I met Brenda in her one-story home in the residential outskirts of Durham, NC. She and I had only corresponded by text until then and, shaking with nerves and anxiety about speaking a foreign language, I was relieved to encounter a friendly woman and proud mother who welcomed me into her life and her home.

Brenda was born in a small town in Tamaulipas, Northeastern Mexico, to a traditional family of modest means. One of 5 children, Brenda recalls that her childhood was a difficult one, not having the same toys and lifestyle that her friends had. At times in Mexico, she remembers, “there was often nothing even to eat.” This was not some quaint countryside village near the frontera, the border separating the United States and South America; Brenda grew up in a dangerous place. As she puts it, “The city I was from had a lot of gangs. There were a lot of people dead, people killing each other. From around 8:00 every night it wasn’t safe to go out into the street.” As a result, getting away from that life was the primary motivation for crossing over. “I did not have a plan for the future,” she said. She wanted to get away.

The story of Brenda’s crossing captures many of the varied and unfortunately common perils of illegal passage into the United States of America. She had attempted to cross the border once before as a tourist, with papers that had been given to her by a coyote (one of the illegal border crossing guides), but she was refused entrance to the country. Her visa and passport were taken by an immigration officer when they thought her intention was to live and work there, so the only option was crossing on foot, through the desert, over mountains and across rivers. They were told that the crossing would take a half an hour of walking and were dismayed to find that, after several hours of being lost in the desert at night, “we found ourselves stepping on something soft, and it was people who had died” during the dangerous and disorienting journey. The trip involved being abandoned in a river by a coyote, traversing barbed wire fences and muddy fields, but Brenda eventually found her way to McAllen, TX, where she travelled in the back of a trailer filled with dirty laundry north to Refugio. However, the dangers did not end once they had crossed in the USA.

Possibly the most ugly part of any border crossing is its facilitation by a coyote, a person (usually a man) who knows the routes in and out and can smuggle people over the border, if they can pay for the service. However, coyotes operate outside the law, often starving and extorting more money from their passengers, exercising their complete power over helpless immigrants who cannot rely on the police for protection. While Brenda was in Houston, the coyotes demonstrated their power to exact whatever payments they wished by claiming a 14 year old girl as the physical price for safe passage out of texas. “Everyone was indignant that he had picked the youngest girl,” Brenda recalled, “he dragged her by the hair and when they asked why he was taking her he said, ‘what I say goes.’” From that point, everyone went their separate ways. Brenda took a bus to North Carolina, her new home, but never forgot the troubled and dangerous journey through which she and many others had suffered to make it there.

Brenda’s first cleaning job in the United States was actually working in a hotel. She remembers it being especially difficult because hotel rooms are, for the most part, “not taken care of” by their temporary residents, who never have to return and deal with the appalling messes they leave behind. Currently, Brenda’s work life is relatively unique among many of the women in The Housecleaner Project because she works for a major house cleaning company here in Durham, and is not self-employed. This brings an array of disadvantages to her work that her peers do not have to cope with. Brenda is paid less for longer hours spent cleaning. A typical day can include cleaning four or five houses before the early afternoon (working in a team of four women), often with much worse conditions and chemical exposure than she would be exposed to in the house of someone she interacted with personally. Originally, Brenda worked for “Tangerine Clean,” a local cleaning cooperative that promotes its use of all-natural cleaning reagents and a fundamental level of employee investment in the company. What they don’t mention, Brenda revealed, is that they demand twice the work in the same amount of time as her current employer, “The Maid,” operating in teams of two rather than in more efficient teams of four to clean a house in the same amount of time. Tangerine also withhold all of the “cooperative” advantages of the company until one works with them for at least a year. Brenda recalls several particularly egregious houses she has had to clean in her time working with cleaning companies. One house had a mold problem on the walls so bad it required dangerous-to-inhale bleach to remove. Another had a landscape of mud and dirt, complete with flowing water canals, hidden under their rotting carpet.

In her words, “One of the hardest parts of working for a company is when I have appointments for my sons. It’s difficult to reschedule shifts and [her bosses] get mad. The same for when you’re sick. An ideal job for me would be cleaning houses myself. You make more money and you have the freedom to work at different times.” The flexibility of a self-employed cleaning career is Brenda’s ultimate goal, so she can spend more time taking care of her family and not worrying about the long inflexible hours of company employment. Brenda says her mentality has shifted from “I am happy at this company” to a more ambitious, “I am my own master, and have my own options to make a living for myself.”

However, there are risks associated with living without documentation in the USA. Brenda is acutely aware that at any point, particularly in areas like Hillborough and Raleigh, someone could be working undercover for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and she could have her record checked and be deported. The same goes for driving without a license. Simply being pulled over and issued a ticket, on top of the $200 fine for driving without a license, mandates a court date and could lead to deportation. There is a constant risk, but it is the price one pays for a life with more opportunity and security than she would have had back home.

Family is of the utmost importance to Brenda. Both she and her husband are from Mexico, but they met in a park here in Durham. He had already lived in the area for a few years working as a painter, and within two years, she was pregnant with her first son. Now Brenda has three, all of whom were born and raised in Durham. All three are completely bilingual, even to the point of using southern colloquialisms like “y’all” in casual conversation and going to school in English. The children commented that, having never visited Mexico or been immersed in its culture, they identify as American, rather than Mexican. Brenda wishes her family could travel to Mexico so they could become reaquainted with the culture there. Brenda’s family no longer practices cultural celebrations like Dia de los Muertos, but have started to assimilate American traditions such as Thanksgiving and the 4th of July. Part of this, she says, is due to the way the culture in Mexico is celebrated. Festivals like Dia de los Muertos are events where all of the people in a community would come together, but now that community and tradition has started to fade into the Americanized culture that her children have grown up in.

The three boys, (aged 11, 14 and 17) all attend prestigious locals schools such as Durham Academy and have aspirations to go carry on to higher education once they graduate. Naturally, Brenda expects nothing less than successful careers from each of them. When asked if she expected them to work during their education as she did, Brenda responded, “when I crossed the border, I did not have a plan for the future, but once I became pregnant I realized I wanted a better life for my kids than I had.” Brenda works tirelessly to care for and support her family, and is a constant reminder of how hard work and the time she devotes to her children has built a new life in America.

— Wilson Brace