Domestic Worker’s Daughter, Janitors’ Son
By William C. Anderson and Diana C.S. Becerra
“There is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives.”
William C. Anderson is a community organizer in Birmingham, Alabama. He grew up working for a family owned small janitorial service. He still works part time for that family cleaning service to this day. His organizing, writing, and public speaking is centered around issues relating to people of color.
Diana C. S. Becerra is a Colombian immigrant and was formerly undocumented. A few months ago her family received their green card after residing in the United States for eighteen years. She is currently obtaining her Ph.d in History and Women’s Studies and participating in local struggles.
Both writers come from different parts of the country, have different ethnic backgrounds, and have had vastly different life experiences, but each has witnessed firsthand the hardships and exploitation that their parents have endured as domestic & janitorial workers. Here, William and Diana each share a story about the struggles that come with cleaning up after people. We hope these pieces illuminate the endless possibilities for love and solidarity among working class people, particularly folks of color.
Sitting with an ice-cold Grapico and a bag of Cheetos in my hand used to be a brief heaven. I was on break waiting to go back to work. I ate junk food out of vending machines while we waited for the stripper to remove the wax from the floor. I was probably about nine or 10 when I really started working full time for my parents.
Alabama summers are painful sometimes, especially if you are a kid with a job. I wasn’t selling lemonade, throwing newspapers, or pushing candy bars. My parents own a very small janitorial service and my childhood consisted of me turning down friends for long getaways and weekend outings. I used to be upset that I had to work so much. Doing janitorial work is no joke. The things people leave behind are ungodly and the way people treated me over the years had been disconcerting. A young black boy cleaning professional office buildings, large houses, churches, and warehouses is followed by suspicious eyes. I remember my parents telling me how to behave, stand, and clean around our primarily white clients. I was instructed on how to “look innocent” at a very young age. I remember thinking “I am innocent, I’m not doing anything”. My parents were teaching me about racism; they were telling me I didn’t actually have to be doing anything wrong to get in trouble. There were always accusations of theft and people refusing to pay my parents. I remember perfectly cleaned and waxed floors for which my parents received no pay. There was always the occasional racial slur or degradation. People seemed to feel that since we were cleaning, being insulting was okay. My parents lost several contracts for speaking up and not letting people disrespect them. People still talk down to us sometimes.
I remember one woman literally patting me on the head and telling me she was glad I was a “good black” and that I wasn’t “one of the ones downtown shooting at people”. I was about 17 or 18 at the time and can still remember being completely flabbergasted. There was sexual abuse, too. Men often stomped past my mother into bathrooms to whip themselves out in front of her as if she wasn’t standing there cleaning. When I was writing entry this I told my mother about it. She said “Don’t forget to include the guy who made me come to his house to get the pay, then dropped his clothes and got butt naked in front of me as he held the money.” Women often have pursued, exposed themselves, and come onto my father on the job. There are a whole range of risks when an employee rejects sexual advances, including not being paid, losing a job, or false accusations [being falsely accused]. The latter has a long history in the south. I remember my mother and father taking me to job sites because they didn’t want to be alone with the person whose place they were cleaning. Often, that meant the person had previously tried something or expressed interest in trying something. I remember so many wealthy suburban housewives’ faces as they opened the door: “Oh, Eugene….you brought your son.”
I talk about these things now in solidarity with domestic workers and janitors; for the people whose recently mopped floors get walked on without concern or care. It’s for the people who are mistreated and looked down upon as lower human beings. For the people who get calls throughout the night. I can only imagine how being an undocumented worker multiplies this oppression. It’s disturbing to think about how much worse things could have been if people knew my parents were fearful to report anything. I write this in solidarity with those who clean feces off of bathroom floors and go home dirtier than most. We have breathed in untested chemical fumes for years and taken many abuses. Working in these conditions and organizing in the name of immigrant rights has tested me and now, I have a whole new understanding of my sisters and brothers struggles.
My mother’s hands were youthful and elegant—they smelled like cleaning products.
My mother has earned her living as a domestic worker, cleaning houses and providing childcare for wealthy white families in Suffolk County, Long Island, and Manhattan. As a child, I often accompanied my mother to work. I sometimes helped her vacuum or I would sit quietly in the living room waiting for her to finish. Sometimes I’d sneak off to play with all the toys that I would never dare ask my parents to buy. When her bosses were home, they often invited me to the kitchen to have lunch with their children. As the “maid’s daughter,” I made sure to be on my best behavior.
