While we take a breather during this holiday season, we’re re-posting content from earlier in the year. This post was originally published on May 6, 2014.
by Kim Krisberg
Two years ago, domestic workers in Houston, Texas, took part in the first national survey documenting the conditions they face on the job. The experience — a process of shedding light on the often isolating and invisible world of domestic work — was so moving that Houston workers decided they didn’t want to stop there. Instead, they decided it was time to put their personal stories to paper.
The result is “We Women, One Woman!: A view of the lived experience of domestic workers,” which was officially released last month. The anthology features the stories of 15 nannies, house cleaners and caregivers — all are members of La Colmena (The Beehive), a domestic worker group that’s part of Houston’s Fe y Justicia Worker Center and that works to organize domestic workers and educate them on their rights. The anthology’s release follows two years of domestic workers meeting regularly to share their stories, participate in writing workshops and ultimately, use their own words to illustrate the experience of working in the largely unregulated, oversight-free workplaces that are people’s homes.
“We always talk about how there’s no statistic that can accurately capture what it’s really like,” Laura Perez-Boston, executive director of Fe y Justicia, told me. “Statistics can’t tell stories.”
The anthology’s stories, published in both English and Spanish, cover a range of topics, often exposing issues such as wage theft as well as unsafe and unfair working conditions. The women also write about their personal lives — single motherhood, poverty, immigration, leaving their native countries and families behind — and why they felt it was so important to speak out about their workplace experience. For example, Consuelo Martinez, an elder care provider, wrote in the anthology: “I’d like to express what we have to go through because for many people being a domestic worker is a job that doesn’t mean anything. …I want everyone who hears me to remember this warrior woman who helped her children get ahead in life with an honorable job and a lot of pride.” Other La Colmena members, such as Lucy Quintanar, were less personal in their narratives, instead using the opportunity to call for better working conditions and collective power.
“We need to get a union to get our rights, to make people conscious of the situation and the circumstances of this employment,” Quintanar told me. “I hope everybody reads it…I would like to let (other domestic workers) know that there’s a place called La Colmena where they can get help to learn their rights. Don't be afraid to speak out.”
Quintanar originally sought out Fe y Justicia after an employer refused to pay her wages she had earned — more commonly known as wage theft. (The National Domestic Workers Alliance survey that originally inspired the anthology found that 23 percent of domestic workers are already paid below state minimum wage.) At the time, Quintanar was working as a live-in domestic worker, taking care of children, cleaning the house and doing typical household chores. One day, her employer asked her to clean the swimming pool, which Quintanar refused to do as it wasn’t among the job duties to which she’d agreed. The employer fired her on the spot and never paid Quintanar the $450 she was owed. It was the second time an employer refused to pay her hundreds of dollars in wages that she had earned, Quintanar said.
Quintanar told me that the women of La Colmena have become like family for her.
“When you’re working, you don’t have the opportunity to have friends,” she said. “La Colmena is very important to me…I like belonging to a group. Now I can organize with other women to improve our labor conditions.”
It’s easy to see how much effort and emotion was poured into the anthology, as the women who wrote its stories also handcrafted the covers of each book. One La Colmena member fashioned tiny fabric aprons that tie around the book, while another woman used Guatemalan weaving fabric to create original covers. One worker used a picture that her daughter drew of a woman with long, dark braids hugging the Earth. All of the book covers are wrapped in a scrapbooking material printed with the shape of a honeycomb.
Mitzi Ordoñez, domestic worker organizer at Fe y Justicia, said she and the members of La Colmena hope the anthology will reach both employers as well as other domestic workers. Ordoñez said plans are in the works for a second anthology, which would focus on success stories and how domestic workers are empowering each other to fight for better conditions.
“We want to make employers aware of the true value of this work,” she told me. “Nannies and caregivers — these are jobs that make other jobs possible. For domestic workers, we want to let them know that there’s a place where they can come and they’re not alone.”
The anthology experience has put the power of storytelling front and center, Perez-Boston said. Narrative can be a strong tool for organizing and building a common identity, she noted, especially for domestic workers, who often work alone in isolated environments.
“Storytelling can help us move toward social transformation,” she told me.
The anthology’s initial publishing run of 500 copies is nearly sold out; however, more copies are expected to come out soon. To inquire about purchasing a copy, email Ordoñez at email@example.com. Click here to learn more about La Colmena and the Fe y Justicia Worker Center, and click here and here to learn more about the domestic worker survey that originally inspired the Houston anthology.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.