If You’re in the Fight, Get Ready to Do the Work
The afternoon of Wednesday, November 9, 2016, the first day of Donald Trump as our President-elect, I was sent to interview a woman I’ll call Sandra Henriquez. Although Henriquez couldn’t vote because she is undocumented, she traveled to battleground states to get the vote out. Henriquez feared, like I did, the kind of world we had just woken up to. To understand Henriquez and her political commitment you must understand her story, which is a story of rape.
Henriquez is just one of many undocumented women who are telling their stories about being sexually harassed and assaulted in the workplace. We were meeting the morning after the election because she wanted the dangers facing the women who dust the photos on our desks at work, who refill the toilet-paper rolls in our gym restrooms, and clean the floors of our hospitals to be known, and told. These dangers that now seemed even greater given what Trump’s successful election had already unleashed in the previous few hours.
Sandra Henriquez used to work as a night janitor in an office building in downtown Los Angeles. Her supervisor had told her and the other women janitors, mostly undocumented immigrants like her, that he had strong ties to a notorious gang in Guatemala and would go after their families if the women did not comply with whatever he wanted.
According to Henriquez, things began with a leer, then progressed to the supervisor following her around at work, asking inappropriate questions, Are you married? Where is your husband?, making phone calls during off hours, sexts—photos of his junk. This is stuff Henriquez had no language for. Sexual harassment protections don’t exist where she is from. There is rape, and no rape. All the comments, sneaky eyes, dirty feelings, and waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop time was legal in the United States, as far as she knew.
The supervisor withheld the women’s paychecks unless they went with him to a hotel room. One day it was Henriquez’s turn. He took her back to the hotel. A room with dreadful photos that hung on the walls, stock images of cityscapes, these are the buildings she cleaned. In the bathroom there were fresh towels ready for spoilage, maybe a phone on the wall, one she stared at, shaking, should she call for help? The empty waste basket with a clump of gum stuck to the rim. The worst detail of all, something Henriquez knew from cleaning these rooms—the Bible in the dresser drawer. There on the bed beside the drawer with the Bible, the supervisor raped her. Later, Henriquez discovered she was pregnant. Then she changed, but not in a way anyone can see. There was a deep splintering in her heart, a splintering in her actions and her beliefs. Despite the better life for her future family that she was working so hard for in this country, despite her deeply held religious beliefs, she had an abortion.
When I met Henriquez, at first she appeared quiet, modest, homely. She had a thin white blanket wrapped around her. She kept on referring to the rape as That Thing. Like, When That Thing happened. Yet, while Henriquez spoke, I watched her ordinary self turn into an extraordinary self. I heard about her suing her employer. I heard about her getting a U-Visa, which provides sanctuary to victims of violent crimes. I heard about her joining the promotoras, a group of women in east Los Angeles who host healing circles to talk to each other about sexual assault and learn about their rights in the workplace. Recently they’ve started something new and innovative, which ought not be so innovative; a compañeros circle—a place for Latino men to come and heal, and learn about what constitutes sexual harassment. Henriquez’s stories rescued me from my own post-election solipsistic despair. She had a little baby in her arms, her baby, thrashing beside her neck, then cooing, then sleeping, peaceful.
Once I erased my skin. I erased and erased until it bled. It hurt. It stung. It was more original than cutting. The scar it left is shiny and smooth. I keep a catalogue of memories locked inside of me. Whenever I feel my anger fading I can run my fingers along this scar and retrieve those memories.
Memory One: 1998. I came home to our rented place on 53rd Street in Oakland. I had been away staying nights in the city dancing naked so I could get some money to go to D.C. and visit my brother before he died. When I got home I discovered we’d been robbed. My most private things all over the bedroom, my grandfather’s dog tags stolen, my camera stolen, no one was home. I called my brother to tell him I’d finally gotten enough money to come visit. I danced despite the fact that I hated my body.
