Natalia, eldest of four children, started working at the age of twelve at home in São Paulo, Brazil, while attending school minimally. She was part of a family of four with two sisters and one brother, but she quickly took on the “mother” role; she became the main source of income and support for her family, given that her father left her mother and family when she was a child. Natalia came to the United States in hope of making a new life and leaving behind her incredibly impoverished past in Brazil.
In 2006, Natalia came to America with a visa that would allow her to stay for 6 months, but after the six months passed, she never left; her sisters joined her a few years later when they were old enough. Natalia started working as a bartender in Danbury, Connecticut in a Portuguese club. The job did not require a social security number, only a tax ID number, making it a job she could take. At the club, she met her husband, Eder, who she has now been married to for ten years. He was also in the United States illegally. When I had the privilege of speaking to Natalia, she briefly described her husband’s immigration experience. She explained his situation as “much scarier than mine”. He traveled from Brazil to Mexico at gunpoint, taking thirty days in total to complete his journey. Along with her bartending job, Natalia worked morning shifts as a housekeeper with her friend. Eventually, she started a small cleaning business, employed her sisters, and started making a slight income. Over twenty plus years, her business has grown significantly, and Natalia and her sisters are able to support their own families. She now has two kids with her husband, Eder. Having spoken to Natalia, I know a lot of her determination and inspiration come from her own mother. She wanted to make a life for herself and her family seeing how her mother struggled, especially as a single parent. She has done exactly that, and her impressive trajectory has been both inspiring and eye-opening.
Natalia has been kind enough to participate in my interview; however, given her circumstances as an undocumented immigrant, I have chosen to conduct this interview as solely an audio recording, and I removed her last name. I do not want to jeopardize Natalia or her family in any way.
Work and the Pay-Gap
Natalia’s work ethic and determination are evident in both the way she humbly tells her story and the life she has created for herself with satisfaction. She shows gratitude for her ability to work and establish a new life and family. When asked about her work experience Natalia responded with:
“You think ‘oh my god you are working every day. And it’s so hard.’ But for me, I am thinking ‘oh my god I am here I can do something for my mom.’ Because I help my mom every month. I send money for my mom.”
Though Natalia has been able to start a successful life in the United States and one that is vastly different from the one she lived in Brazil, she still faces the fear of living as an undocumented immigrant in this country and the hardships of living as a member of the working class. Natalia and her family, extending to her sisters and brother, live a mostly “paycheck-to-paycheck” life. This lifestyle leaves very little money, if any at all, for leisure activities and their own enjoyment. The money Natalia and her sisters make goes directly into supporting their families and their mother back home in Brazil. Natalia describes what the money she gives to her mother goes towards and what the opportunity in America has allowed her to do:
“She can have light, water, home… she can have a good house right now. And right now she has a little… uh a car… It is not a new car, but it is a good car. So I can help her. I do good things when I come here.”
As Latinas, Natalia and her sisters already face odds stacked against them. Through work done in my Gender Studies class, I have a new awareness of Latinas disproportionate struggles in the United States. There is a significant pay discrepancy between Latinas and white men and women. Data gathered from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research reported that Latinas’ pay averages at about 45 percent less than white men and thirty percent less than white women. Furthermore, though progress has been made since the era of Feminist movements Bell Hooks refers to, her insight is still quite relevant:
“Their resistance to patriarchal male domination in the domestic household provided them with a connection they could use to unite across class with other women who were weary of male domination. But only privileged women had the luxury to imagine working outside the home would actually provide them with an income which would enable them to be economically self-sufficient” (Hooks, 38).
Natalia faces the intersectional disadvantage of being a woman and Brazilian; hence, she has been able to build her own business, but she still works as a house cleaner for minimal pay. And most unfortunately, she has accepted her fate as such because the society around her does not allow for any change. Opportunity still remains disproportionate for white males and females, in comparison to women of color.
Natalia resides in the United States as an undocumented immigrant, but she works tirelessly every day in a manual, low-paying occupation trying to make a living. She speaks highly about the opportunity in the United States that Brazil lacks. She shared with me what she believes to be the biggest difference between Brazil and the United States:
“I think the quality for the life.. And uhh for.. You know to… to have more um money and you can buy everything…you uhh rich or poor it doesn’t matter…In Brazil, no. In Brazil, for example, you are poor…you can buy nothing. If you are rich, you have everything.” (sample of this audio in the following paragraph)
The way Natalia has taken advantage of the opportunities in America reflects a desire of many undocumented immigrants. Her decision to have to stay in the United States after her six-month visa expired, reaffirms flaws in America’s immigration laws and policies. Her choice to stay illegally was out of desperation and urgency; she did not have time or flexibility to apply for citizenship, only to potentially be denied such status after an extensive amount of time. Moreover, Natalia already was entering a completely foreign country, not speaking the language, and having no contacts. She could not risk being separated from her family because of a flawed system. After watching the Paper Children documentary, I am well aware of why immigrants like Natalia possess such fears. While the family featured in the film and Natalia’s reason for fleeing their country were not the same, the danger in both situations is evident. Natalia was only a child when she came to the United States, and through the documentary, I became aware of how targeted and inhumanely children, specifically, are treated. As a result of the current global pandemic, immigration laws have been made stricter and thousands of children have been denied asylum in the United States. After hearing a personal story like Natalia’s firsthand, this is even more devastating. The alarming statistics presented in the Paper Children documentary developed a new meaning for me; I saw Natalia and her family in those numbers. As stated in the documentary, “Last year , 71% of asylum cases were denied in the U.S.” Reflecting on this percentage, it would be more likely than not that Natalia would be denied asylum, despite the impressive life she has made for herself and all she has given up to be in the United States.
