Domestic Economies: Women, Work, and the American Dream in Los Angeles

Domestic Economies: Women, Work, and the American Dream in Los Angeles

by Susanna Rosenbaum


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In Domestic Economies, Susanna Rosenbaum examines how two groups of women-Mexican and Central American domestic workers and the predominantly white, middle-class women who employ them-seek to achieve the "American Dream." By juxtaposing their understandings and experiences, she illustrates how immigrant and native-born women strive to reach that ideal, how each group is indispensable to the other's quest, and what a vital role reproductive labor plays in this pursuit. Through in-depth ethnographic research with these women at work, at home, and in the urban spaces of Los Angeles, Rosenbaum positions domestic service as an intimate relationship that reveals two versions of female personhood. Throughout, Rosenbaum underscores the extent to which the ideology of the American Dream is racialized and gendered, exposing how the struggle for personal worth and social recognition is shaped at the intersection of motherhood and paid employment.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822369974
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 12/08/2017
Pages: 246
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Susanna Rosenbaum is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the City College of New York.

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Producing In/Visibility in Los Angeles

Monday morning. I was supposed to meet Josefina at the metro stop on Wilshire and Vermont, two busy commercial streets that intersect just west of downtown, on the edges of Koreatown, an area filled with Mexican and Central American immigrants. A Mexican immigrant in her mid-forties, Josefina had worked in various homes as a live-in nanny before becoming an organizer at the Domestic Workers Group. As organizer, she rode the buses several times a week, handing out information about the organization and about workers' rights. She also visited domestic employment agencies and spoke to women looking for a job.

Over the course of fieldwork, I frequently accompanied Josefina on her morning rounds, but this would be my very first trip, and I was eager to get going. She had told me to be there at 8 AM, but when I arrived, she was nowhere to be seen. Impatiently, I watched three buses stop on Wilshire and a couple on Vermont. People got off a bus and scurried onto another bus or ran down the escalator into the metro. I also noticed a number of street vendors sitting behind makeshift tables or just standing with bags. They were selling tamales, pan dulce, bread, atole,champurrado, and Spanish-language newspapers. After twenty minutes, I began to worry that I'd been stood up, and I was about to give up when I saw Josefina squeeze out of an overflowing bus. She was incensed: she'd waited half an hour, watching two packed buses go by before a third finally stopped to pick her up.

But she was here now and didn't want to waste any more time. She grabbed my arm and led me down the escalator. We'd almost reached the metro when I remembered that I didn't have a ticket. I headed back up toward the automated ticket machines, but Josefina stopped me, pointing instead to a row of vendors. The tokens were cheaper, she explained: at a dollar a pop, I would save twenty-five cents with each one. I purchased two tokens and dropped one into the automated machine, getting myself a ticket with a transfer. We hurried back to the escalator and reached the platform just in time to get on the train to Universal City.

The metro ride took about twenty minutes, and at Universal City we switched to a bus. As we waited to board, Josefina distributed flyers to the people standing near us. Then a policeman or maybe a transit guard joined the line, and Josefina stopped. She seemed nervous, glancing at him repeatedly. Luckily, he walked away after a few minutes, just as the bus opened its doors. We got on, and I handed the driver my transfer. Josefina was not happy: I wasn't supposed to give him the transfer. We were getting on another bus after this one, and without the transfer I would have to use my second token. We walked to the back of the bus, sat next to a woman on her way to work, and began chatting. After exchanging the obligatory complaints about public transportation, she told us about her job cleaning hotel rooms, and we gave her a pamphlet detailing workers' rights.

At one of the stops, a transit guard got on the bus. Josefina and the other woman flashed him their monthly passes without really looking at him. I showed him my ticket and, without thinking, said something to him then turned and said something to the other two in Spanish. Josefina stared blankly into space and neither she nor the other woman responded, sitting quietly until the following stop, when the transit guard left.

