Sep 11, 2009


We became the ultimate Hispanic cliché and started cleaning houses. When the opportunity knocked I thought nothing of it. I was already planning and wistfully thinking of the hair products I would buy for the brillo pad currently residing atop my head. I giggled when thinking of makeup I would not get from Publix or CVS, I could smell the strawberries and champagne lotion I would get from Victoria’s Secret.

I didn’t stop to consider or think about how I was going to get the money, my mom could’ve said we were going to start a baby-smuggling ring and if it was going to get me closer to my expensive moisturizer I was game. Cleaning was merely means to an end. Off we went to clean for our first client. Our first task was a triplex property that was at the moment vacant and dirty from the tenants that didn’t bother to clean before they left. I attacked the kitchen after my mom’s face broke in rashes when she touched it after she found a drawer-full of dried red chili peppers the Mexican family had left behind. So I cleaned the fridge, thankful to have something else to do aside from reading (which had been my only solace since I found myself without a social life), and singing out loud while I scrubbed the working song from Snow White.

We dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig
in a mine the whole day through,
We dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig
It's what we like to do...

I was amused at myself for actually enjoying the task and went looking for my mom to ask her something. I walked into the bathroom and found her there, kneeling in front of the toilet scrubbing away someone else’s filth. All trace of amusement fled and outrage filled me faster than words can explain. I sputtered there not getting any words out while she scrubbed and scrubbed and asked me what I needed without stopping.

I need you to stop cleaning! I need you to get up and stop doing this! I need you to turn back time to when we were not ruining our hands and nails over someone else’s mess and instead getting them done once a week at the salon. I need you to be outraged right along with me, I need you to stop acting like this is all normal, stop acting like this is okay! I need you to call my dad and demand our money! I want you to stop sweating and hurting your back for some money. “I need to pee” It’s all I said. “Use the other bathroom” she said to me with a “duh” expression in her red and sweaty face. I ran to the other bathroom and sat on the blissfully cold tile (that my mom had already cleaned while I “Heigh-Hoed” to the Snow White song) and wept.

I wept for all the things I used to have and took for granted, for the past that was so close it was almost not past yet but already so far anyway, for the bitter anger that was burning inside of me like poison. I cried for the image of my mom scrubbing on her knees, that first time I saw her, the first of many, that remains imprinted in my memory, for the circumstances that had brought me here, for my father who had suddenly financially abandoned us without a backward glance. I cried for my pretty things left behind and the pretty things I now craved and could no longer buy. I cried annoyed at myself for turning into such a weak person that had cried more since here in America than in the last 18 year back home.

I cried because good Catholic guilt was choking me, knowing that my mom had come here because of me, because of my future and my aspirations (whatever they were then). I cried because I knew she probably had, since she came, cried in a hidden place for me not to notice. I cried because I had such promise, so much potential, such a brilliant future, such smarts (hey! I am not bragging that’s what people used to tell me) and here I was, stripped of my pride, forced to be humble, and someone else’s maid. I washed my face and came out and attacked the kitchen once again, this time ferociously, all pleasure forgotten.

I know now that before I had enjoyed the cleaning because I was playing the maid. Not realizing I was really one. My mom came out, done with her part and sat down rubbing her lower back while I silently wiped, and scrubbed, rinsed and polished every corner of that ugly kitchen until the Formica gleamed. We closed the door and walked back to the house toting out buckets full of cleaning supplies. My silly superficial and shallow self quivering in shame when people drove by as if they cared that I was someone else before and now I was cleaning houses. I was feeling such shame from walking the street with my bucket, you’d think I had come back from prostituting.
 “I am so proud of you” my mom said before we reached the house. She hugged me and I would’ve burst in tears again if I wouldn’t have found funny that she said the words NOW, after I cleaned a kitchen, but did not say the same when I had been accepted into law school. “Thanks” I said suddenly lost for words.

We got inside of the house and the chattering and laughing, the screaming and running around of my uncle, my aunt and cousins pushed away any thought of wallowing, the house too full of life to entertain any petty thoughts. It always came back to that. Family saved me. No matter how bad I felt, how humiliated by my change in circumstances (how very Austen-y), how traumatic my stupid experiences felt, how much I miss the money and the liberties that it offered, no matter how much my heart broke when I saw my mom struggle with the language when it seem too seamless and easy a transition for me, no matter how many times I wanted to beg to go back, having someone with you that revels in your tiny victories, someone that praises the time you spent cooking the chicken, having someone to sit down and watch the soap operas with, that is a balm that cures all maladies.

Those tiny moments with family saved me and my sanity. I could feel myself changing. I wanted to hold on to me, onto the person I knew. The one I was back at home. I felt that if I let her go it would be one more tie irreversibly severed. I liked me, spoiled brat that I was. I wanted to remain me, a little selfish and self-centered, spoiled and used to having everything handed out. I didn’t want to be tough and resilient I wanted to remain soft and pampered. Oh but being soft hurts, and my hands alone showed the signs all blistery, cracked and dry from the aggressive cleaning product I had used to kill the green radioactive-looking thing that had been growing in the fridge of the place we cleaned.

So I sighed when I walked toward the double glass doors. I sighed and muttered and cussed under my breath yet walked towards it anyway. My hair was finally under control after buying some extra-strength anti-frizz. I walked and said goodbye to myself, my old self and tried to feel some comfort in the fact that I was finally doing the right thing. When I was back at home and asking, demanding and expecting my dad to pay for my every whim I felt no qualm, no regret or second thought. But to take money from my mom when I knew where it came from, when I knew her body ached everywhere… I just couldn’t.

So I walked toward the doors that held my new job on the other side. I walked sweaty-hand and shaky to my first job interview. I was 19 years old. I opened the door and was cheerily saluted by a cacophony of voices and beeping. I said hi to the man in the long sleeve shirt and tie that was waiting for me and shook his hand with my sweaty one, and sat down when he pointed to a chair behind me. He smiled an encouraging smile and I responded with a shaky one. “So, let me start by asking you… why us?” He asked pleasantly, either feigning interest in my answer or actually curious. “Ummmm (shit!) I’ve always liked your products better” I answered, not knowing enough English to bullshit my way through that one and trying to sound as sincere as possible. His chest swelled with pride and he laughed a good-ol’-boy chuckle and shaking my hand said: “Well, that is good enough for me! Welcome to McDonald’s!”
Suddenly cleaning toilets doesn't sound so bad.

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