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“On May 1st, I will not go to work to show that this country would be nothing without us Hispanics/Latinos.”
My name is Natalia. I was born in Queretaro but now I live in New York. I moved to the US in 2007. My partner who I have two children with had already moved here seven years earlier. After he came to the US, I started to notice little by little that he was distancing himself from his kids — like he had forgotten that he had a family and two kids. That’s when we separated.
I started to work a lot — taking care of my kids, as well as washing and ironing other people’s clothes for pay. I would drop off my kids at school at one o’ clock and go into work at a stationary store at two; when I got off of work at 6, I had to pick them up. I worked a lot to try to pay my bills — my phone bill, the light bill and other expenses. The only person I could depend on was myself. My kids and I lived in a house that my partner owned in Mexico City. His brother demanded that he send him the rights to the house and he did.
We had a lot of problems with my partner’s family. His brother would throw things in my face that I did not like until one day I ended up in the hospital with an embolia from how angry he made me. I told my partner — who was living in New York at the time — to be honest with me about his feelings so I could avoid being hurt further by his family. His family kicked me out of the house. I didn’t care about material possessions. With my own labor, I told myself, I would have to survive with my kids and so I left.
I looked for a place to stay and I was able to rent a house with my savings. It was heavy — paying rent and my kids’ schooling.
I hid what was happening from my parents because I was worried about what their reaction would be. One day I spoke with my brother and told him everything that had happened, to which he responded that I should come back to my parents’ home in Queretaro. He asked me, what are you doing there? But I didn’t even have enough money for the ride back home. My brother got me a place to stay at the house of an elderly woman and gave me money to buy my return tickets with my kids back home where my family was waiting for me.
My mother asked for an explanation. I asked her not to ask me anything — what happened, happened. I asked her to take care of my kids while I worked an hour away from home from Monday through Saturday. I worked as a masseuse at a hospital. My bosses were a couple of doctors who owned the hospital. They were very good to me. They offered to let me live in their home during the week so as to save more of my earnings for my kids’ education and food for my mom. They told me that they would even let me leave early on Saturdays and arrive late on Mondays. The woman doctor took empathized with me, she said, because she understood how difficult it was to be a mother and be alone. They treated me really well during that year I lived with them — whatever they ate I ate too and they wouldn’t let me put in any of my own money towards food.
When my daughter was 13 years old, my sister who was living in Chicago asked me if I wanted to come with her. She told me, you wouldn’t have to spend any of your own money because I would pay for your passage. I thought about it but I told my sister, I’m going to be honest with you. The day I choose to go I want it to be from my own effort and when I decide the time is right. But within a year, I had decided and I told my mother, I’m going to the US. She answered me that I was crazy. I would have been crazy if I stayed there with all of my kids’ expenses that were growing each day. I also wanted to show my ex-partner that I was going to get ahead even if he had turned his back when I most needed him. His family was going to be sorry that they had talked so much about me. My mother didn’t believe me and she simply told me, sleep on it and tell me again tomorrow.
I continued working. But one day in February I told the doctors of my intention to leave. I quit even though they offered me a raise to double what I was making because I was their best employee and even though I would have to leave the little boy, Christian. I had come to love that little boy so much. He could not speak or hear. To this day I have a lot of love for that little boy. He will always be in my heart. I told them, just because I’m leaving doesn’t mean I will stop loving him. But I knew I had to go.
Before I left, I would do a penance, a traditional ritual where I’m from. I said, I want to do this walk, this pilgrimage, to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It wasn’t easy — to get there you have to cross mountains. My family members asked me, are you sure you will be able to finish the walk? I wanted to go to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
We left at 2am one day and we wouldn’t get there until 8pm the following day. You had to walk up a lot of steps. I even did a part of it on my knees. When I got to the top, I spoke with the virgin and I told her that it pained my very much to leave my kids. I asked her to open up my path.
I also wanted to go to church to get the father’s blessing. I confessed and told the father that I was leaving for Chicago. He told me, God will take care of you.
