Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Q&A: An L.A. domestica on housekeeping work, papers, and Meg Whitman's maid

A detail from a mural in London, June 2006
A detail from a mural in London, June 2006
Photo by Bulent Yusef/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The scandal that erupted earlier this week over Meg Whitman employing an undocumented immigrant as her housekeeper for nine years has turned the governor's race into a circus of press conferences in recent days. Republican candidate Whitman insists she did not know that ex-housekeeper Nicandra Diaz Santillan was working here illegally, in spite of a Social Security no-match letter that would have raised a red flag; Diaz, who at one time represented herself as having documents, insists otherwise.

Looking beyond the back-and-forth sound bites, however, beyond its high-profile context, the business relationship between Whitman and Diaz is not so noteworthy in itself. Each day, undocumented (and some documented) domesticas - as the legions of women who clean our homes call themselves - board buses headed for the Westside or the Valley or Los Feliz or the Palisades, you name it, to clean the homes of clients who, by and large, are less concerned with their immigration status than how they make their floors shine and their mirrors sparkle.

So after interviewing a labor expert about the underground economy yesterday, I decided to go to another expert on the underground economy: A domestica. A local group that works with domesticas introduced me to Juana, a 51-year-old grandmother from Oaxaca who lives off Sunset in East Hollywood.

Juana has been in the United States almost 20 years, but she has been unable to adjust her status and remains undocumented (hence the use of her first name only). She is singlehandedly raising her 9-year-old granddaughter, left with her in L.A. by her daughter four years ago, after her daughter - who graduated from high school here without papers, another story in itself - moved with her new husband to Texas.

A clothing-factory worker for most of her time here, Juana first began cleaning homes long ago. She went back to the domestica industry last year after a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement audit at American Apparel - the financially troubled, activist, hipster clothing company famously busted last year for hiring unauthorized workers- cost her a steady sewing job in which she said she earned $9 an hour.

"I thought, 'What about my rent?," Juana said over the phone last night in Spanish, home with her granddaughter - whom she refers to as her daughter - after work. "What about my child? What am I going to give her to eat? So I decided to clean homes. I figured I might not get much work, but at least I can pick up my granddaughter from school."

So she went back to working as a housekeeper - and no, to date, she says she has not been asked for her papers. Juana takes the bus to work daily around the L.A. basin, cleaning homes in neighborhoods that range from Reseda to Lincoln Heights to Beverly Hills for $10 to $15 an hour. “It’s a long day,” she said.

Here is Juana's take on the Whitman-Diaz scandal, how the domestica industry operates, and how she wishes political leaders would address people like her, if they were to.

M-A: So what do you think of this situation with Meg Whitman and her former domestica?

Juana: I only heard about it this morning, and it made me think. Why didn’t she talk about this when it was going on, the domestica? Why didn’t she file a report or something? Why did she wait until now?

M-A: She went through an agency for that job. How do you find work?

Juana: I find work on my own, and also partly with (a cooperative). I also have a sister who does the same thing. Between the two of us, we go out and find work. Before when I cleaned homes, I did it through referrals. But when my daughter finished high school, and we had no papers, I told my daughter…”Why don’t you distribute business cards and look for work?” I helped her do that. We made some cards, distributed them, and we found work that way.

M-A: What sort of documentation do employers in these housekeeping jobs ask you for?

Juana: Cleaning homes, so far, no one has asked me for papers. Even in the jobs I find on my own. My sister and I do the same thing. We distribute cards, and people call us. My sister speaks English well, so I go with her to clean homes. So far, no one has asked us for anything. References, yes. They ask who we have worked for, how long we have worked for them.

M-A: Have you discussed your status with employers you clean for?

Juana: I worked for one lady who contacted me and who never asked me if I had papers. She told me to come to work, and that was that. She paid me cash. She never asked me until I told her. I mentioned that I wanted to do my taxes, if she could do them. Then she asked me if I had papers. I said no, and she said, 'Oh, I thought you had papers, but I never thought to ask you.” But it wasn’t a problem.

People don’t ask. At least so far, no one has hassled us for papers. In the factories, yes. In the homes, no.

M-A: Do you have any experience with housekeeping agencies, like the one Diaz went through?

Juana: The agencies, I don’t trust them. There was a time about ten years ago when I wanted to change jobs, and I went to an agency. I tried it out. They gave me the directions, I got there, I did the work, and when I finished, the lady asked me how much she owed me. There were two of us. It was very disappointing. She spoke with the agency, and the agency and the lady agreed that half (the money) would go to the agency and half to us. She gave us $50 between the two of us. We had worked eight hours. I decided not to work for an agency.

M-A: You mentioned taxes. How do you pay them?

Juana: I have an ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number).

M-A: On the subject of the coming elections: I know that you're unable to vote, but you have family and friends who can, or at least will someday, like your granddaughter. If political leaders were to address people like you, what would you like to hear from them?

Juana: I would like for them to give opportunities (for legal status) to the people who come here to work in this country. At least for those who have worked, who have contributed, who have done their taxes. We have children, grandchildren. We are not going to leave. My daughter got married and had children. She does not plan to go back to Mexico. My granddaughter, less. Why would I take her to Mexico if I came from there and I know how one lives there? I’m not going to take her there to suffer. She was born here.

When I was working at American Apparel, politicians would go there to seek Latino voters. I would think, "I don't have papers, I’m not going to vote.” But when the elections would come, they would come talk to us. They want our votes. But that is it.