The Puerto Rican domestic worker revolution against exploitation in Chicago
They were recruited in the 1940s with the promise of better wages and a dignified life, but the reality was different.
In the 1940s, hundreds of Puerto Rican women left the island in search of better job opportunities in the United States.
The private recruitment agency that had recruited them in cities like San Juan and Ponce promised them an oasis of ease in gilded Chicago, but when they arrived in the city all they found were "low wages, long hours and deductions from their pay for transportation and other expenses," historian Emma Amador tells Daily Jstor.
Their employers' trick was more than obvious, since as citizens, the Boricua women were not subject to the same legal restrictions as immigrants, but neither did they believe they deserved the same decent wages as the locals. They were for them the ideal cheap labor force by virtue of their citizenship status, which would work against them.
The prevailing racism in 1940s society was another hurdle to jump. Because at the time all the advertisements published by the employment agency described these women as "Puerto Rican (white)" available for work, but "the racial and colonial logics and discourses of both employers and US government officials considered the workers as non-white," Amador argues.
Not to mention that white families had become accustomed to the idea that their maids were "colored" women.
In 1946, tired of the abuses, a group of progressive reformers joined with Puerto Rican graduate students at the University of Chicago in organizing protests at the employment agency office to pressure the Puerto Rican government to take action.
While employers pointed out that these women had no training in cooking and customs and that this was the reason for their lower wages, labor reformers and the domestics themselves were in favor of training because this was the way to achieve skilled worker status.
This would mean, according to Amador, better wages and working conditions, and also regulation of their trade by state bodies that would entitle them to social benefits. In time, they believed, their struggle would lead to future labor legislation.
In those years, the majority of domestic workers were African-American women, and both women and men knew they were vulnerable, at the mercy of economic and, depending on the case, sexual exploitation.
The struggle of these women was arduous; while they could not be deported, their wages were half that of an average domestic worker and the state of Illinois could at any given time deny them welfare.
Eventually, their protests coupled with the demands of reformers and university students in the middle of the decade forced the Puerto Rican government to take action and replace the private employment agencies with a public domestic worker program that included training to certify them as qualified domestic workers.
Sadly, the system remained rock-hard and these types of jobs continued to be neither secure nor securely attached, forcing many Puerto Rican domestic workers off the treadmill of oppression because they could not change their conditions.
But in some ways her struggle, little known today, set a precedent. It sent a clear message to white middle-class families and also to companies trying to take advantage of hardship and prevailing racism: "We will not shut up, we will not bow our heads".
As Amador asserts, these young Puerto Rican women brought to the table something broader than the mechanisms of labor exploitation in Chicago, they forced both the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments to confront issues concerning Puerto Rican migration and their rights in the country.
"Would Puerto Ricans' legal entitlement to the full rights and benefits of U.S. citizenship be respected once they moved to the mainland - as opposed to the restricted version of U.S. territorial citizenship they received as colonial subjects while living in Puerto Rico," the historian asked.
Territorial boundaries are curious, seeming to follow us no matter how far we go, like an imaginary line that stretches and stretches until it turns out to be a wall. However, no one said that these lines cannot be jumped over. Or swept away.