There was a wild drug addict that went by the name Rain and sometimes she would feel sexy and pull me up on stage for a girl-on-girl show. I went down on her in front of strangers. This does not look sexy. It looks like giving away your secrets. Finally, it was over. I had the money. My brother’s roommate answered. He said, “I’m glad you called. I’ve been trying to reach you. I’m sorry but he’s been dead already for three months.” There I was. On the floor. Of the kitchen. In the house. In Oakland. There I was crying. There I was a blur of bad feelings and shame and regret and all for nothing all for nothing all for nothing. Defeated. I was completely and utterly powerless, and in that I had earned a sense of freedom and knowledge of what it was to be a personless person. This, my most defeated moment, enabled me to differentiate between tragedy and disappointment.
Memory Two: Being beaten by my mother. I remember standing on one leg and reciting ridiculous rote statements on end to please her. I remember the little red ball of HOT in the room that she and I were both after—my surrender to her overwhelming power. I had many mantras at that time, but the one I remember most vividly was Iwillnotbreak/Iwillnotbreak/Iwillnotbreak.
This mantra has served me well when sitting across the table from businessmen, when negotiating union contracts; when people beside me were fighting for their lives, for their pension, for their health care, for back-pay, for some basic human dignities. I have had the most power when I roll up my sleeves and convey the message: Let’s go. I’ve got all the time in the world. And I will not break. While I’ve witnessed a similar technique employed by white guys in suits, people with personal assistants and power who are largely assholes, it’s we who have lost everything who can do it better, because we know what it feels like to be truly powerless, to have absolutely nothing to lose. Just last week I followed a man to his apartment to get him to pay a woman for her work, and he knew he had to write that check for the sad simple fact that I had nothing else to do that night.
I would go on to dedicate every door knock, every voter registration, every phone bank, every protest, every act of civil disobedience, every contract negotiated for every working single mother or every working father or son or somebody’s brother, every filing of an unlawful labor practice, every laugh, every chant shouted out at the top of my lungs, every dance move, every queer word out of my mouth, every loving act I ever did, every ounce of sweat and every sentence I’ve ever agonized over to those powerless memories. A kind of eternal flame, threatening to light it up and leave nothing on the floor save our blackened foundations.
These fires don’t die.
In a post-election
frenzy, 3,769,376 Hillary supporters have taken to social media to organize a network of like-minded people. House of Cards creator Beau Willimon began his own action network. Hundreds of people in nine different cities responded to his call to action and flocked to warehouses and parks to discuss organizing to preserve, protect, and expand progressive values and policies during a Trump administration. Friends and acquaintances began policing one another: Are you with me? Are you with me?
Showing solidarity through safety pins, going to protests, changing your Facebook profile photo, or “checking in” at Standing Rock are mostly useful in making us feel less alone and powerless; they aren’t vehicles of political change. Neither was the candlelight vigil that was hosted at a small park in a hip Los Angeles neighborhood or the quantities of wine consumed at a recent book club meeting. A friend said she was so upset she had to get a medical marijuana card. Another woman I know declared that she would strap on a bomb and storm the White House. There were many new fixes on display, friends who were not previously civically engaged, who did not vote, suddenly taking up arms, one suggested that she arrange marriages between queer-identified people and people who are undocumented. A dear friend posted a call to arms on social media in which she catalogued all the ways that a Trump administration threatened her personally: from access to abortions and freedom from sexual violence for her fellow women to her grandchildren, to the Guatemalan man who tended to her garden and the Mexican woman who changed her sheets, and she’d be damned if she was going to let anyone fuck with any of them. If you come for the Mexican woman who changes her sheets, she will block your access to her.
