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On the shoulders of our parents — the cooks, nannies and gardeners — we’ve traveled far

Painting by Ramiro Gomez
“Lupita” (2017), by Ramiro Gomez. Courtesy of Denver Art Museum.
(Wes Magyar)
1

When I’m out and about reporting, I think often of my mother.

I see traces of her by the garment district, in the seamstresses who wait at dusk for their bus home. I see her inside office buildings, in the janitors who quietly empty all the trash bins. I see her sometimes at the park, in the nannies who come down from the hills with babies in their arms.

Everywhere I go in Los Angeles, I see my mom and all these workers so clearly. It’s baffling to me that there are people who, day after day, might not see what I see at all.

For years, my mother, Lucy, an immigrant from El Salvador, worked cleaning houses. Once, she proudly took a copy of the Los Angeles Times to work with one of my first front-page stories. “My daughter,” she said pointing to my name. Her client, a retiree, couldn’t believe it.

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“You should have seen the look on the señora’s face,” my mom said. “She asked me all about you and your work. She wanted to know how you got your job and if I was proud of you. I said yes, of course. Very proud.”

For years, my mom loved to tell people that story. She still does.

Reflecting on all this, some time ago, I went on Twitter and briefly shared her tale. Then I asked a simple question:

What jobs did your parents work to get you where you are today?

Thousands of responses poured in from all over the country, from Canada and beyond. They formed a tapestry of pride, spontaneously woven by the grown children of working-class parents:

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Mom: Factory worker — currently in a lamp factory
Papi: Janitor/cleaner — currently at a psych hospital
Me: Attorney

Mom: Sold roses at night clubs
Sold corn on the cob
House keeper
Nanny
Dog walker
My job: Actor

Mom: Clerical worker
Dad: Construction worker
Me: Attorney General for the State of California

(Yes, that last one came from former congressman and current California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra.)

Some of the stories were unexpected, like this one from Ofelia Gonzalez in Phoenix, about her father, Valdemar:

Ofelia Gonzalez and her father
Ofelia Gonzalez in Phoenix shared a story about her father, Valdemar, who was a miner for almost 40 years.

My dad was a miner for almost 40 years. He always wanted to know what it was like to work in an air-conditioned building, so after he retired, he took a job at Target.

Some were laugh-out-loud funny. Frances Wang, a TV news anchor in Miami, proudly shared the many jobs her mom, Corrina, worked after she left China for the U.S.:

Corner store clerk, waitress, tour guide, owned a computer software company, co-founded a Chinese lantern festival, owned mall kiosks, phone accessories wholesale, property owner/manager

Wang text-messaged her mother after she posted about her online. Her mom told her that, in some cases, she worked up to three of these jobs at the same time.

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“This is why I can’t understand. U can not even cook for uself now,” her mom texted back. “U only has one job ... Hahaha.”

“She roasted me,” Wang said.

As a kid in Northern California, she remembers, her mom used to sell all sorts of things: purses, hand creams, paintings, sports memorabilia — even pet hermit crabs, complete with tiny accessories like puka shells and plastic palm trees.

“She did it all just to survive,” Wang said. Also, to motivate her only child to work hard — not with lectures, but with action.

Frances Wang, a TV news anchor in Miami, with her mom, Corrina, from China.

Wang wonders whether she’ll be able to teach those same values, the same hustle, to her own children, when she’s ready to have them.

“I want my kids to be ambitious,” she said. “But I also want to pass along to them what I’ve learned from my generation — that it’s OK to stop and take care of yourself.”

People sent me their lists at all hours. They flooded my feed, some with memories they likely hadn’t spoken of in years: the smell of engine oil in their father’s shirt, the cuts and bruises on their mother’s hands, the sound of the sewing machine rumbling through the house, day and night.

Most of those writing were the children of immigrants from Latin America. Their stories echoed, time and time again, what I imagine other kids born to other U.S. immigrants felt generations ago.

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Kelly Reyes, a graphic designer from Richmond, Va., saw the post and felt overwhelmed.

“Where I live, I don’t know many people who share my parents’ struggles,” she said. “I forgot it formed a sense of shame in me. This made me realize I don’t feel shame anymore. There are so many others who have gone through what my parents went through.”

