What My Abuelita Taught Me About the Dignity of Work | Sojourners

What My Abuelita Taught Me About the Dignity of Work

Former Miss Universe Alicia Machado. Image via /Shutterstock.com

There’s little doubt in my mind that Donald Trump intended to degrade and embarrass former Miss Universe Alicia Machado when he publicly called her "Miss Housekeeping."

Since the late seventies and early eighties, when my family immigrated to this country, my grandmother, mom, and a few aunts have all worked as housekeepers for at least some time. My grandma, whom we used to call abuelita, worked for nearly two decades as a live-in housekeeper and nanny for a wealthy family in Brentwood, an affluent neighborhood in Los Angeles. While housekeeping isn’t a job anyone in the U.S. particularly dreams of doing, I remember how grateful my abuelita was for having work — especially as she was an undocumented immigrant for much of the time she lived in the U.S. She cleaned, ordered, and organized an American home and cared for children that were not her own, while her employers went out and pursued more lucrative work.

My abuelita didn’t mind this kind of work because she understood something that for years I’ve struggled to understand: All work has meaning, and all work has dignity.

While washing dishes isn’t glamorous or exciting work, it is necessary work in the world — which you already know if you’ve ever neglected this duty for very long! And our God engaged in work just as we do — work that we might deem too lowly for the creator of the universe. The Bible tells us in Genesis 1 that God took chaos, darkness, and meaningless and ordered the universe from them. God separates light, waters, and land, creating something out of nothing.

And then after six days of work, God leaves creation unfinished, intending for human beings to complete it. God tells the human beings that they are God’s image bearers, and as such they are to work for six days and rest for one day, too.

My abuelita’s work had meaning not because it produced clean linens and spotless floors, but because it reflected the working God who created her — and she bore God’s image. I imagine her in that Los Angeles mansion, ordering that family’s universe: sorting laundry like darkness and light, bringing order and routine to little kids’ schedules, taking strange American ingredients, and becoming the creator of meals and healthy snacks, calling them into being.

Just as God created the ideal conditions for human flourishing, my abuelita maintained the world that helped that family to thrive. And with her modest salary she helped her own family to thrive as well.

And it’s for all these reasons that I don’t consider housekeeping to be lowly or degrading work, but dignified work — despite the way it may be viewed in our culture.

In the few years I lived in Los Angeles, I was mistaken at one time or another for a custodial worker, a nanny, a housekeeper, and a landscaper. I was asked point blank and fairly innocently if I knew how to make tortillas; if I could teach someone to dance salsa; and if my family was “illegal.” I’m fairly certain these assumptions were made strictly on the basis of the fact I’m a brown-skinned Latina. And while I don’t appreciate microaggressions and stereotyping and certainly don’t encourage them, I understand that these assumptions are usually made out of ignorance and a lack of understanding about the differences between the intent and impact of a statement.

The same could be said for the many degrading statements made this election season about or concerning Latinx immigrants: Latinxs being called rapists and criminals that bring drugs to the U.S.; accusations against an American judge of Mexican heritage of bias; a campaign promising mass deportations of undocumented immigrants many of whom are Latinx; and vows to build a wall along the border to keep Latinx immigrants out of the U.S.

It’s clear to me that for many people, the classist and ethnic stereotypes about Latinxs are so deeply ingrained that even when presented with facts that contradict stereotypes, white Americans can’t accept a counter-narrative — they can’t see us as we are. Like those who assumed I was a housekeeper, many people don’t realize how dehumanizing these stereotypes can be, reducing people to human resources or criminal actions rather than seeing them as human beings made in the image of God.

I don’t mind being associated with the meaningful work that people like my abuelita do every day, whether it be housekeeping, landscaping, or childcare. What I do mind is being dehumanized by racist, stereotypical assumptions that rob me and other Latinxs of our dignity as image bearers of God.

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