The Struggle of Latina Women in America

What is this job?

  My mother was a very hard worker. While working hard in the fields, she gave birth to 11 children and was featured in our local newspaper in East Los Angeles – and what could she do about it? Large numbers of people of Mexican descent, both illegal immigrants and legal citizens, were being deported at that time. Although she believed in marriage, she did not want to be financially dependent on our father, so she was determined to prevent our six daughters from falling into the same fate. The violent deportations reminded her of how “dispensable” we were as Latina women, and she worked hard to raise us as a group of hard-working, self-respecting women.

  At home, we never expected to enjoy life comfortably. Apart from the basic food and lodging provided by our parents, everything else had to be earned through our own labor. We even went to school and worked at the same time because we were determined to build a better future. It wasn’t until later that I realized the work we did, whether it was running a large house with heavy chores or picking grapes in a California vineyard under the hot sun, was defined by our gender and working-class brown skin. Our labor was measured by the visible and tangible standards of sweat and muscle, which in my mother’s mind was called “the work of the land.

  But when I entered college, I saw a different form of labor. It was a form of work that exhibited the sacred privilege that the black American author Toni Morrison called “companionship with one’s mind. Until then, I didn’t understand that some jobs and some workers were seen as inferior. I was fortunate to attend a university founded by a group of Roman Catholic nuns, teachers who were feminists, activists and committed humanitarians. Many of them chose to renounce their vows and establish a non-profit secular organization rather than follow the strict rules of the Cardinal of Los Angeles, who represented the patriarchy. Their fearlessness broadened my understanding of oppression and resistance.

  In this way, I became the first woman in my family to receive a college degree. After graduating and returning home, I began to look for an honest job that would pay me equally. I was not good at any of the clerical, cashier, or nursing jobs my sisters held. After months of failed interviews, I was ready to take a bottling job on the assembly line at Le Cordon Bleu Brewery. It was at this point that I signed up for a creative writing class at the University of California, Los Angeles.

  Whenever I would open my laptop at the dinner table to do homework or write poetry, it would trigger my mother’s displeasure. I was already unemployed at home, and seeing me sitting there staring at a blank book made her stomach burn. She would tell me to go water the peach tree, or clean the porch, or wash the dishes at the sink, all chores that were not too late to wait at least half an hour before doing them. It wasn’t until I won first prize in a college literary contest for a short story and took home a huge $25 prize that I finally didn’t have to do the grunt work. When my mother came to see me again for chores, I handed her the check. “Where did this come from?” She asked, because to us in 1976, $25 was like $250. “I earned it from writing.” I replied. She put the check in her apron pocket, then walked out of the room and returned with a cup of coffee for me.

  That check convinced my mother that I was talented enough to make ends meet and take care of myself, and her faith in me helped me launch a writing career I’d never dreamed of. At the same time, my sisters gave me something else, a sense of self-worth, because it became my job to tell their stories. All I had to do was cut through the walls of deep-seated prejudice and realize my self-worth once and for all.

The value of women’s labor

  I want us to think about our own values and how systemic sexism and racism devalue workers and their labor. This is evident in the pay gap data. Even when analysts control for factors that are known to influence pay, such as race, industry, educational background and work experience, they cannot explain why there is a gap of more than 1/3 between men’s and women’s pay. What else could they use to explain the unsolved mystery of the gender pay gap, other than discrimination?

  American history is rooted in colonization, Native genocide and slavery, and the oppression of women has been a constant throughout. We will never fully understand the pay gap and the reasons behind it if we do not bravely confront the violent vestiges of discrimination in our history.

  For feminist activist Angela Davis, although women’s labor is vital to both the family and society, during the Industrial Revolution, women’s labor was devalued because it did not produce satisfactory returns. The disdain for women’s work made women’s contributions and labor cheap, leading to a less respectful society as a whole, while rationalizing unequal pay based on gender, race, or both.

  Dorothy Roberts, a professor of law and sociology, argues that women’s labor is divided into two classes-spiritual and servant domesticity-and thus creates a racialized hierarchy of women’s labor. Supervising the household and educating children was the work of powerful white women, while heavy and lengthy servant work – which was devalued because it did not require much skill and knowledge – was tied to immigrants and women of color. To this day, the data show that the vast majority of servant laborers are still women of color.

  As a Chicana writer, I have to understand how discrimination works so that I can dismantle it in writing and dispel the stereotypes that the world has of us. This is my way of giving back to my mother. After receiving her cup of coffee, I was determined to make our suffering visible to the world. Living in the shadow of this group, Latina women are forced to accept low wages and do jobs that no one wants to do. Most have no health insurance, sick leave or vacation time, let alone childcare.

  Female farm laborers are undoubtedly the most exploited workers in this country, and their situation is even worse than that of male farm workers. So, in my first novel, “At the Feet of Jesus,” I tell the story of the lives of Latina women farm laborers, of my sisters across the country – whose suffering I will never forget because I was once one of them.

  Because of their varying citizenship statuses and the fact that a large percentage of them are here illegally, Latina women farmworkers who suffer injustice and fear losing their jobs receive little relief. They are forced to endure grueling picking, planting, pruning and hot, pesticide-filled working conditions, as well as widespread sexual assault and harassment.

  Latina women working on farms are building organizations like the Women Farmers Union to call for immigration reform and fight for human rights. And the first step we need to take is to remind the world that these workers are not disposable consumables, but an important part of our daily lives. The coffee beans we drink in the morning and the vegetables we eat for dinner are likely picked by them. Even during the epidemic, they are still feeding this country and the world.

Our necessary resistance

  When my children were young, I put up a poster in our house that said, “Women can hold up half the sky. It was a poetic image intended to inspire my family, but sometimes I think about the weight of the world and how difficult the task of “holding the sky” is for women workers like my mother, my sisters and all of us in this community. That poster shows a necessary defiance of gravity, and we are all fighting every moment against the humble wages that don’t treat us like human beings.

  It’s not just Latina women, all women are fighting for equal pay and recognition. Aren’t we fighting hard enough?

The Road to Affirmative Action

  Women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce and have earned more college degrees than men, but we don’t see the gender pay gap showing signs of closing in the coming years. For some women of color, the journey to equal pay for equal work is much longer than it is for others. At current trends, Asian women are likely to be the first to receive equal pay for equal work, while black and Latina women will not achieve pay equity in this century.

The above projections are based on the pace of change over the past 50 years, in 25-year increments. Data on Native Americans is temporarily missing.

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