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Gilda: “fast hands” and “doing the work of two people”

To avoid disqualification, it was imperative to demonstrate one’s capacity to work. The flexible laborers forged out of the rural surplus population of Central Mexico continually adapted to the demands of flexible labor markets in New York. Upon her arrival in New York, Gilda met a woman from Brazil who took her to clean houses. However, the woman explained to Gilda that she would pay her when she learned to do her job well. Robbed of her wage, Gilda quit working for the Brazilian woman and worked for a Guatemalan woman who told her she could pay her USS6 per hour to clean houses. While she was proud of earning her first USS 18 after a three-hour shift, Gilda knew that she could earn more.

I was not satisfied making 6 dollars an hour. It was very little money. I heard that men earned 10 dollars an hour at the corner [working as day laborers]. So I went to the corner, because I didn’t have any contacts. And if you don’t speak English, no one will hire you. I went to the corner at 6 in the morning and I stood there with all the men. I saw how they ran and got into the cars. At first, I didn’t understand. One day I ran and I got inside the truck, and the driver asked me, “What? Why you?” They asked me if I knew how to paint and I said “yes.” The man felt sorry for me. Even though I was a woman, he gave me a job. They gave me a brush and a bucket to prepare the paint. I started to paint ceilings, walls; I painted everything.

(Gilda, 50 years old, Zapotitlân Salinas, January 2012)

Although the comer was a decidedly masculine space and the jobs offered there tended to be for men,8 Gilda staked out a place for herself. Working “like a man” for a while, she was able to earn more money per hour. After a few weeks, an elderly woman hired Gilda off the corner to do some alterations. Satisfied with Gilda’s work, she hired her full-time to work as a domestic in her home paying her US$10 per hour. Working Monday through Friday, eight hours a day, Gilda cooked, cleaned, ironed and eventually bathed and cared for the woman as her health deteriorated.

Gilda’s material and affective labor to ensure this elderly woman’s wellbeing (while leaving her own children in the care of her father and sisters in Zapotitlân) can be understood through the optic of global care chains (Hochschild, 2000; Yeates, 2012, p. 137). The concept of global care chains calls attention to how reproductive labor has been globalized alongside economic globalization, allowing for its expansion, particularly in the context of the withdrawal of state services and increasing welfare restrictions (Ehrenreich & Hochschild, 2003; Truong, 1996). Millions of migrants like Gilda labor in the reproductive tasks abandoned by the state and by women entering the workforce in migrant destination countries.

In addition to her caretaking job during the week, Gilda worked at a social hall on the weekends washing dishes from 8:00pm until 4:00am earning US$8/hour.

“I always had a job. I was always working. If I would have had more hands, I would have worked more.”

Gilda returned briefly to Zapotitlân when her son graduated from secondary school. She begged him to continue to study, explaining to him that she had migrated and worked in New York so that he could study. However, he insisted that he would not study and would not be left “alone”—without his mother—in Zapotitlân. Her son insisted that if Gilda did not take him to New York, he would spend all her remittances on diversions, wasting precious resources. Reluctantly, Gilda returned with him and went back to her job as caretaker for the elderly woman. She stayed in that job for another two years until the woman passed away. Afterward, she found a job in a restaurant kitchen where she worked for eight years performing virtually every task and climbing the hierarchy from dishwasher to kitchen manager.

I was motivated to do everything! They told me: “Gilda has fast hands.” I helped my boss a lot. With me, he saved three persons' salaries and I helped him a lot with the work. An African American man started work and I showed him how to use the machine. Later, I got a woman a job there. I gave other Hispanic people jobs, including many women. One helped me with the silverware, another with the dishes. But no one was as fast as I was. Then I started to help the cook prepare the pizzas and take them out when they were done. Then the woman who served soup got sick and they asked me to take over her job. I served the soup and the salads. It was two jobs in one.

(Gilda, 50 years old, Zapotitlân Salinas, January 2012)

With respect to her tasks as a kitchen manager, she proudly proclaimed, “I had the satisfaction of hiring and firing people!” Gilda's insertion into the flexible labor markets for service workers in New York required her to constantly adapt to a number of jobs that required vaiying amounts of mental, emotional and physical labor. She was, perhaps, most proud of her restaurant work. She boasted about her “fast hands” and disposition to help out in any way. She understood that these traits were of great use to her employer. She molded herself into a self-exploiting, flexible worker, always ready to do any task required of her in the kitchen. Gilda embodied the flexible, ready-to-do-anything worker, a so-called “unskilled” worker molded to be satisfied with the temporary, part-time offerings of the low-waged service labor market.

In interviews, Gilda referenced her capacity for arduous, tedious work, a capacity that enabled her to reach the highest levels of restaurant kitchen administration. Through the idea of “doing the work of two people,” she affirms her moral worth as a worker. In the context of the criminalization of “illegality,” being an industrious worker is a strong claim to belonging to the American nation-state. It is often used as a marker in negative opposition to other Latino groups—particularly Puerto Ricans in the New York context—who have the rights of citizenship yet not the “hunger” to work like poor, Mexican immigrants, according to many Zapotite-cos. In this “immigrant analogy” (Smith, 2006), Puerto Ricans’ “dependence” on the government—i.e., their use of public assistance—is seen as an essentialized characteristic of being averse to working, and, therefore, a moral failure.9 In an attempt to overcome this marginalized status, Zapotitecos/as boast about their capacity for work. They are the ones that have a legitimate right to be in the United States, despite their official status as “illegal aliens.”10

Hard work not only allows Zapotitecos/as to be full, moral beings in the absence of legal personhood, but also dispels doubts about being “bad” or “failed” migrants. Spouses, children, extended family members, and friends all weigh in on whether someone has accomplished something through migration, putting pressure on individuals to demonstrate their success. The “bad” migrant discourse—a disciplinary apparatus wielded by paisanos to shame each other— metes out punishment for not conforming to the norm of hard work.

However, it is not the only detectable discourse. The willingness to go beyond the requirements of the job and to align one's efforts to please supervisors, managers and owners corresponds to a self-optimization impulse. Having “fast hands” and “doing the work of two people” are proud narratives of workers who feel they have accomplished important things. Helping bosses by ensuring that things run smoothly so the restaurant can open on time are positive narratives, a hallmark of a subject who is always optimizing. We will return to this idea in the final discussion of the chapter.

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