Mujeres Mágicas - Domestic Workers Right to Write

front cover mujeres magicasThis section contains excerpts from Mujeres Mágicas - Domestic Workers Right to Writeby Las Malcriadas

The book is edited and translated by Karina Muñiz-Pagán and Argelia Muñoz Larroa.


by Karina Muñiz-Pagán

I am a grandchild of immigrant domestic workers and a writer connected to la frontera, as if my ancestral umbilical cord is buried in the desert terrain of the U.S./Mexico border. I’ve spent the last several years excavating stories never told.

When my father was ten years old, he lived near in el barrio Val Verde, Texas. One day in 1947 he was playing stickball with his friends on a dirt road when the green border patrol trucks charged towards them. They scattered, praying la migra wouldn’t send them far away. Being born on the U.S. side of the border didn’t help. They ran past the evaporating traces of disappeared neighbors, family and friends. At that time, ten years had barely passed since the massive deportations of thousands of Mexicans and Chicanas/os, blamed for the U.S. Great Depression.

Today, migrants are scapegoated all over the world, and the U.S./Mexico border is ground zero for deadly and draconian policies. Stories of resilience and survival, such as the ones in this book, must be excavated with a newfound urgency.

As an immigrant rights activist, I first became familiar with Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA) in 1999. I heard Clara Luz Navarro, co-founder of MUA, speak about their work at a training for domestic violence counselors. Clara Luz had a vibrancy that filled the room. She had short, dyed blond hair and a passion in her voice that made you fix your posture and listen attentively. She spoke of the dignity and power of Latina immigrant women, cleaning homes in San Francisco, taking care of children and the elderly, making all other work possible and building their own power.

What Clara Luz shared resonated with me. My maternal great-grandmother, Karin, was a domestic worker too. She migrated from Sweden to San Francisco and worked for 30 years for a family on Russian Hill. My paternal grandmother, Candelaria, migrated to the U.S. from México and was pulled out of primary school to work as a domestic worker, washing the clothes of others on the El Paso/Juarez border. With grandmothers from both sides of my family, having done the often invisible and invaluable work of home care, I was drawn to community work that honored the dignity and value of immigrant women and domestic workers of today, as well as their legacy.

MUA is a Latina immigrant and domestic worker rights base-building organization in the San Francisco Bay Area. I worked there as the Political Director while I was also a student at Mills College, pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. As a Community Engagement Fellow, Mills gave me the opportunity to teach creative writing and step outside our campaign work. This book includes writing from the participants in those workshops and reflects MUA’s accomplishment of their mission through art and literature. The MUA writers have also been at the forefront of preserving San Francisco as a sanctuary city. Together, we have fasted and engaged in civil disobedience. They’ve taught me what bravery looks like when they have risked their own safety to strengthen the #NotOneMore deportation campaign and led the domestic worker rights movement in the state of California.

In 2015 when this project began, my biggest fear was failing my compañeras. I wanted the class to be worth the sacrifices made to attend. For members who weren’t staff, attending class meant at times turning down a job. We didn’t have childcare the first year; participants had to arrange that as well. For MUA staff, the workload didn’t lessen; the 3-hour-a-week class plus homework was in addition to the responsibilities they held in each program.

We began the class with ceremony. I learned the power of this intention from workshops taught by Cherríe Moraga, a mentor instrumental in my life and in so many others. La maestra pushed us to bring our whole selves to the space and page. One of the compañeras, Sylvia, was from a danzante indigenous community in Oakland. She and her daughter began by recognizing we were on Ohlone land and guided us through the four directions, keeping the copal burning on the altar as we each set our intention for ourselves and collectively. This is how we would hold and push each other through the process.  

One main goal was for each participant to discover stories inside themselves they never knew existed. They were there, waiting in the ethers to come to life. I opened our first class, after ceremony, with Gloria Anzaldúa’s “Letter to Third World Women” in the anthology This Bridge Called my Back published in 1981 and co-edited by Cherríe Moraga. As a queer Xicana, the book, and the letter in particular, have had such an impact on me over the years. Anzaldúa’s words exposed me, broke open my heart and put it all back together, as if her voice said to me, “Ándale, mi’ja, you’re meant to do this. We’ve got you, now get to work.” I hoped her words could move others as much as they had transformed me. So we read out loud parts of her letter translated into Spanish and printed to take home to read in its entirety:

“Rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you...
I say mujer mágica, empty yourself. Shock yourself into new ways of perceiving the world, shock your readers into the same. Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are the truthsayer with quill and torch. Write with your tongues of fire. Don't let the pen banish you from yourself.”

