From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
The afternoon of Wednesday, November 9, 2016, the first day of having Donald Trump as our president-elect, I met with a Guatemalan immigrant I’ll call Sandra Henriquez. Although Henriquez couldn’t vote, because she is undocumented, she had traveled to Nevada, a battleground state, to get the vote out, and she feared, like I did, the kind of world to which we had just woken up. To understand Henriquez’s political commitment, you must understand her story, which is a story of rape.
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 it was he wanted.
For Henriquez, things began with a leer, then progressed to the supervisor following her around at work, asking inappropriate questions, making phone calls during off hours, sending sexts. This is stuff Henriquez had no language for. Sexual harassment doesn’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 moments were 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. The supervisor raped her. She became pregnant. She changed, but not in a way anyone could see. There was a deep splintering in her heart, a splintering in her actions and her beliefs. Despite the better life she was working so hard to provide for her future family in this country, she had an abortion.
Henriquez is just one of many undocumented women who are coming forward and 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, who clean the floors of our hospitals, to be known and told. These dangers now seemed even greater given what Trump’s election had already unleashed in the previous few hours.
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 solipsistic post-election despair.
She had a little baby in her arms, thrashing beside her neck, then cooing, then sleeping peacefully. Two months earlier, 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 janitors more protections 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, all of whom were 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.
But there was 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 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.
I will forever remember a time of being powerless. I remember being beaten, literally beaten, by my mother, a woman who subscribed to corporal punishment. I remember standing on one leg and reciting ridiculous rote statements 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 is 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 pensions, for their health care, for back pay, for basic human dignities. I have had the most power when I have rolled up my sleeves and conveyed 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, people 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.
All around me, there are people who know how that feels. The experiences of people who are chronically homeless and children whispering goodbye to their life plans could send me deep into Twinkies and television, hot cocoa or a carafe of wine— but strangely they’ve done the opposite. They stoke the anger. We are not free unless those who are most marginalized are free.
Right after Trump was elected, in the moderately quiet suburb of Studio City, a man ran out of his car, bashed his hand on the ground until he broke those delicate bones, and then pulled his eye out of his head. He literally pulled his eye right out of its socket! I later learned that he’d hit a car and was probably high on PCP, but when I heard this story I thought: Hell yeah, I wanna pull my eyes out, and I wanna light stuff on fire, and I wanna break stuff, or get my bones pummeled. But I know my real power is in doing the unsexy work: rolling up my shirtsleeves, manning the phone banks, mobilizing, educating, building coalitions outside my usual networks, voting and getting out the vote, voting and getting out the vote, voting again.
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 the little baby in her arms helped propel her forward. This was why she had registered voters in Las Vegas when she could not vote herself; this was how she had fasted in our state capitol.
What 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 Orders had been made, and you had only a few months 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. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
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Studies show that immigrants who are represented are up to ten times more likely to establish a right to remain in the United States than those who are unrepresented. But almost no non-citizens are legally entitled to government-funded representation and most go unrepresented, facing permanent separation from their loved ones, their livelihoods, and their communities if deported. Join your local chapter of the SAFE (Safety & Fairness for Everyone) Cities Network to see how you can help secure funding and representation for family members and loved ones under threat of removal. If you don’t see your state or city represented here, you can also join the movement by becoming a member of FIRM and help win long-term social change for all migrants.
Melissa Chadburn is a critic, fiction writer, and social arsonist. She is contributing editor for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and DAME magazine. Her first novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming.
A version of this essay appeared in DAME magazine.