Her father, Rene, worked three jobs for more than a decade. He was a cook at two restaurants. He also delivered newspapers. Sometimes, when it was his turn to take care of her, he worried that his young daughter might wander out of their apartment, so he would doze off, exhausted, propped up against their front door.

Now living on her own, Reyes often finds herself thinking of his sacrifices. Also, those of her mother, who cleaned houses. She makes a point to acknowledge, with a nod or greeting, those who serve others: cooks, delivery people, janitors.

Kelly Reyes and her parents
Kelly Reyes, a graphic designer from Richmond, Va., and her parents, Rene and Ercilia.

“I feel a sense of closeness to them,” Reyes said. “I know how hard they work — physically and mentally.”

When she finds litter outside her apartment, she makes sure to pick it up. This way, the building’s housekeepers will have one less thing to do.

At 25, Reyes carries with her a sense of guilt and pressure many first-generation kids know well.

“I want to do everything I can to really make it so I can pay [my mom and dad] back,” she said.

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It’s a quiet pledge many children of immigrants make early on — to care for our parents, to be their translators, their personal assistants, their protectors. In some cases, their retirement fund. When you consider just how far they’ve brought us, in a single generation, it’s the least we can do.

Perhaps this is why Reyes and so many others who stumbled across my post felt compelled to share their journey. Along with other families’ tales.

Lee Ann Grant wrote: “The woman (Geovanna) who cleaned my parents’ house for 20+ years raised amazing kids. So amazing that one of her daughters became my dad’s boss’ boss. Be kind to everyone, and know them.”

As I read everyone’s responses, I couldn’t help but think of a young man I wrote about nearly a decade ago. Ramiro Gomez was a nanny when I met him, the son of a janitor and a truck driver.

Mi hijo es un artista.

Ramiro Gomez and his mother
Artist Ramiro Gomez, 33, of West Hollywood and his mother, Maria Elena Gomez, 54, in Highland, Calif.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

In his spare time, he was an artist. He used to paint acrylic portraits, each inspired by the domestic workers he got to know working in the Hollywood Hills.

His pieces were life-size — made of recycled TV boxes he’d transform into colorful cutouts of gardeners, valet attendants and nannies. Gomez installed his figures in public spaces all over the Westside, often naming each one after a loved one.

He hoped that his art would stop people in their tracks, prompt them to think about the laborers who keep their pristine neighborhoods just so.

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Painting by Ramiro Gomez
A painting by Ramiro Gomez.
(Michael Underwood)

These days, Gomez, 33, is a renowned artist. His paintings hang in museums across the country, including the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

The largest Ramiro Gomez collection lives inside his parents’ humble home. His mom displays his work in her entryway, her dining room, her kitchen and each of her bedrooms.

“Mi hijo es un artista,” she tells everyone who visits. My son is an artist.

Column One

A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.

My mother, a woman with a fifth-grade education who fled to the U.S. by force, carries the same kind of pride everywhere she goes.

Over the years, she was a nanny, a garment factory worker; she polished car rims, drilled holes in doorknobs, steam-pressed people’s clothes.

When she cleaned houses, she used to spend up to nine hours in each client’s home. She had it good compared to others, she’d often tell me, though few, if any, of her clients ever stopped to really speak to her, to learn about this woman who spent years scrubbing every corner of their home.

When she showed that one retired client my front-page story, it was one of the few times in nearly four decades in this country that she actually felt seen. Because of what she helped me accomplish — with rags and sponges, Windex and Ivory soap — they understood her purpose and her worth.

Esmeralda Bermudez's mother
The writer’s mother, Lucy, working at a dry cleaner in the 1980s, soon after migrating to the Los Angeles area from El Salvador.
(Courtesy of Esmeralda Bermudez)

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Now, each time I reach a milestone, I look forward to my mom’s reaction, partly because I never know what she’ll do.

The first time she set foot on my college campus, she showed up with a camcorder. She walked around USC for hours, filming every building, tree and squirrel, narrating each scene in detail.

Years later, when she returned for my graduation, she had an old white rag in her hand, just like the ones she used to clean houses. A bit embarrassed, I asked: “Mom, what’s that for?”

She wouldn’t say.

When the ceremony was over and I had walked across the stage, I came by to hug her and immediately understood.

The rag was soaked in her tears.

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VIDEO | 06:52
Column One: A tribute to working parents

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