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"...Mujer mágica, empty yourself. Shock yourself into new ways of perceiving the world, shock your readers into the same." —Gloria Anzaldúa


by Karina Muñiz-Pagán

The name of our writing group, Las Malcriadas, emerged from a story written during an exercise in class, and featured in this anthology. Malcriada often means bad-mannered, rebellious, and unladylike. In the story, the young girl questions why she has to do so many chores while her brother gets to play.

“¡Malcriada!” she was called and scolded by her aunt. We found commonality in that word, sitting around the table with our own resistance stories about how a woman is expected to act in our society and cultures. We decided to flip the script and embrace our rebellion.

The bravery of the writers shows up in the work you will read here, told in their own voices, rather than the stories so often written about them. At one of our public readings, just eight days after the 2016 presidential elections, our emcee, Maria “Chuy” Hernandez, opened the evening, saying, “Please do not hear our stories and see us as victims, as pobrecitas. What we share isn’t always easy and there is no denial our community is in crisis. But we want to be seen as our full selves: in our joy, our pain, and our resiliency.” Then she called for “solidarity with all communities that are hurting and vulnerable.”

Eighteen member-leaders participated in the creative writing courses held over two years. Not everyone has had access to formal education, and in the beginning, some who were not yet comfortable with writing dictated their stories, if that felt better, until they were ready to write on the page. The stories born out of the class are vulnerable, at times humorous, honest, and resilient. It takes guts to pull out a memory from under a childhood rock resting on soil you may never touch or see again.

From the writing exercises, three main themes arose: childhood, borders crossings (both physical and invisible), and life here in the U.S. This is how the book is divided and you will find several of the authors contributing to each theme. The stories that came out of life here in the U.S. also reflect the political education and organizing work we did as a base-building group.

In our leadership retreats and ongoing political education about domestic worker history and organizing, it has been crucial that we recognize how the legacy of slavery and racism lives on in U.S. labor laws against domestic workers; how labor rights exclusions today are a direct product of racism and sexism against a predominantly women-of-color workforce, with the continuous devaluation of work that women do in the home—both paid and unpaid. In our workshops we discussed the history of Black women domestic workers organizing in this country: of washerwomen, who organized in the South in the late 1800s, to domestic worker leaders, such as Dorothy Bolden, during the civil rights movement. When state violence against Black lives is rampant, and anti-immigrant racism becomes more and more entrenched, understanding this context and writing about it has been imperative.

We also focused in particular on what solidarity looks like with the Movement for Black Lives as a Latina immigrant rights organization. How can we confront and change deep-seated anti-Black racism in Latinx communities? In this anthology, you will see honest prose that grapples with this reality.

You will also find stories about creativity, buried for decades, because of a mother’s rage when she discovers her seven-year old daughter’s love of fiction-writing.

Or the nine-year old girl playing bus with her siblings under a cherry tree, her fare paid for with leaves as pesos. Everything changes when loss grips and divides the family, and she won’t hear from her siblings again until years later on Facebook. You’ll come to know the sound of mamá’s slippers during wartime blackouts, and prayers for papá to return home.

The writers explore given names, ones with inherited scars, that hold the memories of a grandmother whose dementia has tried to sweep them away like dust on a broom. And chosen names, proud and bold, declaring, “This is who I am.”

bell hooks writes about engaged pedagogy—when you ask your students to go to vulnerable places, you have to be willing to go there yourself. During the writers’ groups, I was asked to share a personal story of my own, a memory from childhood, which is also included.

There is prose that speaks of how the perilous journey to the U.S., filled with loss and extremities, is just the beginning of fear and uncertainty, yet the love of a son creates hope for a better tomorrow.

Other essays shine the light on living through the inequities of Oakland and San Francisco’s changing landscapes. Another essay grapples with how we are learning and building complex relationships across movements like disability justice, where leaders are also employers advocating for their rights, too, as a community.

You’ll find the story of a battle against sexual harassment in the Tijuana maquiladoras, won thanks to an unexpected encounter in the local market. And of warrior sisterhood needed in this movement, creating space for laughter and nurturing love, in the midst of the attacks on immigrant communities.

Writing has given us the gift of healing, of being seen and taking risks, at a time when our voices must be amplified. The writers have had to return to places filled with the gamut of emotions and bring them to life—to say here I am, and yes, some stories are rough, but don’t look at me with pity. See my power. This anthology reminds us of the imperative courage needed to write, speak, and as Edwidge Danticat says, “create art dangerously” against the erasure of our people, against the constant buzz asking us to normalize this moment, as our communities continue to be terrorized.

