Tag Archives: Economic Equality

Domestic Workers, Dignity and a Daughter’s Story

January 28, 2013

From left to right: Translator (name unknown), Maria Reyes of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Guillermina Castellanos of the National Day Labor Organizing                            Network, panel moderator Kathy Coll of Stanford University. Photo by author.

From left to right: Translator (name unknown), Maria Reyes of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Guillermina Castellanos of the National Day Labor Organizing Network, panel moderator Kathy Coll of Stanford University. Photo by author.

By Seline Szkupinski Quiroga, Ph.D.

Last November in Oakland, at the meetings of the National Women’s Studies Association, I attended a session entitled “Imagining New Solutions for Old Problems: Domestic Workers Create Networks – Transforming the Struggle for Social and Economic Justice”. The panel offered academic, activist, and worker voices reflecting on the current state of labor activism in a field comprised largely of immigrant women.

Historian Eileen Boris provided a context for current struggles as she outlined the dialectical history of strikes (protests) and standards (laws). Maria Reyes of Mujeres Unidas y Activas (an immigrant rights organization) and the National Domestic Workers Alliance described initiatives such as the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights which would have given housekeepers, childcare providers and home health care workers rights such as overtime pay, mandated meal and rest breaks, adequate sleeping conditions for live-in workers, and the right to use employers’ kitchens to cook their own food. (The bill was vetoed by Governor Brown).

Nicole Brown-Booker, a professional woman with a significant disability who must employ personal care attendants in order to live independently, spoke of Hand in Hand, a coalition of domestic workers and their employers working together to educate about and advocate for dignified and respectful working conditions. Pam Tau Lee, a long-time community and labor activist, shared her experience as a daughter now employing care workers for her elderly parents.

The entire session was inspiring and enlightening but it was these last two presenters who had the most impact on me. Their stories resonated with me because I have had experience with the ethical dilemmas associated with employing a home health care worker. My mother had Parkinson’s disease and osteoporosis. In her later years, she lived with my sister and her family as she was no longer able to live independently due to her frailty and advancing symptoms. My sister and her husband both worked fulltime and couldn’t provide the 24-hour care my mother needed.

As for many families in this situation, financial concerns were paramount. My mother had limited resources—social security, a small pension and some savings. She did not have long-term care insurance so while her health insurance covered a few hours of home health care, the majority was paid for out of pocket. Daunted by the task of finding qualified workers with experience and figuring out tax withholdings at the same time as learning about my mother’s rapidly changing needs, we decided to contract with a private company, and the monthly expense quickly mounted.

My mother immigrated to the United States in the 1950s. She was completely bilingual but as she aged, she was more comfortable expressing herself in Spanish. We were grateful to find home health care workers who could easily communicate with her in Spanish, but I was uncomfortably aware that the limited English abilities of some would limit their ability to advance or to be employed in other sectors. I learned that few companies provided opportunities for training and certification.

I have respect for the work of caring for others. It is not an easy job, and it is more than just providing another pair of hands. In my mother’s case, for example, it required confianza as workers helped her make purchases and with intimate daily tasks; and patience as the side effects of her medications—hallucinations and paranoia—caused personality changes. In one particularly difficult period, her aides would spend hours looking for something that had been ‘lost’ only to then be accused of theft. My sister, in addition to managing her own household, had to mediate these clashes.

Over the years that my mother needed home health care workers, we learned that of the daily amount she was charged, only a small portion actually went to the worker. I don’t know if this is standard or just a practice of the companies we dealt with. We wanted to pay a fair wage and give the work and care provided the dignity and value it deserved. At one point, we intervened when we found out that one of my mother’s aides was consistently receiving her paychecks late. The company’s proposed ‘solution’ was for my mother to buy out the worker’s contract at a cost of over $30,000. The situation was so messy we had to seek legal counsel. As my mother’s medical condition was rapidly declining, shifting from using a company to employing home health care workers directly would have meant finding a new team of workers who could attend to her needs, and forming new relationships at a time when stability was important.

The decision of what to do was eclipsed by my mother’s entrance into hospice.When my mother passed away, her home health care workers attended her memorial service, and I am still in contact with some of them as they share the accomplishments of their children and other milestones.

Domestic workers, such as the many women who helped my mother in her last years of life, provide vital services yet these workers often face unjust social and economic conditions. The industry is unregulated, domestic workers are excluded from the protections of federal wage-and-hour laws, and abuses are rampant. However, as the presenters in the session noted, the coalitions and networks that domestic workers are forming are having effect. In 2010, New York State passed the nation’s first Domestic Workers Bill of Rights into law. Although Governor Brown vetoed the California version, local organizations have not given up the fight. San Francisco’s Mujeres Unidas y Activas has developed an innovative worker-centered skills training, job placement and labor rights program called Caring Hands. A national campaign to coordinate efforts and educate the public called Caring Across Generations launched in 2011.

