Upon beginning a conversation with fellow domestic worker Juanita, I feel a deep connection.
At first, she has a hard time remembering her past and has a gaze that is lost in the void when remembering her origins in Mexico.
Born into an indigenous family in her native Chiapas, Juanita decided to become independent at age 18 when her parents went to live in Mexico City. She moved with them with the firm intention of studying a university career. There she met the father of his son who works making prosthetics and in agriculture in Monterrey and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
They decide to come to work permanently in the U.S. but they return and their son is diagnosed with a serious disability and needs to undergo several surgeries.
Upon returning, Juanita began her immigration problems. She was not allowed to cross the bridge and her son was required to be operated on. She hired an attorney, who defrauded her. She handed herself over to the immigration authorities and was eventually granted a 10-year permit. She used this time supporting her son with therapies, surgeries and everything necessary to save his life.
The father of her son decided to abandon them. Years later she married the father of her second son. At the beginning of the relationship he was an excellent stepfather and companion. He decided to submit papers to request Juanita’s permanent residence in this country. As a result of a departure to Mexico to give the last goodbye to her mother who had died, wanting to re-enter the country Juanita is imprisoned for a month and treated as a drug trafficker.
She still remembers with pain as they opened her legs looking for drugs. She is finally deported to a border town in Tamaulipas. At that moment I feel her pain when expressing how she suffered being separated from her children, not knowing about them, without giving them the care and love of mother. Her family turned their back on her when she needed them most out of fear of immigration. Knowing that her partner is trying to take custody of her children she made the decision to cross the river even at the cost of her life to meet with them.
With tears in her eyes, she tells of the life she lived in order to care for her children, while at the same time coping with the domestic violence she was going through. Speaking almost to herself she says that every day of work was painful as she left her children with other people to get to work. She recalls working in agriculture, painting houses and cleaning houses.
She has been in the Valley 23 years and continues to clean houses and apartments. There were occasions when she was paid with used things, as if she could pay the rent or expenses with scrap. Juanita recalls when she was not paid. She was threatened with immigration in order to intimidate her and press her into a position of not continuing to fight for her salary, a very common tactic used by exploitative and abusive employers.
In 2013, Juanita attended a labor rights talk at the Fuerza del Valle Workers’ Center and realized that workers with or without documents have labor rights. She now realizes that the minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. She reasoned the abuse to which she was subjected by the people for whom she worked. At the same time, she recognizes that there were people who treated her as a human being, as a worker who only wants to live in dignity.
“Unknown, they see us vulnerable, without documents and in need of money for our basic needs, that is why they exploit us,” says Juanita.
When she became more involved with the Workers’ Center, she decided to “not work in these conditions” and now she does not work if she is not paid the minimum wage. Sometimes she is paid up to $ 10 per hour.
She is currently an activist and community leader who helps empower other domestic workers in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, motivating them to know their rights through Fuerza del Valle and defend them as she found a space there to be heard.
Juanita is one of the 1.6 million domestic workers in this country who clean houses, care for children, the elderly or disabled.
Historically excluded from labor protections, domestic workers are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation coupled with the anti-immigrant climate that contributes to the already existing fear of undocumented domestic workers; putting them even more at risk of labor exploitation and abuse such as those suffered by Juanita.
The Domestic Worker Committee, part of Fuerza del Valle, has more than 60 active members who recently participated in the first study of domestic workers along the Texas border. Fuerza del Valle in coordination with the National Domestic Workers Alliance developed the project where they surveyed 262 domestic workers documenting working conditions. The project will give light to the problems of domestic workers in South Texas.
The struggle for dignity for domestic workers continues throughout the country. In the Rio Grande Valley, this powerful movement is motivating domestic workers to defend their rights and organize their activity through the Domestic Workers’ Committee. As part of Fuerza del Valle Workers Center, they have the support of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the Equal Voice Network of the Rio Grande Valley, since Fuerza del Valle is part of this great network that prioritizes working families in need.
Editor’s Note: The above guest column first appeared in the Fuerza del Valle newsletter in Spanish. Click here to read the column.