A recent conversation turned to the topic of cleaning ladies. A woman in our group said, "You know, these women may not speak English well and may not have had much education, but they sure do have some great skills."
"What do you mean?" the person next to me asked.
"Think of it," the lady responded. "Here are people, some who literally walked all the way here, who realized that their only option is to clean our homes. Fine. Now each has five or more clients at any one time, often at different locations, and they have to take public transportation, that is, the bus, to get from one place to the next. They also have to deal with children in public school, take care of their household, help their friends and provide for an extended family abroad, all while trying to learn and maneuver an alien world. That's multitasking and time management right there. Not to mention entrepreneurship!"
While those of us who are fortunate to afford the services of immigrant women tend to brag about how good Marta is at dusting or restocking the fridge and congratulate ourselves on our generosity to these people, we rarely see the potential lying dormant underneath acquiescent, smiling faces that utter broken English. What if these working mothers had the opportunity to learn English well, get an education and enjoy the luxury of having only one job? Advantages most of us take for granted?
I was reminded of a Filipino woman who cleaned our apartment every other week while we still lived in New York. She was my dentist's nanny and she cleaned apartments in the evenings and days "off" to make extra cash that she might buy her son a treat or toy every now and then and remit money to her parents and younger siblings. She tries to take her five year old to work whenever she can, but often the boy is left with other women she shared an apartment with in Queens.
I have wondered what if Emily were able to get an American diploma. She was clearly intelligent and pretty savvy. She shared stories of how she learned a lot and fast when she first started working for folks in the Upper East Side. How she realized that she had to stand up and negotiate without losing a job. How she shared notes with other nannies and housekeepers she met in Central Park and at church. How she just had to walk out on a verbally abusive client without another job lined up. She had been in New York for some time when she was referred to me. And did she know how to haggle. I'd like to think that we paid her fairly and more than the going rate.
These hard working women come, like any other immigrant before them, to find work, provide for their families, perhaps better themselves, even find happiness. What if they had more opportunities and better options? I think we would all benefit.
Image from the New York Times. "Immigrant women gather near a corner in Brooklyn, waiting for day-labor jobs cleaning houses. The group illustrated an overlooked reality: Women make up 44 percent of the nation's low-wage immigrant work force."