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Domestic workers find healing, empowerment through dance. A news report from El Tecolote Newspaper in San Francisco, CA.

by Alexis Terrazas April 20, 2023.

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series looking at the impact of paid sick leave on domestic workers in San Francisco and is funded by the Solutions Journalism Network. El Tecolote was selected as one of the newsrooms to participate in SJN’s Labor Cohort. 

“My body is sacred,” said María Arreola, moments before setting foot on stage for a rehearsal at Dance Mission Theater. “Because my body is the motor for everything I do, everything that I move, I live off of it.”

Last September, Arreola — who has dedicated herself to cleaning houses and caring for other people’s children — participated in “Nuestro Trabajo, Nuestra Dignidad,” (Our Work, Our Dignity), a theatrical performance at Dance Mission Theater that featured San Francisco domestic workers and day laborers of the Mission District. The production — directed by the Bay Area-based Venezuelan dancer and cultural worker Andreína Maldonado — highlighted not just worker dignity but related the struggles that workers face to the topics of ecofeminism and environmental justice. 

“This collaboration really came out of a need that we identified within the domestic worker community,” Maldonado said on the Radio Teco Cultura podcast. Maldonado began her relationship with domestic workers, specifically the Colectiva de Mujeres (Women’s Collective), when she moved to San Francisco from Venezuela. Having auditioned for various dance companies, Maldonado found a home at Dance Mission Theater, an artist-driven space and women-led Mission District nonprofit committed to social justice and change. 

“I connected the Women’s Collective and Dance Mission with a proposal to create space for these women. More than 90 percent of the women that come to this country to do house cleaning work are immigrants, immigrant women of color, majority elderly women,” Maldonado said. “It’s rooted to me in a passion for women’s issues, women’s rights and also mother earth rights because to me, the two are incredibly parallel. Both experience the same kinds of harm. I want to restore as much as I can, that source of life.”

Photo: Katherine Castillo. El Tecolote Bilingual Newspaper

“Nuestro Trabajo, Nuestra Dignidad” was a project born our Maldonado’s “Baile Colectivo / Cuerpos Sanos, Mentes Sanas” (Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds), a group she founded in late 2020 that provides free weekly bilingual yoga, dance and meditation classes to domestic worker Latina immigrants.

These kinds of services were especially needed during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for a domestic workforce that has historically been invisibilized in U.S. society. Domestic workers that El Tecolote spoke with for a previous story published last year on Paid Sick Leave, reported not only losing jobs to the pandemic, but also getting sick themselves.   

“Many workers lost their jobs, or got sick, and had no benefits,” said Evelyn Alfaro, a member of Mujeres Unidas y Activas who has been a domestic worker for 12 years. 

Photo: Katherine Castillo. Venezuelan dancer and singer Andreina Maldonado performs alongside her domestic worker and day laborer colleagues at Acción Latina’s Paseo Artístico: Muxeres Keepers of Cultura.

The urgency of the pandemic played a role in San Francisco passing legislation on Dec. 14, 2021, that granted domestic workers access to paid sick leave starting in 2022. That legislation not only granted paid sick leave, but promised the development of a mobile app that would help domestic workers and their employers track payment and sick leave. While the app is still being developed, the legislation still grants domestic workers the ability to access paid sick leave. 

However, when El Tecolote contacted the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement — the department that tracks paid sick leave for domestic workers — asking if anyone has been utilizing paid sick leave, they had no information.

“We don’t have any responsive documents at this time. After the app is developed and formally introduced, I’m confident that we’ll see more related investigations,” Patrick Mulligan, Director of the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, replied via email. 

As of press time, El Tecolote has not been able to independently confirm if any domestic workers in San Francisco have accessed paid sick leave.

Yet while the app is still in development, Maldonado continued to provide this space of healing for domestic workers. Last month, Acción Latina — the nonprofit that publishes El Tecolote — hosted their latest bilingual community art walk, Paseo Artístico: Muxeres Keepers of Cultura, at KQED. Maldonado’s “Nuestro Trabajo, Nuestra Dignidad” performance was among the headlining performances.  

“A lot of these women that you will see here today have undergone a process of recuperation and healing and community,” Maldonado said at Paseo Artístico on March 11, 2023. “A lot of these women that you will see here tonight are fierce … they want to be heard, they want to tell their stories, that’s not necessarily the case for the majority of domestic workers, who are mainly immigrant older women.”

Prior to the performance at Paseo Artístico, Maldonado shared a story about one woman in their group who struggled with opening up. 

“She just had a lot of trauma like all of us,” Maldonado said. “But there are organizations like la Colectiva de Mujeres and the Day Labor Program here in San Francisco who do an amazing job at teaching as well as creating the community, creating the space for healing first and then, ‘let me tell you about the rights that you have, let me empower you.’”

Community spaces like these are where Arreola first learned she had rights. She joined la Colectiva de Mujeres after her friend and Colectiva member Guillermina Castellanos told her that the restaurant where she worked was stealing her tips. 

“That’s what I live for,” Arreola said. “So that’s why I take care of my body and that’s why this is linked to the [paid sick leave] ordinance, because sometimes one gets sick and you have to work. Now with this ordinance, we can take care of our body. Because for me my body is number one. Because thanks to my body, I raised my family, my children, as the single mother that I am.”

Lorena Garibay and Edaena Salinas contributed to this report.


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