Half an hour later we reached Ventura Boulevard, where we would transfer to another bus. Getting off the bus, I spotted a Coffee Bean and, nodding toward it, told Josefina that I needed caffeine. She frowned and shot me a look that said this wasn't a place where we should/could/would enter and then informed me that we'd be there soon. A woman approached to ask if we helped people find work. Josefina handed her a pamphlet and told her that the organization's members sometimes helped each other with job referrals, although that wasn't the group's primary aim. Our bus pulled up, and to Josefina's dismay, I had to use my remaining token. We found seats next to Silvia, who was on her way to the very agency where we hoped to hand out information. Silvia hated going to this agency; the owner was always rude and usually sent more than one person to the same job to make extra commission. She didn't know why she bothered to go, especially since it seemed that no one was hiring.

This last leg of our trip took about fifteen minutes — the whole trip, about two hours. But, finally, we arrived. We landed further up Ventura Boulevard, in Tarzana, in front of a discount clothing store and the entrance to the 101 East, across the street from a gas station. Then we crossed the street and walked to a mini-mall about halfway down the block. The agency was on the second floor of this otherwise unremarkable strip mall. I saw an International House of Pancakes (IHOP), a cell phone store, and a dry cleaner; it looked just like every other mini-mall in Los Angeles — and they are everywhere. Josefina suggested that I follow Silvia into the agency; Josefina couldn't go in, because they would recognize her as a troublemaker. So I stepped into the agency but lingered by the door while Silvia looked for a seat. The place was awful: there was no bathroom, no privacy, no pay phone, nothing. It was one room, and it didn't have enough chairs. Some women sat and others stood while they waited, often for hours, to see if a job became available. The owner presided over the room from her desk in the back corner. She interviewed everyone who came in, reviewing each person's application, taking the ten-dollar fee, and asking questions. Since the room was open, everything was public and every last detail of every conversation was audible. One woman came in hoping to find work for her two granddaughters, who had just arrived from Mexico. Embarrassed that everyone could hear, she looked around the room and shrugged, appealing for understanding. Her plea elicited no sympathy, only raised eyebrows and a series of clucks: What was this woman thinking? The poor girls were sixteen at most. Unmoved, the owner accepted their applications — and their twenty dollars.

After thirty minutes or so, I left to find Josefina, who was sitting around the corner. She couldn't wait at the mini-mall, as the last time she'd been there the mall's security guard had asked her to leave. We headed to the gas station across the street, where we could use the bathroom and the pay phone. I mentioned coffee and gestured to the IHOP, but Josefina shook her head and kept walking. This refusal reminded me of her response to the Coffee Bean. She had looked through both places as though they didn't exist at all, as though she couldn't imagine going into either one.

Inside the gas station, I found the coffee while Josefina ordered food from the taco stand. This surprised me at first — a taco stand inside what otherwise looked like every other gas station mini-mart I'd ever seen, complete with maps, trinkets, postcards, junk food, cold drinks, coffee, and so on. We paid $3.50 for a beef taco and two cups of coffee and went outside to enjoy our breakfast. We sat in front of the store, facing the gas pumps, at one of two round cement tables with umbrellas on top to shield you from the sun. Once again, I was a little thrown off, as I realized that we had walked to a gas station and were sitting there, eating and hanging out. I'd never spent more than five minutes at a gas station before, but then I usually drive to gas stations.

We spent some time at this spot, running to catch up with a few women as they got off the bus and talking to women who had been at the agency all morning and popped out to use the bathroom or to grab a quick taco. I watched as a stream of cars, mostly Toyotas and Hondas but also some luxury models, came in and out of the station. Drivers stopped, pumped their gas, sometimes ran inside to get coffee or maybe to use the bathroom, and then drove off. They didn't seem to notice us, and after a while I was so focused on finding women going to the agency (especially after repeated visits to this place) that I stopped looking at drivers or cars.

I tried to strike up a conversation with a woman sitting at the table next to us, but she seemed distracted and uneasy; she didn't want to talk, and she definitely didn't want to take the pamphlet I offered her. As I walked away, a beige Lexus SUV drove up, and she climbed into the front seat. Josefina shook her head and sighed, "Pobrecita, está encerrada" (Poor woman, she is a live-in). Suddenly, I understood: she didn't want her employer, who came to pick her up, to find her talking to me or to see her with information about workers' rights. Josefina explained that gas stations are often close to bus stops, which in many neighborhoods are a long walk from residential streets, so some employers will arrange to meet their employees there.

