Work, I have it in my hands*

Doña Audelia was born in the town of Loja on the coast of Nayarit. From an early age, her life has been linked to her work. As a seamstress, she soon learned the hardships of starting a business and failing, Worse even, she learned the troubles of falling into debt.

It was then that the opportunity of traveling to "el Norte" came up. It was the only valid way, the one safe way to earn money in exchange for her manual labour. So, in 1985 she arrived to Silicon Valley in San José, California where she was rapidly incorporated into the labour market offered to Mexican women by the American urban economy: the dressmaking industry, the manufacturing industry commonly known as "canerias," and the electronic industry.

For her, everyday life in el "Norte" became deranging, for any and every reason one would go to the extremes. Whereas in Mexico, life was more bearable despite the dirt, despite misery. For her, the true difference between Mexico and the United States lies in the alternatives of work, in the posibility of combining one or two jobs, in that one can make a profit on the economic model and on certain social benefits. The system requires arms, and she is there, with her hands ready, the routines learned, and the body surrendered to work. As long as there is strength...

* Interview conducted by Víctor Espinosa in August of 1992 in the city of San José, California.

When I left my town, it was not out necessity, but in order to follow my husband. He came to Ensenada for three months, in the year of 1959 we owned a banana wholesale business, we lasted two years and then, we left to Mexicali in 1961. There we did the same: sell fruit wholesale, but we only lasted one year with that business, then we returned to Loja.

When I was in Loja, twenty years ago, in '76, I used to earn well, but then I had a problem, I bought a tailor's shop that had four employees plus the previous owner. It operated pretty well, but I didn't know it was indebted and, since the previous owner stayed to work with me, when he received a seizure claim, they took everything away, not only what I had bought, but also my sewing machine and I was left with nothing. I couldn't do anything because we still hadn't terminated the sale. That's when the economic problem started, I alone could not support my entire family and, on top of everything, they were all studying, because, little as it may have been, they all studied.

They took everything away from me, even though I went to protest against the claim, they only told me:

-You are not mentioned in any instance.

I explained that was because I still did not have the documents, besides I got hold of the invoices and all other documents, but not even then did the government returned a thing.

But, since I have my work in my hands and I had credit still, once again, I bought sewing machines and I re-opened the tailor's shop, but another problem arose, the government began with the story that we had to become regularized and that we had to pay a certain amount of money. A declaration arrived then where they were charging me the same as they did to those who owned a large store, that's when I couldn't take it any longer and so, I told the government representative:

-Well, why can't you be satisfied with the fact that I am a single woman? I am not being a nuisance to the government because I never ask you for anything, you are only considering what each employee earns, but you don't care about how much I spend and whether I can manage to pay, if I cannot manage then I have to find it, with all that I owe and all that I earn, besides I am by myself and my earnings come only from there, and then all the children I have are in school, it's not fair, in any case, I am going to close down this business and I am going to make just the same amount of money and I won't pay taxes.

That's where it started, a whole series of  little borrowings here and there, to keep going, it was a vicious circle, because I could never get out of them, that's why I came to el Norte, because I was annoyed at having to do favours; I only owed two people then and, it wasn't much, but for me it was, to owe one million pesos six years ago was a lot, I was working only for the interests; that time I told clearly to those I owed:

-I am going to move to the United States so that I can meet my obligations, otherwise, I will never do it.

Believe it or not, they believed in me, out of all my family, I was the first one to go there, I left in '85 the first time, and returned that same year, in March.

When I first arrived, I was helped by a group of friends from my town that I had seen only once when they were visiting, there I had told them:

-You know what? I am going to the United States and I want to ask you if you could receive me in your house, I don't want to cause any problems to the family, I want to live there only while I settle.

Since I had their phone numbers I called them from the airport when I arrived and, they went to pick me up. When they saw me the first thing they asked was whether I had been there before, and not, that was my first time, then they asked if I was nervous.

-No, how am I going to be nervous!

