By Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa and Daniel Carrillo
Jesús crossed the desert two months ago. He almost died. He dreams of re-uniting with his family in New York after being apart for three years. “I asked around how I can get work to save money to get to my family in New York, and people told me about a worker center where I can wait for work. So that’s how I ended up here”, recounts Jesús as he waves down a truck in Tucson, Arizona.
Jesús is not alone. On any given day, there may be hundreds of thousands of men and women waiting for work in front of a Home Depot, a street sidewalk, or an organized worker center throughout the United States.
Brown hands are picked up to paint walls, build or remodel homes, remove weeds, move furniture, install ceilings, tile, do carpentry, plumbing, electrician work or to clean homes, and take care of children and the elderly. They get hired more commonly by private homeowners, but also from construction contractors; much depends on what part of the country they are in. In this sense, day laborers and domestic workers are essentially the foundation of capitalism; because they maintain the private residential homes of the wealthy and middle-classes, of where capitalism is rooted. Essentially jornaler@s (day laborers) are a subordinated labor force maintaining the modern-day capitalist plantations of the 1%.
Capitalism has constructed a subterranean, shadow class of day laborers and domestic workers where they exist outside of mainstream institutions and labor. They exist in the margins of the margins; displaced economic refugees trying to survive and provide for themselves and their families. The global capitalist system forces them out of their country and into the US. Day laborers and domestic workers are sectors that have been denied formal access to make a living, yet have found non-authorized ways of livelihood. They are usually paid cash at the end of the day; their work is informal and irregular. In other words, day laborers and domestic workers generally exist outside of the formal wage labor system. E-verify and employer sanctions have criminalized work and turned employers into a civilian police-immigration (poli-migra) force.
Off the radar, day laborers and domestic workers are more subordinated than the general working class, as they are targeted by white supremacist violence, and isolated from mainstream institutions such as employment, unemployment, social safety nets (i.e. welfare, social services), unions, education, and law enforcement.
Moreover, migrants hustle to survive despite facing intense racism and social, political, cultural, and economic discrimination. They live in their own barrios, create their own community, speak their own language, practice their own customs, and sustain themselves through their own economic means, largely outside mainstream economies and labor markets. They are dispossessed and displaced people who have been cut off from the working class and the means of production. Therefore, the categories of wage and labor production do not neatly fit within the context of migrant day labor.
Domestic workers and day laborers are part of a segregated segment of US society that is not assimilated into “the American life”. They are not traceable by the state or by the labor system. They tend to not own property, homes or vehicles. Domestic workers and day laborers have fewer political rights, aren’t allowed to vote, are very transient and at the same time lack freedom of movement, are isolated from other workers, and are persecuted and targeted by state violence through detention and removal.
Further, race, national origin, and immigration status intensify capitalist subordination. Jesús at one point or another has experienced low wages, wage theft, no benefits of any kind, and threats of deportation if he dare asks for fair working conditions. As a result, exploitation based on national origin and citizenship status has fragmented and segregated the undocumented shadow class—day laborers and domestic workers primarily—from the general working class.
Additionally, both day laborers and domestic workers are largely considered “low-skilled” workers with little formal education, despite their richness in will, resiliency, dignity, and love. Ana María, for example, cleans houses in Tucson. She has lived in Arizona for six years. A mother of three, she left her children in Honduras to send them money for their food and schooling. On her journey North, she made her way passed the gangs of Central America, gendered violence, and attempted kidnappings by Mexican cartels and polleros (smugglers). She outsmarted empire’s militarized machinery of drones, border walls, helicopters, night-time surveillance cameras, guns, and thousands of border patrol agents—all to provide for her family.
Ana María’s experiences are also gendered. In other words, oppression is manifested differently for day laborers and domestic workers, depending on their gender identity.
In order to intensify racism, capitalism has gendered the racialization of day laborers and domestic workers. The racial masculinity of day laborers, thus, becomes that of a vagrant threat to white communities. Many city ordinances have passed criminalizing day laborers, not only for being brown migrants, but rather for being male-identified brown migrants. The image of a scary, racialized masculinity mobilizes discrimination and violence against migrant men. Conversely, domestic workers are targeted with sexualized aggression. In this case, the migrant is targeted not through their race but through their racialized femininity. What validates the use of sexualized aggression is not simply because they are migrants, but rather because they are female-identified migrants.