After a couple of hours at the gas station, Josefina decided that she was done, and we made our way back to the bus stop, where we waited for twenty minutes. Having used my two tokens, I had to pay full price for this ride. Displeased, Josefina chided me, again, for squandering my tokens and made sure that I requested a transfer. We got off after four stops and waited for the express. It was clearly not our day, though; our bus didn't show up for half an hour. As we waited, standing in the hot sun, we chatted with a woman who was with her four-year-old grandson. They were on their way home from work; she only cleaned one house on Mondays, because she had to babysit her grandson that day. The bus finally arrived, and it took us another twenty minutes to get to the metro, and once on the metro, another fifteen minutes to get back to Wilshire and Vermont. We had spent nearly two hours in transit, but Josefina had to keep going; she had to take another bus to get to her office. Fortunately, her bus pulled up almost immediately. We said goodbye and made plans to go out again later in the week.

I begin with this story to underscore the importance of urban space to daily life — how the layout of Los Angeles and everyday struggles to navigate the city help to structure social life and to re/inscribe relations of power (cf. Lefebvre 1991). In particular, I want to punctuate the sense of distance that separates the experiences of domestic workers and their employers. In his much-cited history, Fogelson (1967) aptly labels Los Angeles "the fragmented metropolis." The city certainly feels disjointed, its denizens inhabiting discrete galaxies whose orbits apparently never converge. These pieces create distinct but overlapping versions of the city, an immigrant LA that coexists with the LA of middle-class employers. For even as they seem completely separate and separable, these fragments form part of a deliberate whole, a mosaic that outlines the boundaries of both the city and the nation. As the introduction clarifies, Mexicans and Mexican labor have been and continue to be (now along with Central Americans and their labor) central to the making of Los Angeles as a categorically "American" city. Los Angeles, then, serves as reference for the contemporary American moment — our need for labor from Latin America must remain unseen. We cannot accept that the American Dream hinges on social and economic inequality, and we conceal this truth either by criminalizing immigrants or by erasing their very presence. This chapter focuses on the latter: asking how Mexican and Central American women's difference materializes through their engagement with the city, how this difference is erased (how they are erased) from the "American" imagination, and in turn how this erasure reaffirms their inherent difference. Examining how employers and domestic workers occupy and move through LA, I analyze the literal grounds upon which "immigrant" and "native-born," "domestic worker" and "employer" are made.

Rendering the In/Visible

Rancière (2006) elucidates how in/visibility is firmly embedded in a particular politics; "the distribution of the sensible" within any system defines what we see and hear, what (and who) counts as part of the social world. These processes locate people in a social system, empowering particular positions while disqualifying others "based on a distribution of spaces, time, and forms of activity" (2006: 12). Indeed, "at stake in the division of the sensible is rarely the formal question of visual perception but the social organization and control that is mediated by it" (Mirzoeff 2009: 5). The invisibility of particular bodies therefore highlights the power relations inherent in seeing and being seen. These relationships are always constructed in and through space — for the question is not one of invisible bodies but rather when and where particular bodies are (or should be) invisible.

