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Domestica: A Review
By Baruti KMT
Sunday, 31 December 2006 - 12:00 PM

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Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence (Paperback), by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, University of California Press, 341pp.

Domestica In Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo's Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadow of Affluence, readers explore, along with the researcher, an oft overlooked element of domestic labour in America. In examining this particular manifestation between the haves and have little, Hondagneu-Sotelo has provided a "scholarly" treatment where Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed fell short. This is by no means an indictment of Ehrenreich's work, quite the contrary. Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed is approachable by the many levels of readers that seek to understand the phenomenon of the working poor and their interaction with affluent Americans (here, I speak specifically of Ehrenreich's chapter two titled "Scrubbing in Maine"). However, in Domestica, Hondagneu-Sotelo has opted to focus her research on immigrant domestic workers, specifically Mexican and Central American women in Los Angeles. In so doing, her research provides insight into the minds and worlds of both parties who engage in what can easily be termed a "love hate" relationship; one where, out of necessity, both the employer and employees are in need of one another. In addition, Domestica serves to highlight some of the struggles of members of America's largest "minority" population (be they documented or otherwise). While Hondagneu-Sotelo relegates her analysis and interviews to women in the Los Angeles area, this reviewer is of the opinion that her research may well be duplicated in other cities with similar populations and yield like outcomes.

Reading this work, I began pondering the future of work and workers and four questions came to mind: (1) As America becomes more diverse, will the question of immigrants holding less than desirable positions along the socio-economic margins become of increasing interest to researchers and politicians such that worker-friendly policies emerge? (2) If so, what forms will later policy manifestations assume? (3) What will such a shift mean for the future of economic relations between these two disparate groups? (4) Also, will America continue to marginalize employees that hold the critical job of caring for our young such that we ensure a future of troubled youth due to attachments to caregivers and the familial realities of economic and social stratification? History has shown if we ignore questions not unlike these, problems are sure to result.

Historically, "love labor" had been performed, initially, by captive African American women and later those under strict laws (Jim Crow) of mobility, both physical and social. With the relative ascension of African Americans into the socio-economic sphere of marginal acceptance in America, certain forms of work are left to the cheaper, and sometimes unpaid, labor force of immigrant women. Increasingly, such workers are admitted into affluent homes in America through informal networks. For this brief iteration, we consider Hondagneu-Sotelo's Part Two titled "Finding Hard Work Isn't Easy." Here, Hondagneu-Sotelo discusses the other worldly process where women in need of domestic workers and the women in need of domestic work come in contact with one another.

This "whole other world" is highlighted when Hondagneu-Sotelo writes, "most prospective employers looking for paid domestic workers in Los Angeles bypass employment agencies, newspaper ads, or other formal job announcements, which they find expensive, slow, and unreliable. Instead the majority rely on their co-workers, neighbors, friends, and relatives when they seek domestic help." This in itself is telling in that it pulls from Granovetter's theory of the strength of weak ties as mentioned in Deirdre Royster's Race and the Invisible Hand. Applied to Hondagneu-Sotelo's work, there exist, in the domestic worker community, ties that allow for a potential employer in need of workers to gain access to a network of domestic workers with the ability to refer friends and/or family members to employers in need of domestic assistance. Additionally, such a process not only allows for a socially and economically unequal relationship to ensue and continue for years in some cases, it also provides the foundation for further entrenchment of unequal employee and employer relations rooted in economic exploitation.

Whereas many of these workers are not earning a living wage, some employers exercise great pains not to flaunt their affluence. In one telling moment, Hondagneu-Sotelo writes, "some employers try to snip off the price tags on new clothing and home furnishings before the Latina domestic workers read them because they fear the women will compare the prices of those items with their wages - which they invariably do. While some employers often feel guilty about 'having so much' around someone who 'has so little,' the women who do the work resent not their affluence but the job arrangements, which generally afford the workers little in the way of respect and living wages" (xi-xii). In this instance, we witness the uneasy but, to the employer, necessary relationship between the affluent employer and the unaffluent worker. Additionally, we note how workers, through Hondagneu-Sotelo's in-depth interviews, indicate that they would rather that requests come not "as a symbol of servitude and a humiliating affront" to one's dignity, but that their work is seen for what it is, essential to the functioning of the household in which they are employed.

In producing a work with statistical data on domestic labor in Los Angeles, coupled with the voices of women on both sides of the issue, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo has done an admirable job of broaching the subject of the uneasy relationship between affluent women who require domestic assistance and unaffluent immigrant employees that work and, in some cases, live among them. Of the many good points in this work, her in-depth interviews with employees and employers are most revealing. Not unlike the work of Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed and Katherine S. Newman in No Shame in My Game, Hondagneu-Sotelo allows readers to, as Newman suggested, gain a clearer understanding of the interconnections between people and networks that a purely quantitative work would not permit. That being said, this reviewer applauds Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo and her effort to provide a clearer understanding of the women we see on train platforms and in bus terminals that dot American cities and suburbs of affluence.

© Copyright 2006 by Radical Scholar, Inc.

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