Today, I join thousands of domestic workers, children and parents in congratulating actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for their Golden Globe and SAG nominations. I hope these talented women understand the powerful impact their creative work is having on domestic workers across the nation and the families who employ us.
I am a proud domestic worker, originally from Guatemala. In my seven years as a nanny, and even before then in my home country, I have witnessed and experienced for myself the harsh treatment and exploitation that domestic workers often endure. We are isolated, mostly working by ourselves behind closed doors. We are the invisible ones who make it possible for our employers to go to work and enjoy leisure time. We care for the most important elements of our employers’ lives.
Most of the time when we see ourselves on the big screen or on TV, domestic workers are just as invisible and one-dimensional as society believes us to be. “The Help” offered a surprisingly different take.
The move is based on Kathryn Stockett’s book about African American domestic workers and the white homes of 1960s Mississippi in which they toil. We meet Aibileen Clark, a domestic worker, who mourns the death of her son every day and pours her love into the white child she takes care of, as she’s done with 16 other children. We meet Minny, Aibileen’s friend, known for her outspokenness, who often faces the wrath of the white ladies for telling it like it is. We meet Skeeter, a young white woman pursuing a writing career, who befriends Aibileen and Minny. Together, the three set out to document the oral histories and some of the indignities that African American domestic workers suffered in places like Jackson, Mississippi.
Much of “The Help” resonated with my own experience as a nanny in the U.S. I deeply felt the pain of many of the domestic worker characters, from the loss and suffering that comes from not being able to be with their own loved ones while they care for someone else’s loved ones, to feeling powerless.
I’ve listened to my sisters with an open heart, feeling impotent, frustrated, and angry that we are often forced to stay in bad jobs and face racism and discrimination and mistreatment. The same fear that the characters experience is not unlike what many of us feel today. The experience of African American women in the Jim Crow South repeats itself for many immigrant women of color in today’s right-wing, anti-immigrant climate.
Their organizing and activism also resonated with me, the drive to want to do something to change our conditions—not just for ourselves as individuals but for the whole group. When the African American workers in the film had the courage to share and document their life stories, it was as much an act of resistance and breaking the silence as it is today when domestic workers from New York to California organize for power, respect, and the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Our stories need to be told. We are the only ones who can make change happen. This is why we organize.
Long History of Our Struggle
For me, as a member of Domestic Workers United, showing the long history of struggle was also critical. Aibileen and her sisters were contemporaries of Rosa Parks and Medger Evers. In our political education classes at DWU, we discuss the important role that domestic workers played in the civil rights movement. Everyone needs to know that history. We must hold our heads up high because the work we do is dignified and because we are standing on the shoulders of the freedom fighters who came before us and paved the way.
Last year DWU saw the fulfillment of our historic six-year campaign to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York state. The only law of its kind in the U.S., it brought domestic workers out of the shadows by guaranteeing us the rights and protections we have long been denied, like overtime pay after 40 hours, workers’ compensation, and a guaranteed day off each week.
The history portrayed in “The Help” might seem like a long time ago, but we have only just started to reverse the legacy of exclusion and discrimination. New York was the first step. Next is California. Before long, we will be in more states, and then in the nation’s capital.
Entire families should see this movie and discuss it, especially those who employ domestic workers. It’s important for them to understand some of what we experience and what we feel, so that they can begin to recognize the invaluable contributions we make and the great care we bring to the work.
Like the partnership between Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter, and the diverse coalition that made the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights a reality, it’s going to take all of us to change the way that domestic work and the people who perform it are treated in our society.
I walked away from “The Help” feeling seen and proud and more committed than ever not to stay silent and to keep working to build the power of domestic workers and all workers.
Last week we launched the #BeTheHelp campaign to help other viewers of “The Help” learn how they can help create respect for domestic workers. Join us and #bethehelp we need at www.domesticworkers.org.
Meches Rosales lives in New York and joined Domestic Workers United -- a Ms. Foundation for Women grantee -- in 2010. A version of this blog was originally published as “The Help Today” at www.labornotes.org on September 1, 2011. Translated from Spanish by Telesh Lopez.