Lilia was born in Mexico City and came to the United States with her sister-in-law and nephew in 1997 when she was seventeen years old.  A kind, funny, and self-sufficent woman, she is thirty-five years old and married with two young boys, Diego and Oliver.

Lilia stands out as a strong, hard-working, and extraordinary woman, defying the stereotypes of immigrants that come to the United States. She came to this country because she wanted to live in a different way than what she saw in Mexico City. Her brother, four years older than her, was already in the United States working in construction. But for Lilia, the decision to come here was a choice. It wasn’t out of necessity. She wanted to do something different, to explore another place—just like Duke students who opt to study abroad for a semester.

Lilia always dreamed of living in another country, but she says that she didn’t realize when she said goodbye to her family that she wasn’t going to be able to visit them every time she wanted to do so. At this point, it’s been fourteen years since she has seen her parents and her two brothers that still live in Mexico City. Even though she keeps in touch with them by phone, on Facebook, and via Skype, Lilia misses them a lot.

Still, Lilia describes her life here in Durham, North Carolina as “very peaceful.” She works almost every day of the week (except Saturday and Sunday). She likes that everything she needs—stores, shopping centers, and supermarkets—is close to where she lives. More importantly, the diversity of people that one can see in Durham and the plurality of culture that one can find here interest her. She likes to talk to a lot of different people and get to know them.

Lilia met César, her husband, at her friend’s house. César also has a very physically and psychologically demanding job, given that he has to travel during the week. He returns to spend time with Lilia and the kids on the weekend, but usually his construction work leaves him very tired when he returns home. Of course Lilia misses César when he is working, but she is also very busy. She takes care of Diego and Oliver when they return home from school each day, so she considers herself to be the homemaker, at least when César is gone. Lilia has to clean her own house, ensure that the kids are completing their homework, prepare breakfast and cook dinner, do laundry—all after spending a lot of time on her hands and knees cleaning other houses.

But Lilia doesn’t seem to be terribly frustrated with her situation. Of course she would like to not clean houses for the rest of her life, but she doesn’t describe it as an untenable circumstance. For Lilia, who has worked as a housecleaner since 2001, her work also has a social component. She works with her cousin, Gabi, her sister-in-law, Elizabeth, and her friend, Esther, who used to take care of Oliver when he was a baby. Her work is not solitary, so Lilia considers her work time not only to be a method of supporting her family economically, but also a way of socializing with her friends.

Lilia is also more or less satisfied with her work situation because she has the freedom to organize her own schedule. She used to work for a cleaning company, Molly Maids, from 2001 to 2004. In this position, she had to clean five houses each day. She learned the cleaning techniques from videos in English. The owners of the company were older Americans around fifty years old. Lilia says that they were levelheaded and fair, and even though it was a lot of work, they paid her adequately. The problem was that she had to clean very quickly and couldn’t really control her schedule.

One day, Lilia was in the gym when an African-American trainer asked her if she wanted his help with making business cards. The cards helped Lilia receive recommendations from other house owners who were seeking housecleaning. So, Lilia became the owner of her own company, or small group of housecleaners. She has worked for herself since 2004 when she left Molly Maids. In the beginning, she began alone cleaning two houses every week, and over time, she increased her work. Then, her sister-in-law and her cousin, and then later her friend, joined the group. Now, the women have the liberty to clean more slowly and to be careful with their work, ensuring that they are doing an adequate job. Sometimes, they work in two separate groups to be able to clean more houses every day. Even so, this group of family and friends seems to be very important to Lilia.

Above all, Lilia is the type of person that likes to form relationships, ask “why,” and investigate the answers. In fact, she often says that she should have been a journalist instead of a housecleaner. She is also extraordinarily self-sufficient, given the fact that she started her own business. One can also see this aspect of her personality in other ways. Lilia says that she does things for herself and doesn’t wait until her husband arrives to do them. For example, one time Lilia reorganized the living room, including moving the heavy television, without her husband’s help. Because he works during the week, Lilia perceives that it is her role to accomplish things independently.

Another way in which Lilia has demonstrated her strong will is earning her GED (the equivalent of a high school diploma). In 2004, she studied and took classes for four months to prepare herself for the GED exams in literature, mathematics, and other subjects. Lilia also took free English classes at Durham Technical Community College and reached the sixth, and highest, level. She says that she isn’t fluent in English because she forgets the vocabulary, but it is still impressive that she attended the classes even though she is always so busy.