Furthermore, migrants who don’t prescribe to capitalist conceptions of gender are confronted with extreme violence by the state, and by the civilian population who also police gender and sexuality. A number of trans migrants find themselves outside of the gender controlled migrant labor industry and pose a significant threat to capitalism through their existence outside patriarchy. They face both forms of repression used against male and female-identified migrants, as well as specific aggression particular to trans migrants. Similarly, lesbian, gay, and bisexual identifying migrants are seen as transgressors of gender, sexuality, and race.
Similar to the gendered division of forced labor during the US chattel slavery era where female African slaves were domestics and male slaves labored outside, a racialized gender dynamic plays out for migrants today. We see how capitalism utilizes gender to repress migrants with extreme subordination. In this sense, any uprising of day laborers and domestic workers not only poses a challenge to capitalism, but also to heteropatriarchy, because gender and sexuality are leveraged in favor of class and race-based systems of oppression.
Overall, the government’s power to categorize male and female-identified humans as “legal” or “illegal” serves to give power to employers and their ability to have control over the labor force. It is this “illegality” that has created a permanent US shadow class. Raids and deportations serve to police worker activities and drive these workers further into the undocumented barrio shadow class. Meanwhile, wealth and capital continue to grow, starting from the private homes of which domestic workers and day laborers are hired to upkeep. US wealth and the 1% largely rests on the backs of undocumented people’s subordination. Day laborers and domestic workers are a key part of the economic pyramid’s backbone. Therefore, they also hold tremendous power.
Additionally, traditional Maist theoretical framework further breaks down in two ways when applied to non-whites. First, in Gramsci’s Black Ma: Wither the Slave in Civil Society?, South African scholar Frank B. Wilderson states, “The worker demands that productivity be fair and democratic, the slave, on the other hand, demands that production stop; stop without recourse to its ultimate democratization. Work is not an organic principle for the slave.” In other words, mere resistance to capitalist exploitation does not end racialized (and gendered) brutality and despotism, which is foundational to our subordination. Essentially, traditional Maism is irrelevant to the condition of the black slave, and in many ways, Maism fails to explain the situation encountered by migrant day laborers and domestic workers today. Traditional Maism does not include the race of the worker nor the gender and sexuality of the race.
Secondly, day laborers and domestic workers are not the industrialized proletariat that Karl Ma and Frederich Engels romanticized in a different stage of capitalist development. In fact, these workers are more like the “lumpen proletariat” class. The lumpen proletariat is a sector of the population that has been denied a legitimate way to make a living, and as a result resort to what are considered “illegitimate” ways of livelihood. With E-verify, employer sanctions, and anti-migrant laws like SB 1070, the political climate severely criminalizes, dehumanizes, and assaults the migrant worker.
As a result, day laborers and domestic workers are not an underclass with little potential for social transformation, as Ma and Engels would think, but rather are the “lumpen” who Frantz Fanon argues in Wretched of the Earth, are “one of the most spontaneous and the most radically revolutionary forces of a colonized people.” Fanon concludes that the politicization of these dispossessed masses—those excluded from the formal labor system—should be made central to any revolutionary strategy.
Essentially, domestic workers and day laborers are inherently radical because they live the root problems of capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, but also represent its root solutions. By necessity, any challenge to these systems of oppression, within the context of immigration, requires day laborers and domestic workers to be in the frontlines.
Migrant workers feel the brunt of capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy. Prone to rebellion, they are a group that has everything and nothing to lose, all at the same time. These workers are our urban farmworkers, deeply dispossessed and marginalized in modern-day corporate capitalism.
In the sense of systematic subordination, a “comprehensive immigration reform” will bring no meaningful long-term solution. Our people will still remain in between the borders (neither human nor slave), and the undocumented brown shadow class will continue to exist. The systems of capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy which manufacture “legal” and “illegal” categories will go unchallenged. Capitalism needs a fragmented, undocumented, and gendered jornalero/a labor force in order to sustain itself.
To achieve Brown Liberation, economic subordination, white supremacy and heteropatriarchy must be equally and directly challenged and abolished. We must build not a social movement centered on identity politics and immigrant rights. Instead, we must build a popular movement centered on a shadow/underclass consciousness with visions of liberating ourselves from all forms of oppression. Within the distinct framework of Brown Liberation, domestic workers and day laborers hold the key and our strongest revolutionary potential.
Wilderson Frank B. Gramsci’s Black Ma: Wither the Slave in Civil Society?
Fanon, Frantz Wretched of the Earth