The day after I arrived in Oakland, I found myself scrubbing the caked layers of “who knows what” off of a toilet wondering, “What on earth did I get myself into?”. My knees were sore and my back ached, but I couldn’t get my mind off of one thing. Although I had spent an entire work day as a House Keeper, cleaning and washing the grime off of a Bachelor Pad, I couldn’t shake the reality that this wasn’t me and that the next day I wouldn’t have to clean another house in order to support myself because, as a college student, I am privileged.
As I began to vacuum the floors of the master bedroom, I had a sudden epiphany that took me down Memory Lane.
Now, before I give you a glimpse of what I saw down Memory Lane I think it’d be helpful to provide you with some background information as to why I was scrubbing someones toilet in the first place. After all, I am supposed to be on an urban mission’s project….right? WELL, let’s just say that as part of BayUP’s orientation week, we were asked to step into the shoes of someone who is part of our country’s working poor. That said, for a full 8-hour work day I, Samantha Santamaria, was a house keeper.
Surprisingly, the hardest part of the day that I encountered was not the fact that my eyes were burning slightly from the amount of bleach that I slathered on the bathroom counters. It wasn’t even the fact that there was something green and fuzzy growing inside the refrigerator. It was the fact that I am where I am today, a very privileged college student, because of the same type of domestic labor. Now, let’s go back to the place called Memory Lane that I was talking about.
Growing up in the Central Valley, I would sometimes join my mom on the weekends when she cleaned the local laundromat. I can remember very clearly how much I actually enjoyed going with her. There was something cool and interesting about picking the lint from the fifteen or so dryer vents and I oh so loved the smell of Pinesol. So much so, that I anticipated the end of our time cleaning, not because it meant that we would soon be going home, but because by the end of our time cleaning, when my mom finally wheeled out the big yellow bucket from the cleaning closet and she began to fill it with Pinesol and water, I couldn’t help but want to stick my nose in the bucket and take a HUGE whiff. Pinesol is simply the greatest.
My father has worked picking oranges and olives in la Pizca, as many Spanish-speakers call it. I could always tell how hard his work was when I saw him at the end of each day sitting on our worn couch, his bare feet placed up on a chair, with his shirt open and a bowl of beans on his lap. I used to sit next to my dad and as the sound of a commentator’s voice for a soccer game filled the room, I looked at my dad’s hands, my eyes following the dirt-caked creases. I’d examine the tears in his shirt and the tracks of sweat left on his face. Hard work indeed.
Before my parents is a long-line of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins who have worked in a wide range of domestic labor: Hotel house keepers, bank cleaners, cooks, construction workers, day laborers, baby-sitters & nannies, landscape cleaners, and field workers, As I stepped into the shoes of many of my own family members, a foreign sense of guilt weigh down on me. I am privileged and this privilege is due in large part to the hard labor that my family has endured generation after generation. The guilt in realizing that as a first generation college student I will probably not endure the same hard labor as my parents and extended family, the same hard labor that they have done routinely year after year and day after day. And then I began to think, “Why me?”. Why is it that after so many generations I get to be the one to reap the benefits of my parent’s hard work? Why is it that so many people in my family, even with all of their hard work, have struggled to get by and I will probably have it easier because I’ll earn a piece of paper in 2 years that will deem me more valuable in the eyes of many employers?
As these questions went running through my mind, I became very angry, but as the day went on (and I got some sleep and food in me) I began to think more about what keeps my parents going through the hard work that they do. Why and how my mom gets out of bed every morning to face the hard work of being a daycare provider. I have since began to reflect in the idea of “the labor of love”. I believe it is the reason behind why parents many times work very hard and often settle for less in the name of this labor of love. I have come to believe that the love and security that I get by way of my parent’s hard labor is a gift that my parents give me and not merely a privilege handed to me. It is a gift that must be cherished and used to help me be the best that I can be. If I choose to believe in or thrive on the guilt that comes with the reality that I will never really understand how it is to walk in the shoes of my mother and father or my grandmother and grandfather, I am dishonoring this labor of love, their gift to me.