My mother, who had already taken the journey, warned me, there are a lot of things that happen along the way and I don’t want to scare you. I still had one worry. I asked my mother to take care of my kids. I asked her to sign a power of attorney letter and not to let my children’s father see my kids. I felt that he had lost his rights to see them. I explained to my kids that I was leaving because i wanted them to have the education I never had. If they would resent me, I wanted them to know I did what I did as a sacrifice for them.
I arrived here in 2007. I worked at hotel in the morning and another at a restaurant at night. I worked a lot and one day my sisters told me I had received a call. It was Salvador, my ex-partner, who was in Mexico and wanted to see the kids. My family members begged me to let him see them, telling me it wasn’t the kids’ fault. But I was determined that he shouldn’t see them because I was the only one supporting them. If I was solely responsible for supporting them, he had no right to see them. My family members said I was holding a grudge and that I was being proud. And I was but they had made me that way. My kids cost me. I finally agreed to let my sister-in-law see them but they had to be supervised and only for one hour. My husband asked me to forgive him but I told him “when they most needed you you weren’t there. Don’t worry because we won’t die of hunger. Your kids will hate you because what goes around comes around.” That’s when I gave him an ultimatum — if he wanted to be in their life, he had to call them at least once a month or definitely stop communicating with them. After all, their number had always been the same. Meanwhile, I would continue working to send money to my kids — whether washing and ironing other people’s clothes or selling cosmetics.
In 2009, I got back with my husband and we moved from Chicago to New York. I got back with Salvador but things weren’t the same anymore. I gave my conditions like that he was to pay the expenses on the house. I told him, “you have no right to ask me where I spend my money or to ask for receipts of my expenses. My money is my money and it’s none of your business if I decide to spend it all in one day. We can sleep together but there won’t be intimacy. I will let you talk to our kids by phone because I think it will help them with their problems in school.”
It’s been 10 years since I saw my kids, but my daughter is graduating with her career on May 25th. She is 23 years old. She’s already working in her field and she lives independently. I think that my sacrifices have not been in vain. I don’t have any regrets. My sacrifice — of leaving my kids — has been worth it. My mother is proud of her because it’s as if she were her daughter, not her granddaughter. The other day she called me to tell me that they were even giving her a company car.
My mom tells me, “you missed out on your daughter’s childhood because she is a young woman now.” I respond, “Mom, do you think that if I had stayed in that job, my daughter would be a professional? It’s a country with little resources. What can a person offer their kids?”
When I first moved to New York, I worked in a Mexican restaurant for only 3 months because the owner sexually harassed me. I was just doing my job like all the other employees. When he told me to help him pick out the meats, he would start to “talk nice to me.” I told him, you may be a much older man but that doesn’t give you the right to take advantage of your employees. When he saw that I might quit, he told me, don’t quit, I can give you a little extra something. It wasn’t about the money for me but about seeing a change in his attitude. If he was taking advantage of me, the new girl, I could only imagine that he had been sexually harassing the other women employees. I spoke to his wife, who was also co-owner of the restaurant and told her that I needed to quit because even though I was happy the job was too far for me. I also told my husband that I didn’t want to work there anymore but I didn’t tell him why.
I looked but I couldn’t find work. I looked everywhere for any kind of job but all I found were jobs in the night shift which I didn’t want to work. My husband found me work at the same restaurant chain but another location. I asked Paola, the woman who we rented our room from, to put in a good word for me at her workplace, a Dominican restaurant. She had a coworker who was going on vacation for 20 days and told me to get ready with their uniform (black trousers and a white shirt) and be ready to go at 7am. She gave me two white shirts because I didn’t have any. When the girl I was subbing for came back, the manager said she wasn’t going to let me go and that’s how I spend 5 (almost 6) years there.
I had been working there for 5 years when I noticed that something wasn’t right. We would work 9 hour shifts from 7am to 4pm. The cooks worked from 6am to 4pm, 10 hours. One of my coworkers, Oscar, had to wash dishes and still cook all of the rice. We didn’t rest. We didn’t have another choice.
There was another guy who went back to Mexico now. He started doing the math and he decided that something wasn’t adding up. He started to talk about a pay raise. The managers told him, we don’t talk about that kind of thing here. He responded, well where does that get talked about then?
