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Carolina: “I have worked like a man!”

Carolina, after working as a domestic worker in Mexico City, migrated to New York City in 1990. Her brother worked in New York and helped pay her smuggling fees. “I went without thinking! I was always the most adventurous one in my house! I was doing very well in Mexico City. I was sending money home to my family and I earned well.” She began work a few days after arriving as a live-in domestic servant to a Dominican woman with two young children, a job for which she had already acquired experience in Mexico City. Carolina earned USS200 per week and continued sending money home to her parents to support them and her younger siblings. Although she experienced migration as “adventure,” her labor was necessary to pay for a portion of the subsistence of her parents and younger siblings. An “adventure” perhaps, but one with the obligation to work and support other family members.

After two years of working, she became pregnant and moved in with the father of her child, an arrangement that lasted only a few months when he abruptly announced that he was returning to Mexico. Abandoned by her partner, she returned to live with the Dominican woman who promised Carolina that she and the baby could stay with her without paying rent in exchange for her labor as a nanny and housekeeper. Although Carolina complained in the interview that this was a difficult situation because she had no money of her own to buy any "extras” for herself or the baby, she felt that she had no other option for her infant daughter. She stayed with the woman until her baby was about a year old. With the woman’s help, Carolina applied for public assistance. Carolina’s unpaid domestic labor—subsidized by public assistance—allowed her employer to provide low-cost labor to the New York sendee economy. Carolina’s nonwage relationship to capital illustrates the heterogeneity of a working class which includes both paid and unpaid labor (Carbonella & Kasmir, 2015). Further, the various “hidden” dimensions of her work—as an undocumented, live-in domestic without a salary—should not impede us from a frill consideration of her position as a classed and gendered subject (Bettie, 2003), invisibly subsidizing the low wages of another woman through her reproductive labor.

Eventually, close relatives invited Carolina to move in with them. Although she received public assistance, it did not cover all her expenses. She would have to work. The dismantling of welfare programs beginning in the 1970s and the associated belief that meager benefits were no longer entitlements but should instead be exchanged for labor maintained benefits at a bare minimum (Goode & Maskovsky, 2001).11 She found an immigrant woman to care for her daughter while she worked in a bodega, a convenience store, stocking shelves. After several months, she worked cleaning a movie theater from 12:00am to 9:00am, six days a week. “There were 12 theaters to clean and each of the bathr ooms had 15 stalls. It was hard work, and we had to work fast. Everything had to be clean by morning. The men were faster at this work and they helped me finish on time.” (Carolina, 30 years old, Bronx NY, November 2004). Her health suffered from the night shifts because she was not able to sleep during the day. She became sick from the strong chemicals used in her job, combined with lack of sleep and caring for her child.

Carolina eventually met a man from Zapotitlan, Fernando, with whom she had two children. When I met Carolina in 2004, her eldest daughter was starting secondary school and her two youngest children were four and six. In addition to her children, she cared for two small children full-time in her two-bedroom apartment near the Mosholu subway stop in the Bronx. Fernando worked in Manhattan, on Canal Street, delivering food to office workers in Lower Manhattan. He paid his transportation to work, the rent and food for the family. Carolina’s salary was destined for clothes, school supplies and personal products. She visited a Pentecostal church once a week for a free meal and food to take home. Ordering housewares and some clothes from catalogs allowed her to pay “little by little,” so that she could afford basic goods for her growing family.12

Carolina internalized the idea that reproductive work did not “count” as work. She commented that women—even those from Mexico—could be very difficult. They were always echando piedras, making hurtful comments. “In this country, I have worked in everything. There are women who say to me, ‘I have never seen you work!' But I have worked like a man!” (Carolina, 30 years old, Bronx NY, February 2005). Here, Carolina referred to her work stocking shelves in the convenience store and cleaning the movie theater. The “hard-working immigrant” trope defends one’s moral worth as a worker—doing “men’s work”—against the idea that women are only involved in reproduction.

Beyond the complaint that other immigrant women have not seen Carolina work outside the home, she had to defend herself against the idea that she has not done anything—built a house or started a business—back in Mexico.

I have not done anything. The only inheritance that I will leave my children is their education. This is the only thing with which they can defend themselves. My cousin built a huge house in Mexico. But my idea is this: I will give them education, even though others criticize me that I have not done anything. I give my children what I can. I don’t give them everything. I buy books and food for them. I have a little account in the bank for an emergency. This is my idea. They will decide what to do with their future.

(Carolina, 30 years old, Bronx NY, November 2004)

As an immigrant with US-born children, Carolina oriented her life toward the United States, placing her hopes in her children's social mobility through education. This clearly defined life project drew criticism from other Mexican immigrants because she had “not done anything” back in Zapotitlan that would demonstrate her “success.” Instead. Carolina wanted to raise her children in the US where she believed they would have better life opportunities. However, social mobility through education was and is difficult to attain for children of Mexican immigrants because of their marginalized status in the city's hierarchy of immigrant groups.13

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