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Invisible hands

Working without papers in Tulsa

Fernanda takes pride in her work. As she hurries from office to office, floor after floor, she keeps an eye on the clock. 9:27 p.m. She’ll have to work even faster to finish everything she is expected to do before her shift ends. She wonders if her children have gone to bed. 

It’s hard work. Fernanda is exhausted by the end of her shift. Her joints ache, but she takes pride in knowing she is helping her children, and helping the office workers by cleaning their space and preparing their workplace for another day of business.

But when one of those office workers walks by and Fernanda smiles to say hello, the beneficiary of her labor looks right past her, as if she wasn’t even there. Most workers in the building do the same. 

“They don’t even give you the slightest ‘Hi,’” Fernanda says. “Sometimes you hold a door open for them, and they don’t even acknowledge your existence. And when you do get a small ‘Thank you,’ you walk away as if with your wings all spread out—you feel like you were important in that moment. But most times, you open the door and they walk right on through without the smallest acknowledgement, and it makes you feel invisible.” 

Fernanda is one of four maintenance staff members responsible for cleaning an entire office building in Tulsa: conference rooms, bathrooms, hallways, lobby areas, elevators and more. Along with co-workers Veronica, Rosy and Anna, the crew must do it all in under five hours, even as more offices continue to open up inside the building.

“It’s way too much work for such little pay,” Veronica says. She’s the shift lead responsible for ensuring the work gets done every day. “The work requires too much out of people. They can’t take the pressure, and they leave.”

She says they typically have a high turnover rate, but the current team has stuck together for a few months now. The workload is only manageable because the four work in sync. They have a routine, a steady rhythm they follow every day. If just one is missing, it throws the entire performance off. 

“I had a C-section and within 20 days I was back at work,” Anna said. “Why? I don’t have health insurance or other benefits, and I need to pay my bills. So there you are, 20 days post-surgery, you fasten up, and you come to work.”

All four have similar stories. They put their health on the line not only to ensure they will have a paycheck to meet their basic needs, but to ensure the entire team is able to complete their work. They’re also undocumented—a fact of life making a difficult job even harder.

And like millions of undocumented immigrants in the country, most days their labor goes unnoticed, unacknowledged, and even purposefully ignored.

*  *  *

Although a number of industries like farming, construction and service sectors depend on the labor of undocumented immigrants, these workers are treated as anything but valuable and necessary by the people whose profits they drive. Sometimes, they’re barely afforded basic human dignity by those whose wealth is made possible by their labor.

“We don’t want to complain about the work or about them,” Fernanda said. “We just want them to see all of the effort we put into our work and to recognize that we don’t just do it for our families. We do it for their wellbeing too.”

And while the workers sitting in those offices during the day have big titles and important careers, it’s the maintenance staff that keeps it all going. Without them and their vital work, the endless cycle that is the American workday would grind to a halt.

And so the cycle goes: As one round of workers clocks out after a full day of work to return home to their family, another much smaller contingency leaves their own family to clock-in and prepare the building for another day of work. 

They sanitize dozens of bathrooms, discard pounds of trash, vacuum, sweep, mop floor after floor, dust, spray, wipe—all of the vital maintenance needed to ensure the building, and the work happening inside, can keep going. 

“At first, I felt humiliated to have to kneel down to scrub a toilet. I was ashamed to tell people that I worked cleaning houses,” said Anna, who left an accounting job in Mexico. There, she was accustomed to having a maid and childcare. “Even if you have a profession back home, when you don’t have papers, you don’t have the English, you can’t practice that profession.” 

Aside from the disproportionate amount of work for low pay, the most difficult thing for these workers is having to leave their family every evening, but they do it for their family.

“Sometimes it’s the heaviest work because it’s in the evening and you have to leave your family, leave your kids, leave everything to come here and work,” Fernanda said. “Sometimes I work really hard to clean their windows so they can see through to a beautiful landscape, then I get home and am so tired I don’t have the energy to look out my window and take in my view.”

Still, workers like these leave their home country and sometimes their families behind, make a dangerous trip to a foreign country, take on labor-intensive jobs where they are overworked, underpaid, and sometimes exploited for their labor, and they do it all to give their children opportunities they could only dream about.

“We do it for our children,” Rosy said. “More than anything, we do it for our children. Over there, it’s far too difficult to get ahead. So when the opportunity to cross the border presented itself, I said ‘I’ll do it for [my son].’”

This is a common story among the four women. All of them have risked their lives at one point to ensure a better life for their children.

*  *  *

“During the trip [to the United States], I was already coming to terms with the fact that I would die,” said Veronica, a who walked through the desert with her young son. The group she was traveling with was assaulted during their trip.

Anna was told by a doctor that her heart would not be able to withstand the journey. Rosy was detained by ICE and handcuffed by one hand while holding her five-month-old in the other. 

Fernanda and her husband nearly died in the trunk of a car, only to be taken hostage by the couple who was attempting to cross them. Afterwards, they narrowly escaped detention when management at the motel where they were staying called ICE on its own tenants. She says they owe their life to her uncle who rescued them from the harrowing experience.

“Sometimes you start to reflect and you think to yourself, ‘Why did I do that?’” Fernanda said.

Now, after years of raising their children in this new land, they know that even if they miss their home country, their old friends, and the pachangas, they can’t go back. This is where their children call home. 

“My father works within the government and is very well connected. Sometimes I stop and think, ‘Wow, my life would be so different if I lived in Mexico. I could make a living out a career and I wouldn’t have to be scrubbing bathrooms, but I can’t take my children there because they won’t go. This is their home. So that means I have to stay here and scrub bathrooms.”

The increased opportunities the United States provides for their children are well worth their suffering and sacrifice. It’s for their future they work these laborious, unseen jobs diligently even when they know their labor is undervalued.

But the four workers agree that it’s not all bad. They know there are people who support them and value their work, though they may be far and few in between. 

“I worked at a taco shop, and policemen would frequent the location,” said Anna. “These policemen would walk back into the kitchen hug the entire cooking staff. They would thank us for the food and make sure we knew they were grateful.”

The four speak fondly about one older gentleman in particular who always greets them at the building and offers them a soda or water, recognizing the work they do is exhausting on the body.

“God is going to bless him because he may just be offering us a soda but it makes you feel so valued,” Fernanda said. “God is going to bless him many times over for that.”

It’s a small gesture, but in a building where no one seems to notice them, the small gesture goes a long way.

“We just want them to count us as part of the process,” Veronica said. “We want to be acknowledged. We want to be valued.” 

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