In this project, IWS-NYC members perform interviews with women organizers from worker centers and cooperatives, as part of a process of militant knowledge co-production. We are particularly interested in unpacking the conditions that both enable and limit autonomous labor organizing and self-determination, as well as the way in which feminist and class struggle co-constitute each other. Ultimately, we would like to address the ways in which both interviewers and interviewees practice — and envision the possibilities for — collective action, as a way of transforming the conditions of the working majority. In particular, those who experience the most acute forms of exploitation and dispossession: women, immigrants, and low wage workers. For other testimonials please click here. For more information on the strike please click here.
The more you get involved in causes and organizations, the less lonely you feel in this country. And that changed my life. You feel like you’re part of a community and therefore part of the nation.
I came to the United States from the Dominican Republic. I was born there. The first time I came, I really did it with a tourist visa. I came for several days. I didn’t like it because it’s very different from my own country. The language, the climate — everything is different.
But I came back because I got married to someone who lived here; that’s why I had to process my citizenship and then I had to stay here permanently. Honestly, there are times when people immigrate for a better future, but in my case it was really not only for that reason, but because I got married. My husband lived here, I got pregnant and I was looking forward to start a family — because a child really makes the difference in a marriage.
I believed it was the right time for us to be together, my husband and I, even if I had to wait a little bit and leave everything else behind. It meant losing my career, my job — where I was ascending at the time. I was a teacher at a school and had already managed to have some publications in a newspaper called Listin Diario that had a section about kids called “Al Compás.” I was one of the teachers invited to be a contributing writer and they were looking for a way to bring me on as a permanent fixture of the paper; in other words, I was perfectly on track in my career.
I had to leave a lot of things behind in my country because I lived comfortably. I had my things. I wasn’t rich, but by a teacher’s standards I had my things and my comforts. What really made me come to this country at that time was my marriage. It was very difficult for me because my entire family was in Santo Domingo. I only had a few paternal and maternal uncles here, but really my immediate family was in Santo Domingo.
To date, almost my entire family is in my native country. My mother, father, and two sisters. I have three sisters: two of them are there and one lives in New Jersey. And my grandparents… my great grandmother was still alive when I came but she passed away last year. Thanks to God, my family there doesn’t depend on me economically. No one really depends on me for their day-to-day life. My father raised me. My father raised me and my first sister, exclusively, and now we’re both here in the U.S. He depends on me a lot but in the affective realm, where I worry about him and his matters. He is a man… you know that women always have to look after them — even though I’m far away I’m always looking after each and every one of his steps. Not economically. Affectively, yes, and we talk almost daily. One of the things that I value is that I feel connected not only with my father, but with my whole family. I try to talk to my sisters almost daily, with my mom, with my dad. We have a very good relationship thanks to God.
I feel like I’m very fortunate when it comes to my family, all of them, with my parents and sisters. My family values what I do a lot. First, because I came to this country. They know this is very difficult. Some of them have come over. They know how the system works, how it moves, the customs. And they also know that the change was especially difficult for me because of the way I am. Honestly, I’m still not accustomed, but more like resigned. But really, I should say instead, “have I become so accustomed that I’ve forgotten about my country? No.” You resign and take things day by day, you know, but you never really leave your customs there. I came when I was pregnant with my little girl who is 21 years old now, so I’ll have been here about 22 years. I came when I was about three or four months pregnant with her.
I have two daughters, the 21-year-old and a little one who is 9. They’re about 12 years apart. I had a really hard time with the older one. Honestly, I didn’t think I would have any more kids because this country is so difficult and it’s even more complicated when you don’t have family around. I wasn’t thinking clearly, but God gave me a second gift and I couldn’t resist it. It’s one of the greatest gifts God has given me. I split up with the father of my first daughter. We were married 8 years and I spent 6 years as a single mother. I didn’t remarry. I’m in a domestic partnership with a second person, but haven’t remarried. We have a daughter together and function like we’re married. It’s not a union for citizenship.
My older daughter no longer depends on me. She works and pays for her own things. My partner and I both contribute because rent is very expensive and it’s difficult for one person to do it alone. It’s virtually impossible to survive. And to have certain things, you have to be struggling together as a couple. Together, we take care of the housework and our responsibilities with our little girl. Today, for example, I’m here and he’s picking up our daughter from her after school program. He takes care of her while I’m away.
