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House Cleaning in the Time of Corona

Sergio Aguilar Rivera

[Editor's note: The following is part of a special series on the coronavirus pandemic, featuring original poems and essays by contributors to The Bare Life Review. New entries will be added every Tuesday and Friday. Previous entries in the series can be found here.]

My mother runs a housecleaning service in the Bay Area which currently employs three women. All of them, including my mother, are undocumented. She’s been in this business for nearly twenty years and she often laments how many of her clients’ children, most of whom she’d met as toddlers, are well on their way to college. “I ask them if they remember the fits they threw when they were little and how much of a mess they left behind for me to deal with,” she tells me. “They just smile and shake their heads.”

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be in my mother’s shoes and become privy to the private lives of strangers, to the familial contentions and daily scuffles that we keep hidden even from our closest friends. I’ve gone to work with her several times and I’ve come to learn that house cleaning is not just about vacuuming carpets and washing dishes. It’s also an investigative practice. The house cleaner is like a detective who pieces together from the fragments and clues revealed in the clutter a general narrative of the family dynamic, a narrative then put to the test during subsequent cleaning sessions. Do the theories hold up? Do the clues form a pattern or are they merely random deviations? Does the empty wine bottle on the table carry significance? What about the unfolded futon?

I listen to her and her workers as they piece together their findings inside the car on our way to the next house. They arrive at the conclusion that the growing tension between the lady of the house and her husband had to do with the increasingly poor grades of their son (whose report card had been found tucked in the father’s desk rather than magnetized to the fridge as usual). One of her workers raises the possibility of divorce but my mother holds out some hope for the family. “I don’t think they’re as crazy as that,” she says, careful not to give in to careless speculation. Already once in the past, she’d been able to foresee a coming divorce even before the two parties in the marriage had done so themselves. It’s obvious to her that this present case had not yet risen to that level. I sit in the back of the car, listening to their deductions. I ask myself if, by so diligently reorganizing and reassembling these households, my mother is not in effect hiding from the families the reality of their lives, providing some illusory degree of order that allows them to think, Hey, this house looks good, perhaps things aren’t as bad as I’m making them out to be.

Since the middle of March, my mother has not been able to go to work. She is grateful to have saved up enough money to last her for the foreseeable future, and it seems that she is not afraid of an economic recession. What worries her the most is the well-being of her workers. One of them, a woman from Colima, has found herself with no way of paying rent, no savings account to her name as she sent back most of her income to Mexico to support her family. She suffers from diabetes and hypertension, and like most undocumented people, she has no health insurance. As things stand, returning to the homeland seems her only option. My mother does not have much hope to give her workers and she tells them the reality of the situation, that the profession of a housecleaner cannot exist during a pandemic.

Much reporting has already been done about how businesses will be affected during the time of corona, most of it focused on larger corporations: retail companies, airlines, movie theater chains. Yet, the national conversation about who deserves financial assistance has largely ignored the undocumented population, which is not surprising. Afraid of being accused of prioritizing foreigners over Americans, very few politicians are willing to risk the political blowback of advocating for immigrants. More than this, there aren’t many ways for undocumented workers to break through the noise and make their voices heard, something that was true even long before the pandemic. On March 27, the federal government brought out the bails and passed a two trillion-dollar stimulus package designed to keep companies afloat as well as provide some relief to working-class Americans. My mother will not receive any assistance from this package and neither will any of her workers and most undocumented people. They’ll have to fend for themselves with no one to complain to.

However, rather than a political voice, what undocumented workers do have is an indispensable presence. We bear witness to it when we step into a grocery store and see the pallets stacked up with fruit. We see it in the health and greenness of our yards, in the blinking off of the check-engine light in our cars. It’s a presence we become aware of only in the moment we cease to perceive it. As shelter-in-place advisories are extended, families that usually rely on undocumented labor will have to deal with maintaining their own yards, cleaning their own houses and taking care of their own increasingly restless children. Houses will become messy. Perhaps this will be a time for some people to confront the truths left behind in their clutter, my mother and her workers no longer being there to hide it for them. It’s entropy they’ll have to confront and therein will be our political statement.

My mother calls me every day to check in. She provides updates on everyone in the family. “Your aunt lost her job as a waitress,” she says. “Your uncle might not be able to renew his truck-driving license.” The bad news piles on. Yet, she seems rather calm, which I find strange given her usual nervous self. I ask how she’s doing, this being the first time in twenty long years she’s been able to spend more than a week without having to go to work. “We’re doing fine, just having to deal with your crazy father,” she says, trying not to paint the picture too pretty. “Enjoying my house.” She sounds well-rested.


Sergio Aguilar Rivera is a writer born in Hidalgo, Mexico and raised in Bay Point, California. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently working on a novel. His short story, "Moon Egg," appeared in TBLR Volume 3


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