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My Barrio is Beautiful — Where I Live

by María de Jesus

Where I live, my barrio is beautiful, with a view of the bay and the city of San Francisco.
Where I live, we are a mix of communities: Latinx, African-American, and Samoan.

In my barrio, I always see a street sweeper. He reminds me of the block where I lived in Mexico, greeting me in the mornings.

My barrio, where I live, is one of the forgotten neighborhoods of San Francisco, one of the public housing projects. It’s hard to get pizza or UPS to make deliveries and, in some cases, taxis don’t show up either. The media fabricates a need to fear our barrio, embedded in an unjust system.

When I came to live in Potrero Hill thirteen years ago, I too was terrified by the stereotypes I carried with me of Black and Brown communities. I was afraid to walk around. I felt like they were going to assault me or hit me. I didn’t let my daughters play outside. I did not have the courage to look my neighbors in the eye. When the police arrived to patrol the neighborhood, I felt more secure. I thought they were there to take care of us.
After a few years, I pushed past the fear and I soon discovered that all those unfounded messages in my mind and heart were not real. I started by saying hello to my neighbors, not hiding my bag, going out and playing with my girls, getting to know the people who lived right next to me.

Where I live, we are a community and we protect each other. Now, my neighbors take care of my daughters and I take care of their kids. We share our meals.

Where I live, I feel a sense of security and community. Police, even helicopters, continue to arrive, continue to intimidate and isolate our community. Now, I know the police are not the solution. I learned that a united community makes a community safe. And that’s what makes the place where I live even more beautiful.


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Shifting Power from the Inside Out

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That Naughty Girl!

By Lulú Reboyoso

“Hey muchacha, go and serve your brother some hot food.”

“Why me? He can do it himself.”

“Look at you asking why! Why? Because you’re a girl.”

“No, tía. He has his hands. He can do it.”

“Listen, you little naughty girl, muchacha malcriada! Men are not made for the kitchen. Women are. This is our role. So go on. Instead of climbing trees and playing marbles or baseball, go and help your mom with the chores.”

“No, tía. Why don’t you tell my brother to go do that? We’re all the same.”

“What did I just say to you, naughty girl. A good woman knows how to cook, clean, sweep and sew. Sit down with her legs crossed and not speak. But you, you have bad manners!”

Well, this bad-mannered girl never listened to the advice of her tía. Not only did she refuse to do work based solely on her gender; she resisted the paternal authority of her father, talking back, defying a patriarchal family system, and this bad-mannered naughty girl got her share of slaps for it.

When I was older and I thought of my aunt and all the recommendations she gave me on how to be a good woman, I wondered—why? She had been a woman ahead of her time. She had challenged the establishment, defied patriarchal authority, defended herself against abuse, left her groom at the altar because she did not feel like marrying. She raised her child as a single mom. She was judged harshly, deemed a worthless woman, a bad woman because she lived her life as she wanted to live it, because she did not follow what was established.

Maybe she thought paving a new path, questioning, doing what she wanted to do was too hard, too lonely. Maybe she didn’t want me to be judged, singled-out, excluded for thinking for myself. But the seeds of being a Malcriada, a misbehaving, rebellious woman, had already been planted. And in these times, I am not alone. We Malcriadas are multiplying…

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t the seeds of being a Malcriada, a misbehaving, rebellious woman, had already been planted. And in these times, I am not alone. We Malcriadas are multiplying…" — Lulú Reboyoso

The Right to Write

by Neira Ortega

I often wonder why I write. I know I’m not alone; others ask why too. I try not to question whether or not I’m a good writer. I just know it started when I was a little girl and learned to read at five years old. My family was surprised, and my mom said the book, First Words, the one we used in our kindergarten class, taught me how to read.

I’m not sure if it was that book, or if it was because I spent so much time reading everything I saw around me—from the title covers of my dad’s records to the newspaper. My dad liked to read La Alarma, a magazine about police activity in Mexico, and I would read that too. I had an intense addiction to comic books, short stories, novels and any type of magazine. My mom had a small bread shop in the market which made it easy to find reading material. Without much access to books, I read whatever I could get my hands on.

Since I read so much, it occurred to me, why not try to write? I began to write short stories where I was the protagonist. Stories of a young girl rejecting her family—her alcoholic father and parents so busy with their bakery that they didn’t have time for their daughter. I wrote stories of a young girl who was adopted and sent to live in another country. This girl was very happy with her new family. I even invented the name of the city and exact street address. I was captivated by writing these stories; I escaped and was transported to another world for those brief moments.

