A familiar precarity: Lessons from one woman's immigrant story

Teresa left her family and home to cross three borders at age 19. She found peace — and has things to teach us

Published June 20, 2021 12:00PM (EDT)

Cleaning supplies and medical face masks (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)
Cleaning supplies and medical face masks (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster/Salon)

"The pandemic has only affected me economically," Teresa's voice reaches me over the phone, across an unsteady signal and marked by her unmistakable cheer. 

She and I have spoken many times over the years. Our first serious conversation was in 2008, when the world settled into the Great Recession and Teresa sat at my kitchen table and spoke of her home in Honduras, of the flowing rivers, the rising crime and meager wages, of the borders she'd crossed, the child she left behind and the life she made in Houston. Over subsequent conversations, I would track her moves from housecleaner and nanny, to elder-care custodian, to waitress, her TPS-enabled shift in legal status, her children's high school degrees, her flooded homes, her born-again faith. She would tell me of her homeland's descent into pervasive, institutional violence, of her young niece's asylum plea, her mother's quiet death. Through it all, Teresa would remind me, again and again, that peace is internal, that we are, each of us, responsible for our own happiness. 

(My conversations with "Teresa" — which is not her real name — form part of a larger work that traces the broad strokes of globalization, immigration and working motherhood through the stories of several immigrant nannies.)

So on the call last November, when she described the cleaning jobs she'd lost to the pandemic and her ensuing scramble to find work at a local drive-thru, I wasn't surprised by her bright stoicism. I've talked to a number of domestic workers about their pandemic experiences. All have lost jobs. All have had to choose between going without pay and risking exposure to the virus. None see the situation as the world-changing novelty that I do. "Uno se resigna a todo," I'm told. You resign yourself to everything.

So I wasn't surprised by Teresa's casual acceptance. But I wanted to understand.  

"When you lose your job," she explained, "if you're the kind of person who has savings, you take your time and you look for a good job. But when you're used to not having a lot, you have to reinvent yourself often. So for us, we adjust. If there's no work, there's no work, and you find what you can." 

For Teresa, with contacts and papers and decades of hustle under her belt, finding a new gig at a local drive-thru didn't take long. For others, the task of self-reinvention has proved more daunting. In a nationwide survey of household cleaners and caregivers conducted last October by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, over 90% of respondents reported losing jobs in the early months of the shutdown. By the fall, 70% were still working fewer jobs. Most offered fewer hours, many at a lower rate. The reduced income meant that over half of the women surveyed, the majority of whom were mothers and primary breadwinners in their households, could not pay monthly housing costs. This, among the lowest-paid group of workers in the U.S.

And though most of us have experienced to some degree the economic burden imposed by COVID-19, the nearly half-million noncitizen immigrants who make their living as domestic workers in this country can find themselves twice removed from the social safety net that has emerged in the wake of the pandemic. Ignored among traditional economic indicators and often distanced from the rights of citizenship, cleaners and carers whose employers can no longer afford or no longer need their services have been left to their own devices, without access to federal relief programs or unemployment benefits.

Like so many of these women, Teresa lives at the meeting place of circumstances and social identities that compound vulnerability and severely limit options. In her homeland, she shares the collective burden of regional inequality — fruit of a postcolonial legacy, neoliberal global policy and pervasive corruption and violence. In Honduras, she has been doubly barred from access to power by her social class and by her condition as a woman in a deeply misogynistic society where a culture of gender-based violence has resulted in the highest rates of femicide in the world; where, in 2019, a woman was murdered every day. In migrating north, Teresa assumed the additional identities of unauthorized immigrant and racialized other; and though she has shed the former — a freedom threatened repeatedly in the tumultuous Trump years — the latter is as indelible as her indigenous features and her thick, dark curls. 

In taking up an occupation overwhelmingly performed by foreign-born women of color, Teresa assumed yet another precarious identity. Those who clean and care in private homes, or tucked away in understaffed elderly care facilities and underfunded child care centers, assume a powerful cloak of invisibility in the world of work and money. Theirs is the "women's work" of society. Trivialized, ridiculed and relegated to the shadows of public conversations about productive labor, economic vitality and gender equality. Erased and devalued, their livelihoods become dispensable household expenses, the first thing to go in an economic crisis. The resulting intersection yields a many-layered precarity that leaves these women with few protections and fewer choices. The consequences can be extreme. 

At 19, Teresa left behind her two-year-old son and a $20-a-week full-time job and crossed three clandestine borders — in the trunk of a car, in the scoop of a dump truck, floating on a homemade raft. Two years later, she held her breath and checked her fears for four long days while she waited for a paid coyote to deliver her child to her arms. In time, her younger sister, abandoned by a husband gone north, left her own children —a four-year-old daughter and two toddler twins — to make the same journey. Fourteen years after that, the left-behind niece followed mother and aunt in abandoning her homeland — by then ranked among the most dangerous countries in the world — and offered up a fearful plea for asylum at a border that had become a bloodied battleground of ideological warfare and children caught in the crossfires. 

And then came the rains. Teresa's Texas house flooded three times in downpours that spilled out over acres of Houston pavement and unfettered development. Outside of insurance adjusters and FEMA promises, Teresa called upon family, church and friends to rebuild. Once, again, and then once more. 

And then came the winds. My last call with Teresa was on Nov. 4, 2020, one day after category-4 Hurricane Eta had made landfall in her hometown. "The situation over there, it's really horrible, really ugly," she sighed. 

