and have little political rights.
To speak frankly, I did not grow up in an affluent family. I was born and raised in Oakland, Calif. to immigrant working-class parents. I never had a nanny. Rather, mom and dad would work alternate shifts to look after us while making sure there was food on the table. I am one of three children at the time (I am a twin) - looking back at it now, it was a miracle for a small family struggling to survive. My mother relied on aunts and relatives to care for us when dad was at work and couldn’t, but she could never afford to pay for consistent day care.
Women in the immigrant neighborhood around me readily participated in the informal sector; they sold food on the weekends, cared for other people’s children, and were seamstresses in an effort to make ends meet. I grew up seeing these women struggling, facing an unequal burden men often did not face - they had to simultaneously care for and provide for their families. It didn’t matter if they had a part-time or full-time job. At the end of the day, they were still expected to put food on the table and care for the children.
For that reason, I was shocked to discover many of my classmates had nannies growing up. Sitting in seminar, I heard most people speak about the domestic workers their families employed; the immigrant woman who cared for them as children, the house servant who did the errands. Who could forget the Mexican gardener who got deported? Not to fret; he came back!
I was speechless. These were smart people advocating for women’s rights in seminar, yet they perpetuated the same racist stereotypes they criticized. It was different, they insisted. They were like family. Family who didn’t deserve a fair pay, political rights, and lived in constant fear of deportation. Family who worked around the clock, who beckoned to your every call, who could not stand up to injustices because they relied on you and your family to survive. Just like any other family member.
The truth is that domestic workers are a vulnerable population, the creation of middle- and upper-class families who depend on the labor of poor migrants to climb up the social ladder themselves. Domestic workers have filled the domestic sphere many working American women have long abandoned. That is to say, as we American women have become liberated, it has often happened at the expense of others - women who must care for other people’s children to provide for their own.
I will not defend that it is inherently women’s natural responsibility to care for their children and family. I believe both parents should equally share the burden of the welfare for the family. But this idea is difficult to make function in the real world. We simply live in a world embedded with gender binaries that feminizes care for the family.
I was very hopeful when this past September, when California passed Domestic Worker Bill of Rights (AB241). This bill provides overtime protection for domestic workers, which The Nation estimates will benefit 200,000 workers in the state. AB241 is a groundbreaking bill that makes California the third state in nation to give domestic workers such protection. This triumph was years in the making, only made possible through lobbying and various community efforts.
Sometimes it’s easier to speak about an idealized world, to sit in a class and read articles on various injustices around the world. It’s easy when you can gloss over your involvement in the systems that perpetuate these inequalities and normalize the racial and class hierarchies that grant you the privileges you do not acknowledge. I hope other states will join California in providing legislation like AB241 to finally acknowledge this problem.
-Gloria "Jack" Mejia-Cuellar
East Coast Chicano Student Forum Representative, MEChA de Yale