During the hours that she cleaned I would try to sneak my mother a snack, maybe a Juicy Juice or a Rice Krispy Treat because some women wouldn’t even offer my mother a glass of water. Even then I could see the particular humiliation my mother experienced. Guests entered and left the house without even acknowledging her presence or saying a simple hello. She was invisible to them, another “Mexican cleaning lady.” At best they extended their middle-class generosity to make her “part of the family.” They were “doing her a favor,” a favor that included being underpaid and overworked, with the benefit of no benefits: no overtime pay, no paid sick days, no raise, no protections from emotional or physical abuse, and no protections for being fired without reason or notice.
On our drive back home my mother would tell me that by all means I had to obtain an education; she would not tolerate seeing her daughter doing the same line of work. “Vas hacer todo lo que yo no hice,” she’d say. Exhausted from work she would lie down on the couch. I would brush her long, silky dark brown hair and watch her as she fell asleep. Her prominent eyebrows would move slightly as she dreamt. How peaceful those thick eyebrows looked, the same eyebrows that stopped me dead in my tracks when they made the slightest skeptical rise.
The neoliberal economy produces and is dependent on female immigrant labor. However, the exploitation of women of color, their bodies and labor, is anything but new; systems of oppression thrive on it. The privatization of social services and government cuts to programs such as childcare, healthcare, and education, places extra burdens on women and increases the gender division of labor within the home. Not all women have the same material resources or social capital to lessen the blow, however. 1Wealthy women can afford to buy themselves out of the gender division of labor within their home, while working class women, particularly women of color, are forced to pick up extra shifts outside and inside the home to make ends meet. Undocumented women are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, as employers know all too well that fear of deportation will often prevent workers from speaking out against abuse.
Domestic workers are isolated behind closed doors, from cookie cutter suburban homes in Long Island to the Park Avenue apartments in Manhattan. In New York City the majority of domestic workers are poor women of color (often undocumented immigrants) who are overworked and receive less than minimum wage, while their employers are mainly white U.S.-born professionals.2 Domestic workers are an invisible labor force, historically excluded from major labor protections, and yet the color of labor is all too visible: graceful shades of color holding small white hands. Fortunately, organizations such as Domestic Workers United have fought to win important gains, including the NYC Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights.
Middle-class and elite households depend on domestic workers to cook, clean, and care for their families. Besides doing back-breaking work, domestic workers also provide emotional labor in caring for others. Many children raised by domestic workers call their nannies “mommy.” They stop once they learn the racial and class differences that separate them from their “mommy.” That or they’re corrected by their biological parents as to whom their “real” mommy is. Treating emotional labor as if it’s not “real work” but “women’s work,” allows employers to rid themselves of any responsibility and accountability over working conditions.
As the years passed, my mother more frequently noted the pain she felt in her hands. She was most depressed when she worked as a part-time live-in nanny for a family of bankers who resided in a $50,000 a month apartment overlooking Central Park. To this day, my mother has nightmares about that family and hates Central Park. After working for three years without healthcare, a single vacation day, and raise, and enduring countless humiliations, my mother asked for a weekend off. With self-entitled arrogance, her boss responded, “But you don’t even make my bed anymore!” Housekeeping was never in my mom’s job contract, nor was raising her boss’s second kid. My mother later told me of the rage that consumed her in hearing those words. In a last attempt to reinstate her dignity, my mother quit. Although she lost her main source of income, my mother had the small pleasure of knowing that her boss would be frantic in caring for two children whom she hardly looked at, let alone changed or washed.
Seriously, what sort of society produces a grown-ass woman who feels that she is too superior to make her own bed? I swear the 1% would pay to have their asses wiped clean if they could.
1 For the wealth divides between women of different race and classes, see Julie Hollar, “Wealth Gap Yawns—and So Do Media: Little Interest in Study of Massive Race/Gender Disparities,” Extra! (June 2010) http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=4078
2 See “Home Is Where the Work Is: Inside New York’s Domestic Work Industry,” Domestic Workers United and Datacenter, July 14, 2006,
For more information on the rights of Janitors and Domestic Workers see:
Domestic Workers United: http://domesticworkersunited.org/index.php/en/2012-01-07-00-45-55
National Domestic Workers Alliance: http://www.domesticworkers.org/ca-bill-of-rights
Jobs for Justice Annual Report: http://www.jwj.org/annual-reports
DREAM Activist, Know Your Rights: http://www.dreamactivist.org/resources/know-your-rights-for-immigrant-youth/