A world where I was happy in another country, like the U.S. Where another language was spoken and machismo didn’t exist. Where mothers were free and didn’t get beaten. I imagined I lived in a big lovely house with a beautiful garden and that my parents were with me playing in this garden. I talked to myself, pretending to be on the phone with my grandmother telling her how happy I was in this big house. How my parents were happy with me and they didn’t fight. I wrote these stories with accompanying drawings and lots of colors.

I left my stories everywhere, I didn’t care who read them. Unfortunately, my mom didn’t like this. She said what I wrote could only come from a deranged mind and she thought I was crazy. I couldn’t process all of this at seven years old and I started to get scared. Still, I continued to write, even when my mom used to tear up all my writing in fits of rage. One day I felt so terrible. I thought I was bad and convinced myself I was only writing to embarrass and anger my mom. I promised myself I would never do it again.

I got along with only reading up until middle school when I started liking boys. I wrote poems of love and my friends made fun of me. I fought with one of them when they laughed at the passionate poem I had written:


You are my ignited passion

That fulfills my desires

You are discovered magic

That inspires my desires

You have arrived in my life

Filling my emptiness

You are a lit candle

Among my nights without brightness

My love, since we met

I realized I already loved you

Our encounter is the culmination

Of our past love


I laugh at this poem now, but back then I was angry, upset that my friends had pried into my intimacy, misinterpreting my simple poem. I think that’s why it’s so hard to read what I write in public today. It’s a challenge, difficult, but not impossible.

Now I think writing is a right. My will to tell my story is greater than the frustrations I feel about my writing. When we write, we transform our feelings into words. I remember the letter Gloria Anzaldúa wrote to women of color, “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers,” in the book, This Bridge Called my Back: “I write because I’m scared of writing. But I’m more scared of not writing.”

These words have been engraved in my head. As a woman of color, Latina immigrant, feminist, activist, fighter for women’s rights, how could I not write? Like Anzaldúa said, “In that very act [of writing] lies our survival, because a woman who writes has power.”

In this patriarchal society, what more can we do than write, to give value to our voice, capture who we are on paper? It’s an imperative necessity for us to create consciousness in this society where we are always on the worst side of inequality.

I go back to the times of Sor Juana Inés, the 17th-century Mexican feminist, writer and philosopher, and the challenges she overcame to write. The right to write didn’t exist for women, especially a poor “illegitimate” one. It didn’t matter that she created famous phrases like, “Send me to the fire pit, make me a martyr, let all watch me burn for defending the right to think.”

A brave woman with an incredible strength and talent. Now, we have the right to write, to call out oppression and demand our rights as women. As Assata Shakur says, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Writing breaks these oppressive chains, a way to free ourselves, like when the bird sings to liberate herself from the cage, and as women we must support each other, accept and love one another.

Just like my little seven-year-old girl, who naively resisted being part of the family she was born into, writing stories of a better world for her. Now I can write and resist in a society where a woman of color suffers from oppression. I write to create a better world where we can all live in peace, with dignity, equity and love.

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"My will to tell my story is greater than the frustrations I feel about my writing." — Neira Ortega

We Watch Out — Where I Live

by Claudia Reyes

Where I live, we have to watch out for who knocks on our door. Where I live, it’s not safe to leave the door half open or unlocked. It’s not because we’re worried about the cold air coming in or the wind blowing in leaves or dust. Where I live, we have to keep our door locked with a chain because ICE might arrive and try to tear it down. Now, before we open the door we have to look carefully through the peephole or the window curtain to see who is knocking.

Now, where I live, we have to train the kids to not run outside or open the door. Where I live in this country, we don’t even know our neighbors well, much less now when we have an underlying fear they may be ICE informants.

Where I live, now we spend almost all of our time watching TV, seeing how dumbass 45 keeps fucking us over with his damn wall and deportation priorities.

But in the same place, where I live, there lives a woman warrior who fights back, fasts, walks 100 miles or more against deportations and the separation of families. Where I live, my mom also lives, and she is not afraid to open the door to her neighbor.

Where I live, on Sundays we don’t lock our door with a chain, because that’s when the family comes by to be together. Where I live, my mother talks with her grandchildren, telling them to not be afraid, because the government is afraid of us. My mother shows them how she is here Without Papers and Unafraid.

That is where I live.


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