Los Angeles is a city of distances and of erasures, both literal and figurative. The sprawl, "spatial apartheid" (Davis 1990: 230), overdependence on cars, and minimal public space that characterize it abet the separation of different groups of people, allowing them not to have to see one another. These physical separations lend a particular shape to the city, a built environment that creates and maintains disaffection, exclusion, and class, racial, and gender inequalities (e.g., Soja 1989, 1996; Davis 1990; Fulton 1997; Keil 1998; Bobo et al. 2000; Valle and Torres 2000; Cuff 2000; Low 2008; Deverell and Hise 2010; Sullivan 2014). Yet these gaps are also metaphoric, for as I note in the above story, a sense of detachment exists even when various groups occupy the same place. These erasures are necessary to creating a sense of wholeness — exclusion is crucial to maintaining LA as both a geographic and an imagined place. Nowhere is this more evident than in the often-disproportionate responses to breaches of in/visibility (e.g., Zilberg 2011; Deener 2012). As Zilberg (2011) illuminates, post-9/11 security concerns and neoliberal imperatives converged in a spatial politics that sought to harness the mobility not only of gang members but of Latino immigrants more broadly. Janitors, for example, became problematic when they came together in public to make themselves and their demands visible. Similarly, attempts to regulate (or remove) street vendors (e.g., Bhimji 2010; Rosales 2013) and day laborers (e.g., Esbenshade 2000; Cummings 2011) reflect a violation of the norms of in/visibility. Drawing attention to the unseen, these ruptures underscore spatial expectations. Here I consider the flip side of disruption, asking instead how immigrants remain unremarkable as they inhabit and move through the city, and how this reinscribes their difference. I do so in three parts, looking at residential segregation, different modes of transportation, and distinct habitations of the same places.

Neighborhoods and Mental Maps

Los Angeles is highly dispersed: in 2015, its population of 10 million spread out over four thousand square miles. More importantly, LA is highly segregated by race, ethnicity, and income level. This creates a logic of the city that marks neighborhoods according to who lives there, defining an area's desirability or imagined level of danger by the income levels and racial backgrounds of its residents. In turn, the neighborhoods that individuals inhabit categorize them and locate them in the social hierarchy. These spatial distinctions hold up existing regimes of value, not only reflecting differences but actively producing marginality.

The domestic workers I knew lived in immigrant neighborhoods, just to the west of downtown, primarily in Koreatown, Westlake, Pico Union, and Hollywood. The boundaries between these are porous — each of these areas blends into the next — but they are quite distinct from the wealthier neighborhoods where employers reside. A trip along Santa Monica Boulevard, one of the city's main east–west thoroughfares, highlights the differences between employers' neighborhoods and those inhabited by domestic workers. We begin at the water's edge, in Santa Monica, in front of exclusive hotels that have come under criticism for not paying their cleaning staff a livable wage. We pass Santa Monica, West LA, Beverly Hills, and West Hollywood. This a commercial street, so we do not see private homes, but we see many fashionable restaurants and some fast food places, including a Koo Koo Roo that offers valet parking, office buildings, an art house movie theater, and many Starbucks or Coffee Bean shops. We drive in front of the Century City Mall, a good place to spot celebrities, and past Madonna's record label. We notice at least two Trader Joe's and a Whole Foods, two specialty food stores. Thus far, the only people we have seen on the sidewalks are probably jogging, waiting at a bus stop, or selling flowers or fruit on a street corner. If we were to turn off into a residential street, we would see large houses or expensive apartment complexes with well-manicured lawns.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
1. Producing In/Visibility in Los Angeles  27
2. Middle-Class Dreaming and the Limits of "Americanness"  49
3. Making Mothers Count  83
4. Organizing, Motherhood, and the Meanings of (Domestic) Work  115
5. Dreaming American  148
Conclusion  177
Notes   185
References  205
Index  225

What People are Saying About This

Space of Detention: The Making of a Transnational Gang Crisis between Los Angeles and San Salvador - Elana Zilberg

“Susanna Rosenbaum’s engaging work is filled with profound insights into the shared but nonetheless divergent struggles of Latina domestic workers and their employers. Taking domestic service as an entry point for understanding how the two groups of women are bound to each other in their pursuit of the American Dream, Rosenbaum’s beautifully written ethnography lends itself nicely to undergraduate courses in women and gender studies, the sociology and anthropology of work and migration, and Latino and ethnic studies.”

The Maid's Daughter: Living Inside and Outside the American Dream - Mary Romero

"In this beautifully written ethnography of immigrant Latina domestic workers and their employers in Los Angeles, Susanna Rosenbaum not only juxtaposes employee-employer stories but also links them together through their struggles as mothers. The detailed ethnographic descriptions are masterfully done, bringing these women together in a way that has not been accomplished before. Domestic Economies makes an important, innovative, and unique contribution to the growing literature on domestic service by incorporating motherhood, immigrant struggles, and a critique of the 'American Dream' ideology."

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