I also did my calculations. In 54 hours a week, I was paid $240 (if I worked all 7 days). That was $40 a day in 2014. We had one hour, from 11am to 12am, for 10 people to eat and had no right to a rest break. If you happened to miss your meal during the designated lunch period, you had to wait until after closing time at 4pm to eat.
Oscar started to see that the work he was doing was really a two-person job and he asked for a raise. He asked when would be a good time to bring up the subject. They didn’t like that. One day the boss came and saw that there was a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, but Oscar was busy cooking rice. When the boss called his attention to the dishes, Oscar responded by asking if he wanted to help. The boss was not a respectable guy. Oscar got fired. They gave him an envelope containing $60.
Since he lived with me and my partner, I told him, “don’t worry about the rent because I’ll pay it” since he couldn’t find another job. I told him, “consider this the vacation you never got after all those years of working without a break.” That’s when he was introduced to the organization (Laundry Workers Center). He met a compañero named Nazario who invited us to the organization. I felt caught in between joining or not joining. Each day my job got heavier and heavier. In addition to working for such little pay, when we had any tips we had to divide them between 10 people. You never saw the sun because you went in so early and got out so late. Finding another part time job was out of the question because you left the job so tired. I thought to myself, “this isn’t a life.
That’s how I joined the organization. I asked myself, what world do we live in? Why do we let our employer control what we do and just let him do as he wishes with us? Why does everyone stay quiet about it? Why does this the boss get to ride around in a luxurious car and be with a different woman every week off of our sweat? I asked myself, should I do it or not? Are we gonna do it?
I was moved to action when they fired this young man, Oscar, who worked so much. The boss had his replacement there the next day like if nothing had happened. After so many years working there all they gave him was $60. I felt very bad for him. I felt as if this boy could have been my son, the son I didn’t have here with me. He decided to sue them. I told him, “I will support you even if I have to do it secretly and even if it costs me my marriage (my husband was good friends with the owner).” I brought my pay stubs. That’s how we started to get more of our coworkers to join up; at first it was only four of us. We got to twenty-two. They counter-sued us and they counter-sued Mahoma [one of the organizers of the LWC]. After that, the managers and even some of my coworkers started to talk about me. I stood my ground. The owners wanted me to sign my resignation, but I wouldn’t sign it of my own accord.
They fired me and I only received an envelope that I never opened. The next day I went to the Labor Relations board and made a complaint. I gave them the envelope still sealed and told them my complaints: I was only a waitress for a year, but normally I worked behind the counter. Sometimes they would pass me orders to take care of but I would tell them that those weren’t mine and I had my own work to do that kept me busy. One of the waitresses was a family friend of the owners and she would say she didn’t need anyone’s help but she worked very slowly. One day the boss yelled at her and said a bad word to her so that a client even told her it was very rude. I think the owner wanted to get a reaction out of me to make me explode. But I was determined not to react–I could have been dying of rage on the inside but I told myself I was not going to be like him.
I made a lot of enemies but I didn’t do anything wrong. I was scared that they’d throw me in jail, but I told myself, “I’m going to fight this because I don’t have anything to be ashamed of. This isn’t a game to me.” My mother was very scared. She asked me, “what if they deport you back here?” I assured her, “mami, I haven’t killed anyone. I’m just defending myself and asserting my rights.” My coworkers, especially the women, at the time would tell me, you’re going to be tagged” to which I responed “why, if I haven’t committed any crimes? Mi only crime was crossing the border and I haven’t done anything that I should be ashamed of.”
I want to tell other women that are in that situation that they shouldn’t le themselves be taken advantage of. Just because we’re women doesn’t give anyone the right to humiliate us. Just because we’re women doesn’t mean we should let people step all over us.
Now I’m on the leadership board of the Laundry Workers Center.
On May 1st, I will not be going to work to show that without us, Hispanics/Latinos, this country would be nothing. I’m not going to work at my waitress job. I also did that on the Day Without an Immigrant. I had to go to work, but I didn’t go in. I said, “even if they send me back home the next say I won’t go to work.” I wasn’t fired.
*This interview was done in collaboration with Public Seminar and the International Women’s Strike NYC. The names of the interviewees has been changed.