Are you with her? She’s my dear friend and I love her—but I am not—because I know that change is not going to come through finding solidarity among like-minded people or through eloquent promises and passionate declarations made by people in privilege that they have no assurance of being able to keep. Real change requires the engagement, not only on behalf of, but of those people who are in imminent danger of having their rights stripped from them, the folks who have never had any rights in the first place. Many of us will agree that a narcissist is taking office in January but what differentiates an otherwise impotent narcissist from a dangerous leader, is that a leader has followers. Otherwise, these ideas are just good intentions with very little prospects for follow through. These new-fangled fixes are here to serve your conscience rather than a movement.
We are not free unless those who are most marginalized are free. So my dear angry ones, before you gather in your hipster park, or café, or on the National Mall, consider three things: 1) If the most marginalized people cannot access your action or your movement, then there is nothing radical or revolutionary about it. 2) There is no need to reinvent the wheel, there have been folks who have been fiercely organizing all along—join them. 3) This may be your time to follow—not lead. Women like Henriquez have been lobbying and knocking on doors in every local, state, and national election for decades. If you’re an angry one, this is your time to ask, What have we been doing thus far—and how can I help?
I know my real power is in doing the unsexy work, the phonebanking, mobilizing, educating, voting and getting out the vote, voting and getting out the vote, and voting again. That rolling up my shirt sleeves business and the building of coalitions outside my usual suspects. So there are simple things you can do:
1. Register as a permanent absentee voter because this will free you up to do voter turnout on the day of the election—Do it.
2. Make your voice heard by Picking up the phone.
3. Supporting the institutions that are already fighting this fight: Get to it.
We, the marginalized people, have already been inoculated against racism and sexism and homophobia and xenophobia and economic violence. Despite social progress, despite weeping in relief and awe and joy at the election of the first African-American president, we who stand at the intersection of poverty and race have been subject to all manner of violation and disrespect.
The real story that tells itself over and over again is that you cannot whoop us. We already have wounds inside and outside of our bodies. We have already been inoculated against hatred. We are immune to fear. That is, we have it, but it will not stop us.
In September of 2016, Henriquez and the other promotoras had fasted at the state capitol for a week. They were hoping Governor Brown would sign AB1978, a bill that would offer more protections to janitors against sexual assault. The final day of the fast, Governor Brown signed the bill. Henriquez told me how she and the other women, all of whom were undocumented, working in low-wage industries, and had been sexually harassed or even raped, held one another, crying, in amazement over what they had been able to accomplish when they joined together.
The circumstances of my life have brought me to a place where I remind myself upon waking each day that acceptance is the answer to all my problems, yet acceptance does not equivocate complacency. There is still more work to be done. Henriquez pointed out: “Someone who sexually harasses women and makes a profit off of my poor working conditions is now going to be in office.” Still the promotoras march, the promotoras heal, the promotoras talk, the promotoras dance and they are powerful in effecting change. And yet sometimes at night Henriquez feels a piece of herself floating outside her body. The piece of her she had to let go of. Meanwhile I whisper my brother’s name into my pillow.
In that small office with Henriquez, a door across the hall shut, and she quaked at the sound. At every ringing phone, every shadow, she sent a frightened glance my way. Yet her little baby in her arms helped to propel her forward. This is why she registered voters in Las Vegas, when she could not vote herself; that was how she had fasted in our state capitol.
If it were your child, your mother, your father, your sibling, who was going to be torn from you. If you had seen The Man—some officer, some uniformed person—and heard that The Orders had been made, and you had only until the end of this month to make good on your promise to keep your family intact, how fast could you walk? How soon could you knock on doors? How many conversations could you have with friends and neighbors, with the little cooing baby in your arms, the small hands grasping at your chest? You would not break. That wail a baby makes, when she is thrust into the bleak state of need, drumming at your neck. Play the long game. Be the unbreakable one we’ve been waiting for.
Melissa Chadburn has written for Guernica, Buzzfeed, Poets & Writers, Salon, American Public Media’s Marketplace, Al Jazeera America and dozens other places. She is a fellow for The Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Co-published with DAME Magazine.