As our population ages, it is estimated that the number of people who will need care will only grow.[1] We may all face similar dilemmas, as we have to make decisions about a sick parent or partner who needs help. It is time to organize to change the current structures and policies. We must improve the working conditions and job quality of domestic workers but not at the risk of making such care inaccessible for low-income families.

Seline Szkupinski Quiroga is a child of immigrants and a medical anthropologist living in Phoenix, Arizona. She is a member of the Mujeres Talk Colectiva.

[1] Salinas, Robert. “Home Care.” Long-Term Care Medicine (2011): 3-14.


  1. Elena Gutierrez    February 6, 2013 at 12:32 PM
    Thanks for your thoughts on the complex relations women face as both carefivers and receivers- roles we all play at some point in our lives. Do you have any resources that those of us who would like to keep up on these issues can use?
  2. Seline (Mujeres Talk Co-Moderator)    February 7, 2013 at 3:52 PM
    Hi Elena,
    In addition to the links in the essay, the websites of the following organizations will keep you up to date:
    National Domestic Workers Alliance
    Caring Across Generations
    The Domestic Employers Association

Latinas and Roe v. Wade

January 21, 2013

Photo by We Are Woman, Aug 25, 2012, Flickr/Creative Commons License.

Photo by We Are Woman, Aug 25, 2012, Flickr/Creative Commons License.

By Elena R. Gutiérrez

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” MLK

In watching the unfolding online celebration of the fortieth anniversary of Roe v Wade  (January 22, 2013), it is undeniable that the voices of women of color have been present and impactful in changing the landscape of abortion organizing over the past four decades. While Planned Parenthood’s decision to step away from the pro-choice framework may be the most recent indicator that the mainstream reproductive rights movement has finally understood that for most women terminating a pregnancy is anything but a “choice,” I have been struck by several articles and blogs, more than ever before written by Latinas, commenting upon what this landmark legislation currently means for our communities.[1]

It is not that this is a new occurrence—Latinas have advocated for issues of reproductive health, including pregnancy termination, for longer than Roe v. Wade has been in existence. However, it has been refreshing to read a number of public opinions and perspectives that directly engage how and why abortion is significant in Latina lives; although all authors inevitably point out that what is popularly perceived as open access to abortion in the United States is hardly the reality for most Latinas. As one “Anonymous- Reproductive Justice Advocate” notes: “The legality of Roe v. Wade does not reflect our country’s culture where sex education is often times limited to abstinence-only, access to birth control and abortions services is disproportionate, and interactions perpetuate slut-bashing where sexually-active youth are labeled as ‘too sexual.'”[2]

While the anonymity of the author may signal how much further we have to go in creating social safety for the one in three women who have abortions, especially those who are young, her insights indicate how the politics of abortion go beyond legal access to the actual medical procedure and speak to the broader cultural context and economic circumstances within which women live. As reproductive justice advocates have argued for decades, it is only within this broader framework that we can speak about the significance of Roe v. Wade for Latinas.

The importance of financial access to abortion has in fact become memorialized internationally in the life of Rosie Jimenez, who is commonly believed to be the first known death by illegal abortion after the passage of the Hyde Amendment in 1977.  Hyde cut off Medicaid funding for abortion to women on public assistance — women who by the government’s own definition cannot afford health care. Rosaura (Rosie) Jimenez, was a mother and college student living in McAllen, Texas, in the late 1970s.  The daughter of Mexican migrant farm-workers, Rosie was a single mother raising her 5-year-old daughter and also a student six months away from her teaching credential.

In her final semester of school, Rosie realized that she was once again pregnant. However, too financially strapped to pay for a safe and legal procedure at a clinic, she found a cheaper alternative. She ended up going to an illegal abortionist who used unsterilized instruments to complete her surgery. Within a week, Rosie suffered a painful death from an infection that ravaged her body. A $700 scholarship check was found in her purse when she died on October 3, 1977, at the age of 27. She could have used her college money for safe abortion care at a clinic, but she was saving it for her education.

Although it is almost thirty-five years after the death of Rosie Jimenez, the recently published commentary on Roe’s anniversary echo a reality that is still very common for Latinas in the US. In fact, more women than ever since the legalization of abortion will find themselves in the circumstances faced by Rosie Jimenez should they face an unintended pregnancy.[3] More Latinas (37 percent) are uninsured than women of any other racial or ethnic group, and more than a quarter of Latinas live in poverty.[4]  Despite the fact that they are also more likely to live in areas with poor access to family planning services, Latinas have abortions at disproportionate rates; with estimates of between 17-20% of women in the U.S. having abortions being Latina.[5] When we take into account the circumstances of newly immigrant Latinas, who have little financial and social assistance and may fear deportation, or dealing with providers who do not speak Spanish, the circumstances are even more challenging.

