We Do Love Cleaners, Mamas.
Enca picked a burr out of the carpet and said, I’m the cleaner for the world and then quickly corrected herself and said, well, at least for my neighborhood. I smiled and continued to fold towels. She looked over at me while the tv app was loading and said, I want to be a cleaner when I grow up, and I said, well, cleaning is hard, hard work and people who are around you don’t think you know anything or are worth anything because you clean up after them. Her face furrowed and she said, but we love cleaners and I said, yes, because we used to be them.
I will never forget living hand-to-mouth in a converted garage on a farm in the middle of three counties scouring the internet for odd jobs I could do with a four month old. My pregnancy with Enca almost resulted in my own death that included a gain of pure inflammation that landed me in scary body territory, 3 seizures where I blacked out, perhaps dissociated, and woke up to the inability for me to produce enough breast milk, Enca’s inability to latch, and complete poverty. My family supported us as best they could, I can’t say the same for Enca’s white side of the family, who didn’t really bother to ask about our material needs, but at the end of every single day I was trying to find something that might bring us enough cash for food and gas. I saw a post in the notoriously racist Nextdoor forum about cleaning the local grange for cash. I didn’t want to do it, not as a graduate from a private university, not having been a full professor in China, not having published a book and having been an accomplished writer. But, I took the job, it was something I knew how to do.
I grew up cleaning houses, my mom would wake me up and say, mija, you wanna skip school and help me clean these two big houses today? I’ll get us Taco Bell after. I would always say yes. It was clear to me that spending time with my mom at her job was more important to the financial health of the family then sitting in school where white teachers treated me like a dumb Mexican (a phrase I had overheard most of my childhood) and my classmates singled me out for not having a body that matched their own. I read books on my own time, and school was easy for me, I got really high marks that went unnoticed. Anyway, I liked going with my mom to work – back then we would drive the old back roads out to beautiful ranch houses with the well-dressed, hair-done matriarch preening around the kitchen or heading out the door for a hair appointment.
I was tasked with dusting all surfaces, vacuuming and general tidying. My mom did the hands and knees work, and she prided herself on never skipping corners, that’s why they paid her good money, $35 cash for 3.5 hours work in 1995, I was 13. The white women never asked if my mom thought it was okay for me to skip school and help work, they never offered more money when they saw my mom needed to bring her child to work, they didn’t extend resources or any more kindness, they just thought, I’m sure, another Mexican and her kid. At any rate, I loved the porcelain figurines at one particular house, and saw the catalog for the figurines in the wicker trash bin and asked my mom if I could have it. I dreamed of drawing the figures in my notebook at home, and looking closely at all the different bodies, especially the fairies, I just loved the pastels. My mom nervously told me no, just leave them there and a few minutes later she grabbed the catalog and went to the kitchen to ask the master.
I didn’t dare listen. I felt bad that I had put my mom in that position; that I had wanted something that was so clearly something I wasn’t allowed to have, something that didn’t belong to me. I didn’t want it anymore and I wanted to cry to her and say mom it’s okay, I’m sorry I asked. My mom came back and went straight back into the bathroom where she proceeded to clean the base of the toilet on her hands and knees. I never got the catalog, so I just assumed the answer was no. On the drive to Taco Bell my mom said that she didn’t like how that lady was sometimes, but it’s good money, so what to do. My favorite part of our day was opening up our 59 cent bean burritos and crunchy tacos, and cracking open the stale can of Diet Dr. Pepper that the master had deemed good enough to throw at us, while watching daytime TV, before we had to get up and start working at our own home for the men who kept us.
Here’s a poem from Imaginary Animal, 2nd Edition
making house with neighbor girls we were wet-
commands and slight drool slurped up with no
care. We potted plants, dug up flowers from the alley
way, old mustard weed, scratchy to touch but lovely to
suck on the base before piling dry soil into a rude-
We tied broken walnut branches with California bunch
grass, sweeping pennies and rabbit fur out the front
door, our sweltering brows wiped with dirty forearms.