Rosa is my housecleaner, and she told me this story on the day after Thanksgiving — because Rosa doesn’t take ordinary holidays off. She comes twice a month, no matter what. She came even when we had evacuated because of the fires last fall — so when we returned, there was hardly any soot, astoundingly. Rosa cleans more thoroughly than I thought possible. She takes the silverware out of the silverware-holder-thing-in-the-drawer and wipes down that thing whose name I don’t even know. She takes all the food out of the fridge and cleans off every refrigerator shelf and cranny, every single time she comes. She cleaned mold that I didn’t know we had in our shower. I thought that tan was the color the in-between-the-tiles was supposed to be. I’m not a very good housecleaner, myself.
I feel a bit guilty about paying someone to clean, but I am working full-time and raising Sophie three-quarters time, and we do our own gardening and do almost all our cooking (we hardly ever go out to restaurants), but deep cleaning is one thing that we don’t like to do, and we argue over who has to do it. So we hired Rosa. There, that’s my defensiveness out of the way.
So, the day after Thanksgiving, Rosa was about to take a long Christmas vacation. She was taking six weeks to go home to Mexico. “Will you wait for me?” she had asked, very meekly, and of course we said yes, we’d save her job for her, we could clean by ourselves for 6 weeks. We were all eating Thanksgiving leftovers together, and Rosa said it was her first taste of pumpkin pie. Rosa usually says she finds my cooking interesting, because the twice a month that she’s here is the only two times in the month when she doesn’t eat Mexican food.
So we were talking about Thanksgiving food, and I guess I told her that it’s all an invented tradition, an attempt by the North to assert its dominance after the Civil War by dominating America’s historic memory, even though the oldest European city in the current United States is St Augustine, Florida — and the next-oldest is Santa Fe, New Mexico. Therefore, I myself once ate burritos on Thanksgiving, but I also love the pies and all the other dishes that I grew up with, in New England. Probably I told her that (I am a history professor, after all, and sometimes I just can’t help sharing historic stories), and this prompted Rosa’s story.
Rosa was about to go home to southern Mexico for the first time in eleven years. Nephews and nieces had been born and died in the time when she was away, she said. Elderly folk had died too, but saddest of all was one ten-year-old who had died in a car accident before she had even gotten a chance to meet him. She missed her village, she said, she missed her parents, she missed her extended family, and most of all, she missed her mother.
Rosa left home at age 16 because of her mother, she said. Her mother didn’t have a refrigerator. Or a washing machine, or an indoor toilet, or even really a kitchen table: there was just a plank propped up on bricks. Rosa left in order to earn money so that her mother could get herself a refrigerator. “Everything I do, I do for her,” Rosa said. Just last year, she bought her mother the first indoor plumbing in their whole village. Rosa left at age 16, so that now her mother has a washing machine and a kitchen table — but she doesn’t have Rosa.
Rosa has an uncle in LA who has legal papers, so he can go home regularly, once every year or two. That’s as close as Rosa came to telling me that she herself is undocumented. It’s illegal for me to knowingly hire an illegal alien, of course, so I don’t know anything for certain: but what I do know is that Rosa stayed away for 11 years because, she says, the border-crossing is scary.
And that’s the heartbreaking thing: that Rosa, responsible Rosa, could be considered a dangerous lawbreaker. All December, we thought about her, listening to the news reports about how many people die trying to cross the border, dehydrated in the desert or shipwrecked in San Diego harbor. About 400 people die every year, crossing that U.S.-Mexico border: that’s more than one a day. We wondered if we could have loaned Rosa some of our camping supplies, as if that could have done anything to help. We wondered if we could at least go to some rally, somehow pressure our politicians to create some legal routes for people like Rosa, but we didn’t find anything useful to do.
All January, as we argued over whose turn it was to scrub the toilets, we said, “We miss Rosa” — and we wondered how late she would be getting back. We didn’t expect her back on time, but this is Rosa, and she showed up just when she said she would, exactly six weeks after she left.
She was wistful, sad at being back here. Most of her entire village is related to her, she said, and parts of the next village over too. For her entire trip, she said, she hadn’t been lonely.
And then she started cleaning our stove top, and I left her alone.