They were the ones who found me the job and who took me there, it was in a fashion house, since I was a seamstress I found that job, it was in Oakland, that's where I started. They used to pay me five dollars per hour, sometimes I would go three weeks without being paid, without doing my accounts, and when I would do them, the owner would get angry, she would take hours off, that's when I started to realize that Mexicans are the worst employers, if they all suffer a lot there, I cannot explain myself why they are mean employers, unfortunately, I think, they have no leadership skills and, when they reach that position, they become conceited.

The fashion house was more or less big, it had several employees, I was the one in charge of all because the owner didn't know dressmaking, when she hired me she told me she was very clever, very good at sewing, for sure she said that to let it be known that she was in command there, even though she knew nothing; that's why I say that Mexicans as employers: be careful!

In the beginning I lived with the owner, that was when she wanted to pay me five dollars per hour and that I worked the time I wanted, since we lived in the same house she lend me a little room to sleep in, she didn't charge me anything, the problem was that the owner had her good and her bad times, I imagined that since she was weak in the head, sometimes, when I was late or wouldn't arrive early, right away she would go looking for me to see how I was, whether something had happened to me, even then, she showed some consideration. But, by the end of the month when we started doing my accounts, I was confident that I had 500 or 600 dollars, she said I only had 300, I asked her why, she said she was going to deduct 50 dollars from me because she was letting me sleep in there. What could I do? I said:

- Okay, that's fine.

We agreed that while I lived there I was only going to earn 150 dollars per week and, precisely, I had to earn 250, we carried on that way for a while, until finally, already tired of that situation, I rented an apartment, with that she would pay me more or less fine, with what I earned I could pay the rent, since they charged me 350 dollars per month.

I lasted almost one year, while I finished paying all of my commitments, to the last nickle, then I returned to Mexico and stayed there for only ten months, it was during those days that they passed the Simpson-Rodino Law, I found out because a few days before there was so much publicity, and I came back just when the time to negotiate the documents was about to expire, in '87. I returned in that year and managed to hand them in, by the way, that law was not to take away the jobs from the people, but only to frighten us, to pay us less, everything was out in the news, at that time there was a lot in the newspaper and the television, I remember that the president of the United Stades signed the bill when I was still here.

I returned because I wanted to see my mother and my children, I had been a year without seeing them and I wasn't used to it, I remember that I would almost start speaking alone, except for work, I had no other distraction and it was so close, it was around the corner from the hotel where I was staying. The only thing I used to do was to go from work to the house, sometimes I used to think that I would become mute and so I would start talking alone, what could I do when I had nobody? because I left from where my friends were fifteen days after I arrived, I didn't use to see them often, they lived in San José, I would only call them on the phone, one day I told my friend:

-You know what? I'm gonna go, would you give me the chance to stay in your house for a few days while I find myself a job?

And I stayed working at an electronics factory before going to Mexico, it was then when I lived once again with them for a few more days, this time I worked for ten months, when I returned, I stayed again with them, they are good people, they help people, but from time to time they also get tired, even then they have helped lots of people, they are also from Loja.

When I started at the electronics factory, in '87, I used to earn minimum wage, which was 4.25, in that same year, I also took a job in the canerías; this job I got it through a man that was renting me the house where I lived, he already had many years working in there, I asked him to let me know whenever a vacancy opened up and, not only did he tell me, but he also recommended me with all good intentions, but here recommendations are worth nothing, here what matters is that you arrive at the right time to request a job.

What one has to do, first, to remain, is to register yourself  with the Manufacturing Union, it charges 50 dollars when one is already working and 17 monthly, only Mexicans work there, almost 90 percent, there are 2,500 employees, that I know because there are 2,500 numbers, here we are not people, we are numbers, aside from the fellow countrymen, one can see one or two blacks, there are a lot of Portuguese and one or two Italians; here there is no discrimination, the numbers are what matters, only that you are there during your break times. In terms of work what matters is to do it right, I notice that all of the people are worried about that, because it's a good job, it is worth to try and keep it, it's rare the person who's not doing the job the way it has to be done, in this job there are a lot more women than men.

