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A Working Holiday : Embracing Tradition, a Group of <i> Domesticas</i> Celebrates the Good and Learns How to Change the Bad in Their Work

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They work 10- to 15-hour days, scrubbing and scouring homes for a living, cooking and caring for families not their own. There is little vacation. Some never get a day off. Some are swindled and abused. And most are overworked and underpaid.

Yes, many of them have thankless jobs, they say. But in the land of plenty, the women-- Sylvia, Ana, Vicenta, Libertad, Luz and their friends--agree that they have plenty for which to be thankful.

So, on Sunday, the 20 domesticas gathered around a Downtown office conference table turned into a festive dining room and gave thanks to God. For their jobs, for living in this country, for uniting as a group to celebrate a very American holiday-- El Dia de Gracias, Thanksgiving.

Each woman around the table stood and spoke. Many were choked with emotion, faces illuminated by flickering candles around a centerpiece of fresh fruit and scattered silk maple leaves. Humbled at hearing others speak about their own experiences--both good and bad--as domesticas , the women dabbed at tears or whispered a blessing: “Gracias a Dios .”

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Before the night ended, the reverent mood of the women--all members of the Domestic Workers Project of the 9-year-old Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles--slowly had been transformed into an empowering rallying cry for their rights, for minimum wages, for benefits, for days off to spend with their families--and, above all, to be simply treated with dignity. “Dignidad!” “Justicia!” “Unidos!”

They were celebrating early because, for many, the actual Thanksgiving Day observance--a day of being with one’s family, of celebrating, of resting--will be spent in the homes of their patrons and patronas .

Most of the domesticas say they will help their bosses prepare a turkey and all the trimmings. One told another about how she always chops the onions not only for her employer, but also for other women on the same street.

Several will be in charge of their employers’ feasts, cooking for as many as 30 guests in homes from the Hollywood Hills to Pacific Palisades. And when the guests arrive, the domesticas will move from the kitchen into the nursery to baby-sit. Later, they will clean the kitchen and vacuum before they head home or back to their rooms in the same household.

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All this with no extra pay, no added bonus, no day off for most of them.

On Sunday evening, the domesticas came to CHIRLA’s headquarters to commemorate the holiday with two roasted pavos (turkeys) cooked by the organization’s staff. They arrived wearing their Sunday best, handbags matching their shoes, their hair and makeup done for the event. Perfume wafted over steaming portions of turkey breast, mashed potatoes and stuffing.

Project director Cristina Riegos says talk of a group Thanksgiving celebration came about after last month’s meeting when the domesticas met for the first time as an association and discussed how to ask their employers to pay into Social Security and deduct income tax from their wages--the members’ choice of topic.

“I mentioned to them that in this country we have Thanksgiving Day. Some were familiar with it and all of them answered with a resounding ‘yes’ to do it,” Riegos says. “I asked if they wanted a Latino menu or traditional American food.”

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They unanimously voted for the gravy.

“They want to observe the days that are observed by the rest of the country. They like the concept of giving thanks and resting and celebrating with other people,” Riegos says. “They desperately want to be part of the United States.”

As for working the Thanksgiving holiday, Riegos says, “It’s not a crime to work that day, but these women should get compensated as any other salaried employee would with overtime pay or a comparable day off.

“In the majority of the cases that won’t happen,” she says, which is why she and the program help the domesticas “with skills on how they can assert themselves before they start a job, understand what their position is in a household and to ask for things such as time off or annual raises. In many cases they do get what they want, if they ask.”

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“Generally speaking, most domestic workers are entitled to minimum wage and overtime,” says Michelle Yu Kim, an attorney with the Labor Defense Network, a nonprofit agency that provides legal representation, training and technical assistance to low-wage workers. Domestic workers should be treated like any other workers, she says. “The slight difference is that if the domestic worker lives in the employer’s household, that worker is entitled to overtime after nine hours a day.”

Kim says that if the only responsibility a domestic worker performs is baby-sitting or being a personal attendant to an infirm person--without housekeeping chores--then the law exempts that worker from receiving the minimum wage of $4.25 an hour and overtime.

In addition, Kim says federal law requires employers to pay into Social Security, pay unemployment insurance tax and withhold income tax regardless of the employee’s immigration status.