I take care of her in the morning, getting her ready for school and everything having to do with the morning routine, and we distribute responsibilities so that we’re both attentive and each at 100%. Otherwise it’s rough. And since I belong to the cooperative, Golden Steps, I don’t just work, but I have responsibilities within the co-op and responsibilities with my business, so that also requires a lot of time and sacrifice.
My family truly understands my work. At first it was hard for my partner to understand because he couldn’t get used to the change of seeing me go from being at home 100% of the time to all of a sudden working, and also being out and about outside of work because sometimes we have things to do: go to events, build alliances, socialize, go to workshops and meetings. Sometimes when we want to we can also take trainings. All of those things take time and effort. They care a lot about us members. I would take my daughter with me at first when I joined the co-op. She was still very small and she’s always been there with me. We sometimes have retreats and those include partners, and they know more or less how our business runs and that it takes up a lot of time. Sometimes they know it takes a lot of time and they don’t like it, but they also understand that it’s part of our income and it can help us economically in the long run.
Our co-op serves elderly people or persons with particular illnesses because sometimes a person can be young but needs in-home health care or care within the hospital. Really, our co-op is primarily about working with the elderly. So sometimes I work with a client and sometimes I work at the co-op. We work to develop our capacities within the very organization, to serve as the leadership: we have a vice president, president, treasurer, secretary, publicity, and agents. We want to expand our business and see it blossom.
The co-op is inextricably linked to my job. However, my official job description consists of assisting an elderly person: my client is a 93-year-old woman who can no longer walk — she is bedridden. She broke her hip many years ago, never got an operation and as the years went by and she had other falls, she got incrementally worse. That’s why she’s unable to walk. So I help her move in her wheelchair into bed, onto the couch, and so on. I’m in charge of her food because she’s diabetic. I take care that she is on a diet and work with her 8 hours a day (really, it’s 10 but I give another compañera 3 hours before I arrive and we divide it up that way a bit so we can all have a bit of work and support ourselves economically).
When I started this job, I did it out of necessity. Honestly. But as you go along doing your job, it gives you a sense of satisfaction and next thing you know you love your job! Because you realize that you are very important to this other person, sometimes even more than you think. You start to realize just how important you are when you leave your client, when for some reason you have to leave them. That’s when you start to realize how valuable your work is. The rapport and connection you have with that person is wonderful — knowing that you can help make a person independent in their own home, that they can stay in their home and live a normal life, in spite of any limitations, disabilities, or illnesses they may have.
I joined the co-op because I had stopped working. I had already given birth to my second daughter and so I had been staying at home quite a bit. I used to manage the building where we lived. I managed it for 5 years and that gave me the opportunity to stay at home with my daughter. My older daughter was already becoming an adolescent and I wanted to dedicate a bit more time to her because, at that age, they require a bit more out of you. I weighed those two things, a baby girl and an adolescent girl, and I said to myself, “it’s time to stay at home.” At that time, I stopped doing my job, which I liked to do, but I was eager to start working again. My daughter was already in school and I wanted to start working again. Someone spoke to me about the cooperative and I thought it was fabulous. I said, “Oh, a cooperative that deals with my line of work. I have a lot of experience.” By then I already had been working at the same job for five years, doing trainings and I said, “Well, I can bring all of my knowledge somewhere where I will own my own business. All of that experience I have I’m going to share it, I’m going to learn about new themes, and I’m going to refresh and get up to speed about new things.
I had also stopped learning English a bit, as I tried to get my daughter to speak Spanish. My daughter had already learned English and Spanish, and I was the one getting left behind. I wanted to leave her my language, you know, our language. So that also held me back a bit and I said, “Well this will also help me pick up the language a bit, incorporate myself, and feel useful again.