I've been here for three years, they pay me nine dollars per hour, we are working seven days a week, eight hours everyday, but you substract half an hour of lunch and there's work only from July through September, in the meantime, during the rest of the year, I continue to work at the electronics factory, I work there because I know a lot about that, they pay me 5.5, but they pay me more at the canerías, Ah, but in order to earn that I also had to suffer for two years! That is, one has to make a hundred labour days in order to earn this salary, it's my first year that I make this, I was lucky because other people cannot manage to do it, the job is not very hard, for example, I have to separate the bad fruit from the bands, I would like very much to do the entire round until it goes out, because right now I only have one part.

My thoughts are to come to Mexico only during the season, because one gains rights, if I last ten years working in the canería I have the rights to a pension, arriving at 85, 82 years, I can get a pension through the social security, that's why I have to plan for when I cannot work any longer and, with what they will send me, with that I'll manage to support myself in Mexico without having to work, because it yields more in Mexican pesos and, since I won't be able to eat a lot because of  the age I'll have, besides I want to be able to have my resident documents, because if I do this about returning to Mexico and I am not working, they are going to put me as a resident...I don't know how it's called, but, having my papers, they won't take them away anymore, the good thing is that, right now, I am approved as a resident.

English is fundamental for the sewing business, because the best clients are the gringas, here I worked in a fashion house with a Chilean woman, a very good person, who went on vacation to her country, she lasted two months and left me in charge, I stayed with the condition of having an interpreter and, since she never came, even then I pulled off her work, if one doesn't know English then you learn it, when I worked at the electronics none of the chiefs spoke Spanish and, still, I could understand their orders, one teaches oneself to almost guess what they are saying and one starts getting used to that.

I was very much in demand at the workshop where I used to work, because all of the clients they always gave me good references, that I was very hardworking, who knows what it is that I used to answer, because I didn't understand anything, I didn't continue working there because I left to Mexico, that was last year, in '88; when I was coming back the owner told me that she would wait for me this much time and, since I took longer, she didn't want to hire me back because she already had another employee, but that when there was the need she would consider me, but I never went back because I was feeling annoyed, since I've done dressmaking all the time, I already have my own ideas and, that woman did know sewing but, since we didn't think alike, we didn't agree in anything, I sewed one way and she did in another way, I used to think she made things very complicated and, she used to think the same about me, I like being bossed around when I see that things are right, but when they are complicated, I say, why make them more complicated, only because the owner says she studied sewing, besides, I always thought this woman started sewing out of the blue, as in grabbing the dress and half-making it and half-finishing the body, so she used to sew and have a lot of fun, that is to say that what I had to do faster she would make it more complicated for me, only because of that I didn't feel comfortable, because of her ideas, when she left I used to sew my way and the clients would remain very happy with my work, that's why I thought there was no point in going back, that's why I didn't tell her that I was back and, since I already had a job at the canerías and the electronics factory, I wasn't too worried.

I would love very much to put my own business here but, for that, I need somebody that speaks English, I do understand the utmost essential, I do speak a little, the other day I wanted to open a bank account and, the first thing I did, was to look for somebody who would speak Spanish, the girl that was translating for me started telling them what I wanted and I was understanding everything that she was saying! One is lazy, that's all it is, because we should know English and we always ask in Spanish, because one wants others to make life easier for us, instantly one wants pure simplicity and, because of that, one doesn't learn, besides one has the jobs in Spanish, but, if there was a time when nobody spoke Spanish, one would struggle and since English is so expressive, it is understandable, it is very easy because at the time when they are talking to you they are making gestures.