These numbers show that Catholic or not, Latinas do have abortions, not because they are making that “choice,” but for many, because the circumstances of their lives may offer no other choice. Moreover, current research suggests than rather than being staunchly against it, Latinos hold compassionate views about abortion.[6] But perhaps what is most notable at this particular moment is that Latinas continue to be at the forefront of reproductive health and justice organizing. From working for legal and policy change to providing health care and participating in grassroots mobilization, for over forty years these advocates have insisted that true reproductive “choice” necessitates an understanding of the many factors that impact women’s reproductive options.

While access to the termination of a pregnancy through legal abortion is critical, it is insufficient. True reproductive justice efforts must also strive to create a society in which any person has the freedom and resources to not have a child, or to have as many as they want. All people have the right to parent the children they have with full access to the social resources necessary to raise them in safe and healthy environments, without fear of violence from individuals or intervention by the government. This includes making assistive reproductive technologies available, funding education, investing in health care reform for all, ensuring food safety and security and prioritizing the unification of our families. That we guarantee all of these options for all people regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, or physical ability, is fundamental to creating true reproductive justice.

If you would like to learn more about Latinas and abortion, reproductive justice or efforts to end the Hyde Amendment:

1. Join the Strong Families tweet: What has Roe v. Wade meant for communities of color? Jan 22nd, 9am #Roeat40 #Roeat40chat

2. Participate in a “Talking About Abortion” e-LOLA (Latinas Organizing for Leadership and Advocacy) hosted by the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (Jan. 22-23; offered in English and Spanish)

3.  If you can’t make the training above, you can refer to many bi-lingual fact sheets and policy analyses offered by the NLIRH at: www.latinainstitute.org/issues/abortion-access.

4. Find out about the abortion laws in your state, and the existence of an abortion fund (check out http://www.fundabortionnow.org/). These are the folks who will be able to assist someone in your area if needed and are a great resource.

5.  Find out if there is a reproductive justice organization in your state.  Volunteer, recommend, donate and keep connected to the issues.


Elena R. Gutiérrez is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She is the author of Fertile Matters: The Politics of Mexican-origin Women’s Reproduction, co-author of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice, and is a member of the Mujeres Talk Editorial Colectiva.

[1] For example: Strong Families, Still Wading: Forty Years of Resistence, Resilience and Reclamation in Communities of Color, www.reproductivejusticeblog.org, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice http: //www.californialatinas.org/a-young-latinas-reflection-on-choice; “Latino Attitudes on Abortion: Roe v Wade 40 years later. 1/17/13 www.hispanicallyspeakingnews.com/latino-daily-news/details

[2]  Anonymous, “A Young Latina’s Reflection on Choice,” California Latinas for Reproductive Justice http://www.californialatinas.org/a-young-latinas-reflection-on-choice)
[3] The Guttmacher Institute recently reported that during 2011 and 2012 more abortion restrictions were enacted in U.S. states than in at any other previous years. 2011 marked a record high, with 92 pieces of legislation being passed throughout the country. Guttmacher Institute, “2012 Saw Second-Highest Number of Abortion Restrictions Ever,” guttmacher.org.media/inthenews/2013/01/02/index.html. 1/2/13.
[4] Hope Gillette, “Cervical Cancer Awareness: Latinas At Greater Risk, ‘Third Most Likely Group To Die Of The Disease.” Huffington Post Online 1/14/2013.
[5] National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. (2004) “Latinas and Abortion Access: Issue Brief,” latinainstitute.org/sites/default/files/publications/AbortionIssueBrief.pdf.

[6] National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. (2011). “Latino Abortion Attitude Polling” http://latinainstitute.org/publications/Poll-Latino-Voters-Hold-Compassionate-Views-on-Abortion

Felicity Amaya Schaeffer    January 25, 2013 at 5:29 AM

Thank you Elena for such a timely and powerful post. You remind us of the limits of liberal “rights” frameworks in erasing the barriers faced by poor women of color. People like to blame women’s “cultural” silence about sex in the family as the ultimate barrier to them seeking legal abortions, erasing the entire structure of poverty and lack of healthcare access. Another aspect of reproductive justice we need to fight against is the insidious way undocumented migrant parents are increasingly losing their children to child services and foster care. They are increasingly constructed as irresponsible parents – simply due to the fact that they do not speak English and because of the “risks” posed by being undocumented, which of course means today that they are likely to face prison time, detention, and deportation. Thank you for your post!