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“In my country, Argentina, you hear about cooperatives but they’re in recovered factories, like in the film The Take! If we do the manual labor, we can also manage ourselves.”
I was born in Mendoza, Argentina. Well, my father is Bolivian and my mother is Argentine but I grew up in Argentina. More than anything I left my country because I wanted to get out to learn something new. I came with the desire to study but it became a bit difficult. I came to realize that the situation is difficult for people who don’t have paper who want to study. I wanted to be a computer programmer. I had taken some courses in that in Argentina. But because of the language barrier, because I didn’t have papers, and because I’m all alone here (I was the first in my family to come) I had to decide if I was going to work or study and, well, I had to work. I didn’t have a choice.
It’s difficult. You don’t think about those things but in my country I knew I could count on my mom and dad but everything is different here.
I was about to go back. I’ve lost two return tickets back to my country. The second time was in 2013 because of this opportunity with the cooperatives. In 2013, Hurricane Sandy happened and I had the opportunity to work restoring things after the disaster. They let me work but they asked me if I had an OSHA card. That’s how I came to learn about the nonprofit organization that was incubating the coops, Make the Road. At Make the Road, they told me about how they were going to form a cleaning coop. They asked me if I wanted to come participate in a talk where they were going to tell us how the cooperative was going to be. They had an interview with us. Then they called me to tell me that I would be able to continue with the interviews and workshops because they had determined I was apt. They were looking for people that had experience and since I had had the experience with Sandy, I think that’s why they wanted me to join. Even though I had my ticket to go back, I’m not the kind of person that likes to leave without first trying something. After a year of trainings I decided to stay and lose my ticket home.
In the workshops, they taught us how the cooperatives worked — we studied the associate manuals and we discussed what kind of product we were going to provide. It took a year of trainings and then we inaugurated. That’s how “Pa’lante Green Cleaning” was born. A lot has changed because last October we took the coops out of the organization, Make the Road. They are making changes in their organization and had to close their labor force program where they were incubating the coops.
I was one of the first to get a job. The first one was Claudia with an office and the next one was me. We are cleaners and housekeepers but we’re also focusing on looking for more places where we can get a contract. We’re starting to promote our business but it’s difficult because we’re having to compete in a capitalist market. The rest of the companies that do the kind of work that we do are all like that. So we’re starting to raise consciousness with our clients and to educate the general public about what cooperatives are and how they differ from other companies. We have flyers that we use to promote where we describe the difference between a company and a coop: we are owners and workers at the same time.
I wanted to try out this thing about the cooperatives because I thought it was interesting. In my country, Argentina, you hear about coops but they’re in “recovered factories,” like in the film The Take! When I lived in Argentina as a youth, I worked in a factory so when I started to learn more about that it was interesting to me. Seeing that produces a certain feeling in you, that it can be done. If we the workers do the manual labor, we can also manage ourselves. It’s about trying to manage ourselves and if we can, we can lift each other up ourselves. We have to unite — the ones who know things, yes, but at the same time building the capacity of other people that maybe don’t know as much.
I came here in the year 2000 before all that stuff happened with the recovered factories. What happened is that the economy of Argentina collapsed. There were people that would come from abroad to build factories in my country but then they would take their earnings with them to where they were. So when Argentina went into crisis, they abandoned many of the factories and the machinery which is when the workers started to see that they could make a change in the economy themselves. They saw that they could do it because they were in the majority. I believe that people want to work. Even moreso when it’s their own business. You try your best because you know that it’s your source of money and your livelihood. I think Americans are starting to realize the potential of coops. We’re educating them. We say, in the coop you know you’re the owner and that because of that you’re going to try to do the best job possible so that the clients are satisfied.
I think that I’ve learned a lot from being a part of this group. Before, I had no idea what being a leader meant. Of course I had had the experience working as part of a group during Hurricane Sandy where we were working as part of a team because all the houses were flooded. I also helped out in the aftermath of the Twin Towers. When I came to the coop I already knew a lot about working in a group. I like working as part of a group and that’s what I bring to our team. Now I’m in charge of the group of people in Bellevue. Sometimes it’s a lot of responsibility and I need to learn to delegate some of the work. Sometimes we have to let other people get involved because the coop isn’t just mine or any one individuals’ but it belongs to all of us. We all have to contribute our own little grain of sand. For my part I if I don’t know how to do something, I try to learn more about it because that’s how I am. I always want to see how I can collaborate, how I can help.
I would encourage other people to join the cause because that’s how you can guarantee that you’re being paid justly. Not a lot of money, but what it is. You’re not working for a company and working for miserable wages because your boss leaves with the money. That’s what’s good about working here. They’re not exploiting your work. That’s the ultimate goal of the coops, I think — to end the exploitation of work.
I know I can do it and I will do it, but in reality I would want to learn English. Sometimes I don’t have the time. Two weeks ago I started a night job and I’m only sleeping 3 hours a night. I have to take it easy and try to focus on reaching my goal of learning to speak the language. I’ve been here for many years but I’ve been focusing on working and I’ve let the language stuff fall by the wayside. At the end of the day I’ve done things here that I don’t think I would have done back in my country — I have my house, my business.
I will not… I would like to go on May 1st. I work at night and I have to rest during the day. I like to support but these days with the way things are I’m a little scared. If I had all my documents in order it would be a different story. You have to take precautions so they won’t detain you. There could be consequences. Especially for someone like me who doesn’t have family here. I have only myself to depend on. But, actually, I think I will go if the leadership board is going. I will not sleep!
*This interview was done in collaboration with Public Seminar and the International Women’s Strike NYC. The names of the interviewees has been changed.