And that’s really why I joined the cooperative. I came, I learned about the concept of the cooperative and I liked it a lot. I’ve always worked in a group, so it seemed easy enough to collectivize the management with a group. In the cooperative, you don’t feel alone anymore because, you know, when you work for an agency you do feel isolated, you feel… like there is a lot of responsibility on you personally. But the difference in a cooperative is that you feel like you have a lot of support, like there are people behind you who have your back. There are people behind you who care about the same things that you care about. You don’t feel so alienated from things because you have to be honest. Like I said, I started because of necessity and in an agency people go primarily because of necessity, not because they love the work.
Now I’m in the cooperative because I love the work, because I love to do it, because I feel good, because it gives me great personal satisfaction. And that’s one of the most important things in life. And economically, you feel good that your work has more value. You know in an agency you’re not well compensated, your salary is not really what you deserve. And sometimes the treatment is also bad. You’re just another employee. They don’t care if you woke up feeling well or not. But I feel that in the cooperative we have more respect than that. When they know that you’re a co-owner of the business even the clients treat you differently. You know, you also try to give better quality service because your business isn’t only yours. It’s not just me, Alicia, but a group of people who depend on me.
The great challenge for Latina immigrant women in the U.S. is definitely the kids. Personally, I feel that in comparison to other things, my kids move me. Because a person’s kids limit them. Sometimes you want to spread your wings, but you have to make a choice. There are people who come here with their family members, they have certain help, but there are others of us who come alone. Completely alone. Your kids depend on you, but you depend on them too. You start at zero and that’s where there are some great challenges, beginning with the language barrier. I felt like I was starting at zero and that I was stuck, couldn’t really move. I was undocumented, so I know what it’s like to be here without citizenship too, because while I was waiting for my citizenship papers to process I was here without papers. I know what it’s like. It’s very difficult to move. Because you have to measure every step you take carefully. One wrong step can ruin your life completely and not just yours, but your children’s and your family’s. So I think those are the biggest challenges a woman has.
Another thing is sharing things with your partner. The responsibility for everything ultimately lands on us, women. Most of the time. The husband, kids, the house: everything depends on you. You want to get ahead anyway. Just because you have all of these responsibilities does not mean you stop being a woman with needs and desires — who needs time to herself. You want to be there for everyone else, but you also want to be there for yourself. My separation was a bit difficult but at the same time, I thank God because I was able to find myself once more; I had let myself get lost. I realized that I had lost myself in the marriage. I found myself again and that was one of the positive things that came out of the divorce. I told myself I would never let myself get lost again. I told myself I was going to give myself the opportunity to remarry, but without losing myself.
I want to and I dream about continuing to study the language [English] because I do feel like one of the biggest barriers one has is the language. It has cost me a lot. Sometimes I feel like I got stuck in a country where I didn’t want to be and that’s created a mental block, and really learning the language has cost me a great deal. It’s one of the things I want to overcome the most, because I want to aspire to something…
I would love for our cooperative to achieve things we haven’t yet achieved. For us to reach for a bit more: coming together peacefully, responsibly — doing our work, doing our work and getting to know each other. To lift our voices, you know, like, “here we are; we’re important.” We’re thankful for this country. I’m thankful to the U.S. because one way or another they take care of your children as if they were their own and, secondly, they opened their arms and have given us opportunities. We have a lot of opportunities here. Even if it’s difficult, we can achieve. And that’s what I’m hoping. My goal is to be able to develop our business.
We’re still here and I’m very pleased to say that we’re 40 members strong in the cooperative because it means there are 40 households whose lives are being changed. And that will bring me great personal satisfaction. Because when I joined the cooperative it was on the brink of shutting down. The group I was part of that attended the first open house injected it with energy. That’s why I feel like a founder even if I’m not actually.
I would tell other Latina women that they should never lose faith because faith moves mountains. I think waking up with a positive outlook every day is the foundation of a person’s daily life. You have to think that everything can be better. We can do it for ourselves. I think that nobody can give you happiness; it’s interior to you. We have to fight for it. Si se puede, we can start from zero. If she’s prepared before she gets here it’s even better. But we can achieve anything with our kids. It’s been difficult for me, but it’s not impossible.
Unite. The more you align yourself with causes and organizations, the less alone you feel in this country. That changed my life. You feel like you’re part of a community and therefore part of the nation.
*Names have been changed.
Alicia: Golden Steps
by International Women’s Strike NYC
Interview courtesy of Jimena Vergara