My mother upheld a steely work ethic. Laboring in the fields, and laboring through 11 live births—news that made our local East Los Angeles newspaper—how could she not? She had grown up in L.A. during the violent anti-Mexican deportation raids of the 1920s and ’30s, when massive sweeps herded immigrants and citizens alike. And although she believed in marriage, she became bitterly resentful of her financial dependence on my father. Thus she was determined to prevent her six daughters, us girls, from falling into the same predicaments. With the capricious raids always reminding her how “disposable” we were as Latinas, she strove to create a female tribe unafraid of hard work, a loving commune unto ourselves.
At home, there was no expectation of charity. We worked for every need outside of the shelter and food provided by our American-born parents; we had jobs even while going to school, fueled by an unshakable resolve for a better future. Only later did it occur to me that our labor was defined by our gendered, working-class brown bodies, whether in the arduous responsibility of keeping a large household functioning or the backbreaking tyrannies of the California fields where we picked grapes in the summer. Our labor was measured in units of sweat and muscle, visceral, visible evidence of what my mother understood as honest work.
My years in college introduced me to another mode of labor, one that manifested in the sacred privilege Toni Morrison once called being in companionship with your own mind. That’s when I began to understand how some kinds of work—and some kinds of workers—were perceived as less than others. It was my good fortune to attend a college established by an order of Roman Catholic nuns who were feminists, activist teachers, and staunch humanitarians. Many of them chose to renounce their vows and form a nonprofit lay community rather than follow the strict dictates of the patriarchal cardinal archbishop of Los Angeles. Their fearless actions widened my understandings of oppression and loving resistance.