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The Cleaning Lady

The Cleaning Lady

Here is a story from my days as a grad student. Staying late in the office was a common occurrence for me. It was the best time to work on papers and such in a quiet environment. Routinely, the custodial staff (usually a pair of Spanish speaking older women) would come in and clean the hallway of offices, which included mine. We would exchange pleasantries, but nothing more than that. Until one night. A brief conversation with one of these women changed my relationship with my ethnicity in a significant way. 

Late on night, as I stayed late in the office working grad school homework (namely the prospectus for my thesis), I took a small break to make polite chit-chat with the pair of women who cleaned our offices every night. Before this particular evening, I can't say that I paid much attention to these women, as far as engaging them in a meaningful way. I find this to be a fairly common occurrence from those we label "professional" and those we label "workers." I don't believe it is any overt form of disrespect, but I do notice an invisible line that never really gets crossed.

Before this particular night, our conversations never went much past the "Hi, how are you?" stage. I must have looked extra frazzled because the conversation turned from, "How is everything?" to "Are you working hard?" I explained to the woman, as she casually emptied out the trash bins, that I was doing a lot of reading and writing and it was becoming overwhelming. 

She was supportive in her words, "You can  do it!" And then she added something that made me stop and think. She continued with, "You have to do it. For people like us (custodial staff). You don't want to end up like us."

This took me off guard and I didn't know what the appropriate response would be. I gently said (with all the appreciateveness I could muster), "Your job is just as important."

I immediately felt a connection with this woman. The reason this experience was so significant for me (other than the obvious  class differences at play) was the connection I felt to my Hispanic/Chican@/Mexican-American identity in that moment. 

Throughout my life I've been told that I wasn't Hispanic enough because I didn't know how to speak Spanish or that I didn't know certain cultural references or customs. I blamed most of this on my upbringing in an upper-middle class home where both my parents worked in professional careers where English was the spoken language, and it carried in the house. 

We never spoke Spanish in the home, and I always felt separated from much of the culture due to my inability to communicate in "my language." I have been shamed and have felt ashamed and have grown further and further apart from my "Mexican-ness."

My Hispanic identity became something that was not as salient as other identities I focused on (gender, sexuality, ability status) and thus never felt that I represented, in any important way, "my people."

In this brief encounter I was reminded that I am a representation of Brown (broadly defined) identity and that do notice my ethnicity (both White, Latin@ and other POC). I was also made keenly aware that I have been given a great many advantages in my life that many in my community do not share. 

For once I felt connection with my Hispanic/Latin@/Mexican-American roots. I felt a sense of great pride and great humility for being given the chance to portray Mi Gente in a positive light.

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Diversity Talks | Victor Santana-Melgoza | Ph: (541) 231-4768 | victor@diversitytalks.com