In her free time, Lilia likes to do zumba, rest, watch movies, and support her sons in their activities. She goes as a family to a Christian church every Sunday because she thinks it is important to surround her sons with the love of God. Sometimes, Lilia goes to Diego’s soccer games because he has soccer “fever.” He even has a giant book of players that includes those from Barcelona, his favorite team. Lilia plans to stay here in Durham so that her sons can study in quality schools and receive a good education. Her dream is that Diego and Oliver finish high school and pursue advanced studies in a university. It seems that Lilia’s children are her entire world, and she says that her happiest memories were when they were born. She loved to listen to their heartbeats when she was pregnant.

Lilia’s sons have the benefit of speaking two languages fluently. Because she thinks it is important that her sons are bilingual, Lilia speaks to them in Spanish at home and they have to respond to her in Spanish. Diego, the eldest, never speaks “Spanglish” but sometimes prefers to use English. Oliver, the youngest, speaks more Spanish even though English is the language spoken in the daycare that he has attended since he was just a year old. Above all, Lilia wants her sons to develop and progress so that they can have the jobs that most interest them.

Lilia feels blessed to have the opportunity to live, work, and raise her kids in Durham. Still, she still thinks there is a lot of discrimination here against Latinos. For example, Lilia has noticed that there are some cashiers that only say “hi” to white people. They don’t greet Hispanics and are not kind to them. This is something small, but the cumulative effect is unpleasant. Another instance of discrimination was when Lilia went to the court to get her permission to get married. She didn’t have social security number because she didn’t have legal documentation, but she had her Tax ID number and her passport. An African-American in charge of issuing the permission documents didn’t give Lilia the document without her social security number even though only a passport is necessary. Lilia had to wait until someone who spoke Spanish came back from lunch in order to give her the necessary document without any problems.

But discrimination doesn’t solely occur in the public sphere. You can also find it within the home. One time, a house owner whose house Lilia cleaned wrote her a very unpleasant note that said: “Hi Lilia, please ask your employees to not eat our food. Last time I came home there were two Cokes missing out of an unbroken six-pack and granola bar wrappers in the trash.” There are kind home owners who always offer Lilia and her group something to drink and eat while they clean. But sometimes, as Lilia explains, the home owners don’t offer them anything. In my opinion, this has to do with greediness and with not treating people with respect.

There are also examples of discrimination in general society, like the fact that undocumented people can’t get a driver’s license. Many undocumented people talk about the continued fear of being deported at any moment. An inconsequential accident becomes something very transformative when one doesn’t have a driver’s license. There are also consequences related to social security, health insurance, and property insurance when one is undocumented. Revealing an idiomatic expression that has to do with the repression of the social ascension of undocumented people, Lilia says that “here, they cut your wings.” The implication is that undocumented people can move and make decisions freely, but they cannot fly. In all, this is an insecure life, but it can still be a happy life.

Still, a more explicit example of discrimination against Latinos or against housecleaners was when Lilia cleaned the house of two doctors who had two adopted children. The parents realized that a bottle of tequila was missing from the bar, so they blamed Lilia for stealing it. They didn’t even consider that it could have been their own fourteen-year-old daughter that stole it—but it was her, not Lilia. Lilia explained to them that Gabi couldn’t drink because she was pregnant, and she promised them that she didn’t steal it. At last, Lilia found some beer bottles in the fourteen-year-old daughter’s room while she was cleaning it. She told the parents that they needed to search their daughter’s room because she thought it was the daughter that stole the bottle of tequila. But the parents never apologized to Lilia because it was a matter of pride.

In general, Lilia gets along very well with the house owners. She likes to speak to them in English because she thinks that they consider her to be more dependable since they can communicate in the same language. Lilia also enjoys talking to the home owners to create a mutual trust and so they can get to know each other better.

It seems that Lilia is comfortable in the Durham environment because it is a safer city than Mexico City. Lilia didn’t enjoy her city of origin very much because she was young and couldn’t really explore it, but she talks about how it is unsafe there. She was even scared to go out alone in the city. In Mexico, Lilia explains, there is a very prevalent machismo, but the word “machismo” has a different meaning than it has in the United States. It specifically means in Mexico that a woman is subjugated by her husband. It doesn’t only mean that a woman who wants to work is stigmatized and isn’t permitted a position. It is true that there wasn’t equality in Mexico City fifteen years ago, and that there still isn’t full equality, but Lilia thinks that there is more equality in the country now.

Despite this, Lilia says that her saddest memory was when she found out that her aunt in Mexico City lost two of her children that were truck drivers. One day, they didn’t return from their route and they have been missing for three years. It is suspected that someone kidnapped them for the truck, their money, or something of that nature. The worst part is that in Mexico, there aren’t detectives to look for people unless one has a lot of money to spend to hire them. It is ironic that even though Mexico City is safer for its people in the sense that they have legal documentation there, perhaps it is more dangerous than living in the United States without legal documentation.

— Anna Mukamal