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Here illegally for nine years, 35-year-old Cristina, who prefers not to give her surname, has worked as a live-in housekeeper and nanny for three families. Her children, ages 14, 15 and 16, are in Mexico with their grandparents. She sends money home regularly from her $160 weekly salary. She has cared for her employers’ 1-year-old baby since birth.

“I like my current job,” Cristina says about her 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, which will include Thanksgiving duty. Her evenings off allow her to attend Glendale Community College nightly to learn English. “The family is good to me.”

But her previous two jobs were horrendous, she says. Especially the last one, which paid $50 a week--with no days off--for caring for two kids and keeping a home spotlessly clean for the single-parent mom.

“I worked like a burro so I could live like an American,” she says about the job she kept for almost seven years; she left after the kids entered school. “I did the laundry, ironed, cooked, walked the dog, washed the car. I was practically locked in. I didn’t know how to get another job.”

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In Mexico, she worked as a secretary. But the job paid very little. “I would love to do something else. With English I know that I won’t be working as a domestica all my life.”

Andrea, 42, who does not want her last name published, has worked as a domestica all her 10 years in Los Angeles. The Mexican native has two daughters in Los Angeles, one in high school, the other married. Six weeks ago she was let go from her five-year job as a baby-sitter and housekeeper where she worked nine-hour days, earning $130 a week. “The kids grew up and I wasn’t needed,” she says.

So a few weeks ago she registered with an agency that employs domesticas . She agreed to pay a portion of her first week’s wages after the agency landed her a first job. But when she showed up to get her pay--after a full week of work--the agency said she misunderstood the fine print.

“They said they were supposed to keep all of my pay, not just the fee they told me about,” Andrea says. She refused other agency leads and is seeking work through the domesticas own word-of-mouth network.

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“So many people don’t treat us humanely. Always, the patronas want more, more, more. But they don’t want to pay more.”

Andrea and others say they almost always begin their jobs as nannies. But soon, their work involves housekeeping.

“ ‘Before you leave today, will you do me a favor and wash a load of clothes?’ On another day, it will be, ‘Will you cook a little something to eat? Will you make all the beds?’ ” Andrea says. “I think that we, as domesticas , need to value ourselves more so others can value what we do, so that what we do can be treated as a job--as a real job.”

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Emelina Lopez, a Salvadoran who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1983, agrees. Like the other women, she has had housekeeping and nanny jobs that paid meager wages.

A member of CHIRLA’s domestics’ project since 1992, Lopez marched in a Watts parade with other domesticas earlier this year. She often encourages domesticas when she sees them--on buses, in parks tending to children--to learn about their rights.

Lopez gestures excitedly as she speaks passionately about protection for workers like herself.

“This work has been good to me,” she says, adding that through her 20 years in the United States, she had saved to buy a house for herself and her son, a 28-year-old student at Santa Monica College, who lives on his own now. Her dream was realized seven years ago when she bought a home near Leimert Park in southwest Los Angeles.

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For the last three years, Lopez, who is bilingual, has been a live-in nanny in the Hollywood Hills, paid $360 a week, working for a single-parent dad with twin daughters. She gets home on Friday nights for the weekend.

Her boss treats her well, she says. The girls call her “Mommy.” She has her own room on the other end of the sprawling manse. When her car recently died on her, her boss made one of his cars available to her.

Recently, she sat down with him and spent almost two hours talking about some changes in her job, including extra cash to spend on the twins on their daily outings. In the past, money for snacks or toys that the girls wanted came from Lopez’s own pocket. She negotiated $20 extra a week for gifts for the girls.

“I was a little scared to bring up some things. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Yes, no, yes, no. After I did, he told me, ‘Emily, I had no idea.’ ” In future negotiations, Lopez is hoping to get her pay increased and a little more time off. But for now, she says she is thankful for the job. She loves the twins. And even though she will work Thanksgiving Day cooking a meal for more than a dozen guests, her son will be among those feasting on her culinary skills.

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“I think I’ll make a pumpkin pie like this one,” she says, as she helps the other women clean up the remains of the pavo .

Riegos is caught off guard as she sees the women picking up trash, wiping off tables, stacking chairs, boxing decorations and wrapping up leftovers.

“Sen~oras,” Riegos says, “you didn’t have to do this, but thank you for helping me clean up.”

Says Lopez: “We’re domesticas , super- domesticas .”

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“Who cares about us?” she asks. She looks around the room at the women who have broken bread together.

“We care about each other,” she says. And for that, they are thankful.


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