A shock Natalia faced when she arrived in America was the attitude of the people. She explained Americans to be significantly less friendly than Brazilians.
“In Brazil everybody is huggy… everybody… you know… kisses…You know… I think it is a little different. And while here some people don’t like hugs and kisses, and in Brazil people are more friendly… you know, it’s just different.”
As an immigrant, she is not alone in this sentiment. In the documentary Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America, many of the immigrants expressed similar feelings. Regardless of the danger and tragedy immigrants may face in their homelands, facing a new unknown can be frightening too. Natalia came to America on her own, and the only people who awaited her in the foreign country were her cousins, whom she had never met before. An asylum seeker in the Unsettled Documentary reported to an interviewer, “The hardest part [about immigration] is the isolation, not having people you can talk to. You have friends… I don’t have that.” Natalia didn’t have that either. Her cousins already spoke English and were much older than her. When she came to America, she didn’t know a word of English, and she was still navigating growing up. She recalls feeling quite alone in her journey.
As Natalia has become a close friend of mine, I have had the chance to talk with her beyond our interview. She shared with me an anecdote that I believe holds significant magnitude as we try to understand what life is truly like for immigrants and the complex challenges they face. Natalia’s children attend an English-speaking school, and they take another language as one of their courses like all of their peers. When Natalia went in for a conference with her children’s teachers, the teachers were unaware that her children spoke solely Portuguese at home, and English was their second language. Despite their age, Natalia’s children have had to learn how to assimilate within their school settings and as Americans. In our interview, I asked Natalia what her hopes were for her children. Her response was touching:
“Yeah… I hope they … I hope they… you know.. They don’t have the same job. That is why I work hard and try for something better for them. I hope he has more umm opportunity in his life and you know another family. Because I don’t have a mom to pay my own college, so that is why I come here…. So I hope my kids don’t have to do life the same way… have to work so hard and don’t have the money to pay. I hope I have the money to help them… so they can go to college and they have good- [unintelligible] and a good opportunity in his life. I hope and I pray for that.”
I was particularly moved by Natalia’s response because her effort as a mother to be a role model and an influential figure for her children is critical as a Brazilian woman. Women of color, and more specifically Latinas, are often misrepresented or not represented in the media at all. As a generation that is growing up in front of their screens, her children may look towards the media for guidance. A lack of representation in the media may affect her children’s, and those alike, feelings of self-worth and perceived opportunities in life. Furthermore, the underrepresentation of marginalized groups, like Latinas, promotes a narrative that allows for such groups to be further discriminated against and ostracized. Natalia works every day to prove herself as an immigrant, woman and as a Latina.
Truthfully, Natalia’s insight and life story made me develop a sensation of guilt. My privilege not only comes from my ethnicity and color of my skin, white, but also the circumstances of life I was born into. I was incredibly fortunate to be born in the United States to parents of comfortable socio-economic statuses. Though Natalia had no intention of making me feel badly, she pointed out the significant discrepancy between the lives we live. She has been working to support her family since childhood, and I have always had the choice to work. Moreover, any money I made was for my personal benefit because my parents were always able to take care of our family financially. I do not live in fear, and I must wonder if my consistent feelings of belonging, as an American, have ever shown as entitlement without that intention. I hope for anyone that takes a moment to listen or read parts of Natalia’s story lets it serve as a reminder of gratitude for our opportunities and privileges.
Cons, Latina Otaku @no. Twitter, Twitter, 26 Nov. 2018, twitter.com/latinaotaku/status/1066848488057499649.
“Get the Facts about the Pay Gap for Latina Equal Pay Day.” Lean In, leanin.org/data-about-the-gender-pay-gap-for-latinas.
Hooks, Bell. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2016.
“Latina Workers Have to Work Nearly 11 Months into 2019 to Be Paid the Same as White Non-Hispanic Men in 2018.” Economic Policy Institute, www.epi.org/blog/latina-pay-gap-2019/. Paper Children Documentary, www.paperchildrendoc.com/.
Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America. Directed by Tom Shepard. 2019.