A working class hero is something to be…
On the corner of E Commerce and Mesquite Street, on the limits of one of the poorest neighborhoods of San Antonio, Texas, there is a mural in honor to a foundation of the United States economy: the Latino workers.
The images of the “working class heroes”, as Lennon called them, have an expression written next to them that paraphrases the theory of chaos: “A hurricane of change is made up of small things, like the beating of a butterfly’s wings”.
And what better phrase to define the 27 year struggle of the Southwest Workers Union, an organization born out of the protests against the Vietnam War, that resulted in one of the most spirited unions in southern United States.
Its headquarters, which sheltered us during our stay in San Antonio, are decorated with paintings and phrases from Emma Tenayuca and César Chávez, two leader workers who attained acknowledgement of the rights of Latino workers in the United States.
“Our mission is to educate workers about their rights, and guide them so they can exercise them to better their lives and those of their families,” said Joaquín Abrego, planner and representative of the labor union.
Southwest Workers Union was founded in 1988 in order to organize workers in the educational sector (intendents, drivers and diner employees), although nowadays it gathers employees and organizations from other sectors. Among those is Domestic Workers in Action, an organization fighting for the rights of millions of female domestic workers in the United States.
An invisible job
“Domestic work makes every other work possible,” said Irasema Cavazos, president of Domestic Workers in Action, in Texas.
And it’s because, thanks to these women, the majority of which are Latino, other people can go to work knowing there is someone taking care of their children, their elderly, and that they will go back to a clean and comfortable house.
“However, there is little appreciation for their job,” Irasema pointed out. “It’s all about an under the table cash economy. They’re recommended from mouth to mouth and that’s how they keep accumulating small jobs. Their average salary is US$7.25 an hour. If their mistress wants a quick job, they pay them 15 dollars and kick them out to the street,” she says.
“We don’t want them to take jobs paid by the hour. We want them to learn how to negotiate and defend themselves. So they say: ‘You want me to clean your house? Fine, let me make an assessment of what’s needed.’ And that they set their requirements and say ‘I come here to clean, not to organize the entire place,’ and that they can make their employers respect their job,” she commented.
“They abuse, mistreat and humiliate us because we’re illegal”, told Juana Monsiváis, member of this organization. “One time they wanted to pay me US$20 instead of US$50, because I finished cleaning very quickly, but I said to them: ‘You think it’s clean now, right?’. ‘Well, yeah,’ but they never hired me again, because I’m not a pushover,” she stated proudly.
Irasema told that in the 30’s, the Fair Labor Standards Act forced employers to respect work days and salaries for workers in many areas, but southern politicians refused to include domestic workers.
“We’ve made a great effort to make the domestic workers rights act democratic. In New York, it’s already in effect. California won as well. Here in Texas, it’s going to be really hard, because it’s a very republican state. But we’re going to keep fighting,” said Alicia Pérez, domestic worker and organizer of Domestic Workers in Action.
Educating to transform
“One of the main limitations women have in order to demand their rights, is language. They cannot give their opinion, because everything is conducted in English,” Irasema said.
“The problem is they don’t have the time to educate themselves, because the main thing is to work and put food on their table,” Alicia added. “If they increased their income, they would have more time to educate themselves and make their lives better.”
“So we make some flyers, we go to the bus stops and talk to them; we inform them about the work we do. We offer English, computer studies, and civic education courses according to the workers’ schedules, so they get ready for the citizenship test,” Juana said.
“Women who arrive are very scared at first, but as they learn, they start to be imbued with leadership to help other women. That is change, when they recognize how necessary and capable they are. We’re hoping that when the migratory reform is approved, they are already on the right track,” Alicia commented.
One day without Latinos
If Barack Obama became president of the United States in 2008, and he got reelected in 2012, it was thanks to the Hispanic votes. Drawn by the promise of legalizing nearly 11 million undocumented, the number one minority showed up to the ballots like never before, and it was the key for the Democrat triumph.
But the migratory reform never came. To the contrary, deportations reached a historical record during the Obama administration. At least his party got the Dream Act approved, which will allow some undocumented students to obtain a temporary residence visa, and once they graduate, the permanent legal residence.
This measure restored some Hispanics’ faith, but “we know their deceiving people,” Alicia pointed out. “If the migratory reform were to pass, lots of people would make an effort to pay fines, charges, and anything they ask for, as long as we can get the desired status, but how can we be eligible if it’s a requirement to earn more than minimum wage and we can’t have access to it without any papers?” she noted.
“The economy moves forward not only because of domestic workers, but all illegal workers: construction workers, carpenters, intendents,” Juanita added.
“We don’t need the papers to get a job, but to be able to go back to our families. It’s been many years since I’ve been to Mexico. I just hope they give me the papers so I can go visit my grand and great-grandchildren,” she said behind tears.
“Southwest Workers Union started out organizing workers, but when the number of members began to grow, the guys started coming, so we initiated youth programs in response,” told Joaquín, better known as “Joaquín Muerte (Death Joaquín)”.
“We teach them to get organized in order to produce changes within their communities. A while ago we spoke about the importance of a good diet, so the idea of a community garden was born, which is here in our back yard. Children are taking those ideas to their schools and homes.”
The organization also works with vote awareness campaigns and environmental programs. But one of the most interesting projects is, no doubt, University Without Walls.
“We have five or six universities in San Antonio, but they pay more attention to missions and military bases. This used to be a center for people who came from different places, for indigenous who were colonized and robbed of their lands, then came the Texan-Mexican revolution, and now migration.
“This is why we created University Without Walls, a community school where we learn about racism, its history, the history of our land, where we came from. We even take in books that were banned from schools in states like Arizona, because they tell the story of the oppressed, of our people, of Mexican-Americans and Native Americans.
“We’re searching for conscience emancipation, to decolonize our minds so we can do it in our community, because as they say, the revolution begins at home,” Joaquín Muerte assured.
“Do you think a better world is possible?” we asked Joaquín.
“But of course! If change comes from the heart, it’ll manifest in one way or another. A better world is possible through love of what we do. Che Guevara used to say, that being a revolutionary is an act of love. And yeah, love is what we need. Love is all you need.”
– Fito and Susana Segura, for the contact with Southwest Workers Union.
– Joaquín Muerte, for the hospitality and the moments shared to the rhythm of chicano music.
– Irasema, Juanita and Alicia, for their attentions and their labor in favor of the Latino women.
– All Hispanic workers, with or without papers, a foundation of the economy and development of the United States.