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Beatriz: “even if you don’t know how to do it, just say you do”

Women with children in Zapotitlan who desired to migrate had to tread carefully between the motivation to improve their families’ condition and the possibility of people seeing them as if they had abandoned their children. The shame of being a single mother in this community, where the purity of the Virgin Mary was and is held as the exemplary mode of being for unmarried women, turned migration into a path to redemption. When she was 14, Beatriz left school to work in one of the local maquiladoras, from 8:00 am to 7:00-8:00pm, contributing her salary of 300 pesos (US$30) to her household where she lived with her parents. After four years, she became pregnant, worked until she had her baby, and returned to work when her baby was four months old, leaving him in the care of her mother. This arrangement continued until the baby was a year and a half old. At that point, Beatriz left for New York to live with her brothers who had established themselves in the city previously. She left the boy in the care of her mother because she felt the risks of the clandestine crossing were too great for him. Along with economic necessity, the shame and disillusionment that her parents felt at her “failure” (fracaso) to live up to the standards of a “decent” woman was a key factor in Beatriz’s decision to migrate.

My parents were irritated and offended that I failed [became pregnant before marriage]. They told me that if I had to make a living in New York, so be it. They told me: “You might not make it; you could die. They say that they abuse women. Anything could happen to you!” I told them: “I am not afraid and I want to take the risk.”

(Beatriz, 29 years old, Zapotitlan Salinas, June 2011)

The numerous risks associated with clandestine migrations for undocumented migrants crossing the US-Mexico border were viewed, by Beatriz’s parents, as forms of punishment for her failures—her cross to bear, in local vernacular. Beatriz courageously assumed these risks to achieve a higher purpose: to support her son as a transnational mother (Hondagneu-Sotelo & Avila, 1997). Selfless motherhood, la mujer abnegada, even of the transnational type, could perhaps offer moral redemption for her “mistakes.”

Beatriz left her young son with her mother and arrived in Yonkers, New York, a town in Westchester County, in 2002, to live with her brother who had arrived several years earlier. Fleeing the moral stigma offracaso and the need to send back money for the expenses her mother incurred while caring for her son as well as her mother's diabetes medications, Beatriz recalls the fear she felt at having to find a job in an unknown city. Another woman encouraged her by telling her: “Don’t be afraid, or else you won’t learn.” Fear could make it difficult for her to learn to be a productive, flexible worker, adapted to the needs of the service economy. After a few weeks of walking around and asking for work in the businesses that lined the suburban streets, she found employment in a Mexican restaurant washing dishes. For six months, she worked 12 hours per day, earning US$4 per hour, until a gang murdered a Mexican immigrant outside the restaurant, after which she no longer felt safe at her job.

A co-worker from the restaurant recommended her to the owner of a restaurant along the Hudson River. Going to work required a one-hour commute on the bus, but the upscale area made Beatriz feel much safer. Beatriz was charged with cleaning the restaurant from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm daily, although she quickly discovered that her limited English made her the target of ridicule of a Korean manager.14 The constant ridicule motivated Beatriz to take English classes in the afternoon after work. Once she could “defend” herself in English, the manager left her alone. She was the only person hired to clean the restaurant, ostensibly because previous workers were unable to deal with him. Beatriz relied upon her ability to work hard at a fast pace to do what was expected of her. “When I started the job, there was no one else to clean, so I had to come in early in order to quickly finish cleaning the dining rooms so that the restaurant could open at 11.”

Within months, she had managed to deal not only with the workload but also with the difficult manager, a feat that allowed her to earn some autonomy with respect to the timing of certain tasks. She told the Korean manager: “Ok, I will clean your office, but on the days that I want to, not when you tell me to.” She constantly looked for ways to pick up additional hours on holidays and overtime during the summer high season, a way to earn double the salary that the “generous” Italian owners offered even to an undocumented worker like Beatriz.15 She was the ultimate flexible worker, adapting to long hours in the summers and reduced hours—and less pay—in the winters. Working only a few hours a day a few days a week in the winter made it difficult for Beatriz to earn enough to pay her expenses in Yonkers and send money home for her mother and son. However, the promise of more pay in summer kept her hanging on to her job. She bore the ensuing hardships of the ebb and flow of the flexible restaurant industry.

When Beatriz became pregnant, her employers told her to look for two women who would take over the cleaning and whom she would oversee. She became their manager and shifted around the restaurant performing “light” work. When she was eight months pregnant, she decided to quit. Her bosses gave her a “bonus” of two weeks’ pay and told her to come back whenever she was ready.

After the baby, she decided not to return to the restaurant. "It was going to be too difficult because I did not have anyone to take care of my daughter. So I would have to start from scratch.” She found another undocumented Mexican woman to take care of the child and found work in a clothing boutique owned and managed by Koreans not far from her apartment. Although she had never sold clothing before, she explained how sometimes it was necessary to tell people that she could do the work: "Well, if you need the work, even if you don’t know how to do it, just say you do, so they give you the work and when you get the job, work hard!” She earned considerably less money than she was earning at the restaurant, US$5/hour, and had to pay childcare, USS25/day. However, her bosses agreed to give her Tuesdays off to allow Beatriz to take her daughter to doctors’ appointments if it became necessary. By taking only one day off, Beatriz explained, “... [the business] isn’t affected nor am I.” Being able to negotiate this gave Beatriz a sense of control over her work within a situation where she had few options. “I work 6 days a week, 9 hours a day. They don’t give me Saturday or Sunday off. And if I get sick, well, I still need the money, so I will work in whatever I can.” Although attending to customers took up most of her time, she also repaired damaged clothing, made bank deposits and did other administrative tasks without extra pay. Beatriz’s English skills allowed her to assume work in different tasks required by retail. Knowing that her personal treatment of each customer was key to good sales, Beatriz explained how she helped people pick out clothes that looked good on them. She knew she was successful because they would come back to seek her help again. “I always tried to be as polite as possible with people.”

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