She reminded me about the rivers, how her family's home sits at a confluence of three waterways, including the great Aguán, already breaching its banks. "It hit hard where my family is, because of the rivers on both sides. The rivers carried everything away."

Less than two weeks later, a second category-4 storm, Iota, would strike the bewildered region, breaking records and washing away homes, roads and bridges. It would take weeks for the water to recede. Schools would close, agriculture would flounder and an already stressed society would struggle to recover.

The hurricanes, the pandemic, the job loss — these are, for Teresa, the contours of a familiar precarity. She has learned to push back against the fear with meaning-making of her own. 

"Do you worry about the virus?" I had asked, thinking of the drive-thru and the teenage coworkers and steady stream of customers.

"Well," I could hear her smile through the phone as she began her explanation, "I never believed in the pandemic, in the panic, the fear. In Honduras, a lot of people died because they were afraid of COVID. It's what your mind makes into reality."

Her voice lilts into a kind of reverie here, calm and once removed from the subject matter. This mystic tone is familiar to me, like her response to my condolences for her mother's death. "Well," she'd sighed, "death happens to us all."

Illness, floods, violence and poverty, they've become for Teresa pebbles in the stream. "Me, I've learned how to make myself like water. Water looks for a way around things."

There is a certain power to be had in Teresa's stoic meaning-making. Relegated to vulnerability by the consequences of policy and ideology, she chooses to see in this precarity not injustice, not victimhood, but a kind of inevitability of circumstance. In so doing, she throws her own explanation up against familiar narratives that would justify the misfortune: public narratives that make criminals of immigrants, blame poverty on the poor and ignore the real labor of maintaining home and family. 

Teresa locates her agency in the private within, a realm of spirituality and metaphor whose meaning is hers to craft. "We're not going to change the world if our house is in chaos," she reminds me.

But there is a distance between the world I see and the peace Teresa feels, a span I cannot breach. To me, transforming the private within feels insufficient when those who clean our houses are three times more likely to live in poverty as other workers. Insufficient, in a world where private and public are never truly separate and individuals must depend on the structures that the collective creates. Like the Texas energy grid, for instance, the product of an extreme free-market ideology whose failure last February exposed millions of Texans to a kind of vulnerability they had never known.

Shortly after the winter storm, I sent Teresa a quick text. In Houston, hundreds of thousands had spent multiple days without heat in a record cold that froze pipes and fruit trees and fingers and toes on a long 12-degree night. Carbon monoxide poisoning, hypothermia and contaminated water met with ruined crops, empty supermarket shelves and shuttered schools in a new flavor of disaster for this flood-prone city. For many, devastation. For most, an uncomfortable few days and a catalogue of new sensations and unfamiliar midnight fears. 

"Hi Teresa, are you all OK?" I texted.

"Everything's fine, thank God. We didn't have electricity or water, but we had gas, that was key." She followed with a photo of her now-grown boys piled together on a bed of cushions and blankets and family dog, "It was great not having electricity — they all wanted Mom again, ha ha ha." 

Teresa's gratitude is unsurprising. I, too, am grateful for the togetherness and for all the circumstances of privilege that kept my family safe. But I still carry the anxiety of those frozen hours within — the chill and the uncertainty and the eerie silence of trembling bodies in the night. The kind of uneasiness that has become a new normal in this post-pandemic order. 

Although such anxiety is privately endured, the circumstances that feed it are decidedly public. Just as the cold in my 2 a.m. bones was the direct result of a Texas political culture that balks at humanitarian restraints on a deregulated market, so Teresa's dangerous migration and the insecurity created by pandemic-generated job loss are the direct results of policies and laws that elevate production and devalue laborers, and of rhetoric that erases the economic and social value of cleaning and caring, even as the industry draws those cleaners and carers steadily across clandestine borders.

In these COVID days, the entire world has known a new kind of insecurity. For people like Teresa, it feels familiar; for many others, it's jarring and unsettling. To experience for the first time the constant, low-lying fear of illness or financial ruin. To know the unfamiliar dread of homelessness, of dying alone. To come to understand, in your frozen, 2 a.m. bones, that the social structures you rely on are inadequate to the task of keeping you safe. 

There is a connection between these private fears and the public world we create through policy, law and social practice. At the intersection, values are revealed: the good of the few over the well-being of all; the subjugation of the feminine for the sake of the masculine; the human cost of a cup of coffee, a cheaply produced textile, a kitchen floor scrubbed with lemon-scented cleaner. 

It's human nature to craft meaning out of inexplicable change, to seek control over the new and unfamiliar via metaphor or faith or narrative understanding. As we move toward an uncertain future, we are charged with making sense of our own insecurity. Now, when the pandemic has exposed the falsehoods of bootstrap individualism and private health; when winter storms, wildfires and hurricanes have lifted the consequences of climate change up from indigenous fishing communities and island nations and hurled them at our feet on gale-force winds; when the lines between those who deserve and those who do not have been blurred and untraced, what meanings will we choose to make of this increasingly familiar precarity?

By Elizabeth Cummins Munoz

Elizabeth Cummins Munoz holds a doctorate in 20th-century Latin American literature, specializing in Mexican and U.S. Hispanic studies and women’s studies. She is a lecturer in writing and communication at Rice University. Her upcoming book, "Mothercoin," will be published next January.

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Commentary Covid-19 Honduras Houston Immigration Latin America Pandemic Texas