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She Made It to the U.S. Only to Face Another Border

Profile: Alejandra travels daily to a home worlds apart from her own to scrub floors and watch three kids--for $200 a week.


Alejandra grabs a seat off the aisle and stares out a window as her MTA bus begins its rush up the tree-lined streets and past the stately homes of Old Pasadena. Soon the homes will give way to suburban strip malls, spacious parks and family restaurants, and then, as the bus begins to fill, the strip malls will give way to shuttered crack houses and cluttered pawnshops.

For Alejandra, the 80-minute midafternoon ride from the three-story house she cleans in the suburbs to the one-room apartment she shares just west of downtown covers less than 40 miles, but the two places are worlds apart. In Pasadena, the lawns are manicured, the streets are spotless and the silence is deafening. Along West Adams Boulevard, grass is just a rumor, even the dying trees are covered with graffiti, and the first sound you hear after stepping from the bus is the loud thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of a hovering police helicopter.

Alejandra (not her real name) is one of the tens of thousands of undocumented women who move quietly between the opulence of Southern California's best neighborhoods and the destitution of its overcrowded, gang-infested urban slums. Wavy, shoulder-length black hair frames her unlined face, accenting fiery dark-brown eyes. The 31-year-old Nicaraguan smiles constantly, a habit that makes her seem 10 years younger. She also laughs easily, though often at the wrong time, like when retelling a painful anecdote or recalling a sad story.

Officially, Alejandra and others like her don't exist. Driven north from Latin America by war, poverty or simply the hope for a better future, they pay exorbitant prices to be smuggled into the country, only to go underground once they arrive, using phony documents to survive in a political climate that has made it clear they are not welcome.


Sometimes even the people who pay them seem ambivalent about their presence.

"A lot of this work just wouldn't get done [without her]," says the woman who hired Alejandra. "She's very efficient. But it's a Catch-22. Then you start going off into other areas, where it concerns health benefits."

Yet in truth, it's these women's work diapering babies, scrubbing bathrooms and ironing dress shirts at a fraction of the minimum wage that makes being rich affordable. But while, on one level, maids have become a symbol of wealth, like luxury cars and designer clothing, two-income families and single parents are also turning to domestic help to deal with the added pressures of long workdays.

"It's vital to the well-being of the economy. It's vital to the way Los Angeles works today," says Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, a professor of sociology at USC and an expert on paid domestic workers. "It allows a lot of people to get to work and do what they have to do there. It's a misconception to think only the rich use domestic help."

For her part, Alejandra says the job is merely helping her mark time until she can live an open life. After all, a former army lieutenant who once carried a loaded pistol to work isn't likely to find fulfillment squeezing bursts of tile cleaner at the stubborn mildew in someone else's bathroom.

"My goal now--and I see the possibility of achieving it--is to study and prepare myself for a good job in Mexico. As a secretary or something that I like," she says in Spanish. "If I don't study, I'm always going to be doing this."

Those goals have changed in the four years since Alejandra left her homeland for Los Angeles. At first, she planned to work days, study English at night, and save enough money to return home and buy a house. But the cost of living here soon outpaced her meager income and that of her boyfriend, Cipriano, an undocumented Mexican army veteran who, until recently, worked two full-time minimum-wage jobs in a cookie factory and for a distributor of Mexican food to keep the couple and their 2-year-old daughter out of debt.

"Everyone comes to struggle, to make money like us," Alejandra says. "But to make money, it's a tremendous struggle. You have to fight for it."

Sometimes the fight is rather one-sided. Alejandra's first U.S. job was in a clothing factory, but when payday came, the checks didn't, she says. It's a ruse commonly used on undocumented immigrants, who may risk deportation if they file a complaint against their employer. Bitter but wiser, through a friend she landed a job as a domestic a month later.

The couple she worked for not only took her into their house, but they took her into the family as well, driving her to and from English classes--where she met Cipriano--taking her on family trips and making sure she saw a doctor when she got sick. In exchange, however, Alejandra was paid just $250 a week to care for their two children 24 hours a day, seven days a week--that works out to an hourly wage of $1.48, less than a third of the minimum legal wage.

Nevertheless, Alejandra says, it was a positive experience. "I was treated well," she says. "Marvelously well."

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