That hasn't been the biggest problem for me, pressure is what has been the hardest getting used to, here they have you traumatized: that the work, that the government; it's a very strong pressure, that's why there are so many crazy people, that's why so many things happen here. Over there in Mexico, however it may be, you can fix your problems, not here, they threaten you with court and law suits, Miguel, my son, has problems, I tell him to get used to life here, to do whatever they demand him to do, because otherwise one cannot live well, and he doesn't want to do it, to listen. The police has detained him because of stupid things, I tell him, if one is living in the United States, one has to follow the law from here, and it is as though the Mexicans refuse to do so, for example, you cannot have loud music, because you disturb the neighbor, and if you are quarreling, the other people that are listening call the police, even though it's none of their business, a few days ago we went to run some errands and I told the girl that was with me:

-Put those beans, let them boil well, then turn the fire down, very low, so that when we come back they'll be cooked and they won't burn.

She relied on me and I relied on her, when I arrived, they had broken my windows! They had already called the police and the firefighters! As soon as I arrived I said:

-What happened? The house couldn't have burned down?

That the house was in danger of burning down! How was it going to burn down! The pot got burned, the beans got burned, it smoked and, since they smelled bad... it was only the little flame from the beans, and the gas got used up and, whatever else, but the house wouldn't have caught on fire for that reason. Well, they already had a report for me that it was going to be a fire! They broke my windows to get in and, I had the entire house turned into a mess and... that we couldn't go inside the house for several hours. A little thing like that, they make it big.

Once we bought a car and they called me over the phone, they gave me the car description and I told them that it was indeed, they told me it was involved in a car accident, Oh, I almost died, my children had just left, but that had happened on the 5th of November, they waited until the tenth day. A simple little crash in a parking lot! They reported it and, since the guys didn't leave a little note (and nobody leaves that, because it's not true that they leave it), that since they didn't leave a note with their personal information, so that they would call, man! they already had a restraining order, and it wasn't an accident, in was an  i n c i d e n t, but not accident. Immediately one thinks they've killed themselves. If, for example, you give, to say it somehow, a little hit to a car and you do not report it, then you are already involved in a criminal problem, they exaggerate it that way. At the beginning I only heard the siren and I  thought:

-Oh! Something happened to my children.

Nowadays, I'm more or less getting used to that, but in any case there's a lot of danger in the way of living here. There's no tranquility, nobody has it because you already got your payment and it doesn't add up, then I received a whole bunch of magazines that I didn't requested and they are charging me for that, I say why are they sending me these magazines when I don't want them? Once I got a little note that said:

-That I should contact them, that I had just won a million dollars and...

-That's not true, they're all lies! Once I believed it, and I almost fainted, I said:

-Oh God! How is this possible?

But I already know that it's not true and, that from all that I receive, I haven't asked for anything, I can no longer find a way to get rid of that, there in my town everything is calmer, but one gets used to living in comfort, there's a lot of dust over there and less jobs for the people.

Of all my children, Sergio arrived in '86, he came at age fifteen and he better returned to study, he stayed here only for one year, he was the first one to come, when he arrived he called me to Los Angeles and told me:

-Mom, I'm here, send me three tickets because we're three friends. He's the little one, and since I used to rent an apartment during that time, here people come and check, there can be no-one else, besides it was only a one-bedroom, at that time I used to live in Santa Fe.

My other son is Rene, he works in Nogales, he's an engineering chief at General Instruments, he's been living there for about ten or twelve years; the oldest didn't like it here, besides he has four children, he didn't want to leave the family.

It's been a year and a half since Mario arrived, Hector arrived three years ago, he also worked at the electronics factory where Sergio works, the factory is in San Jose. Miguel arrived a little after Hector, but during the same year.

Alicia and Marta are here as well, they arrived last year and they don't work, Berta arrived this year with my mom Josefina, she is from 1917 and is a widow, she's from Tunguragua, Nayarit, she's the one who helped me with my children when I came to work to el Norte.

Alicia is married and has a baby, with me live only my mother and Berta, but one has to see all the suffering one has to go through to get to this! That's why I say that sewing is a very noble occupation, one can take care of the children and work at the same time. I think none of them came out a tramp because I didn't have to leave them alone, I think that had an influence (and it's not so as to praise myself) but, anybody can say it, for example, the people that know me have congratulated me because I brought them up well, they are not perfect but, from among so many boys none came out a troublemaker. They work, they study, they are good boys.