A worker of the world

As many know, Labor Day in September is a national idiosyncracy, like American football or Cinco de Mayo. What is celebrated around the world is International Workers Day on May 1. Because of its origins in the socialist movement, May 1 was a day for big parades in the USSR. It commemorates an incident in a 1886 Chicago strike that resulted in the police killing four demonstrators. Not something for the U.S. to celebrate officially, though it has resonance in labor unions and, most recently, in the Occupy movement.

I imagine to most moms Labor Day might mean the day(s) they went into labor, the physically strenuous, on occasion dangerous and often painful process of giving birth.  My own mom claimed hers were not hard at all. Mom was given to boasting about her toughness -- she was tough. However, she did know labor, the working person's kind.

Though she grew up poor in an immigrant's (from Spain to Cuba) family, I don't think she experienced manual labor until she was an immigrant herself. Arriving in Tampa when my family migrated there with a resident visa at the end of 1956, she took the first job available, peeling shrimp at one of that port city's shrimp-packing factories.

The work was not easy on the hands, for the shrimp came from the boats half frozen. This was the time when many families were attempting legal migration to escape Cuba's growing political violence and the economic uncertainty that resulted from the unrest. My mom was not the only former office worker or housewife from Cuba who did time at the shrimp packers. Soon, though, she was able to secure a better job. At a sweat shop.

Today one thinks of sweat shops as an Asian phenomenon that feeds First World needs for low cost clothing. But half a century ago cheap clothes were made in the USA by non-Union workers -- we still have domestic sweat shops with undocumented workers. Tampa was the relatively Union-free South, and the taller where my mom worked paid low wages while pushing the seamstresses to produce more and more, but it paid better than the shrimp packer and did not freeze her hands.

Taller is Spanish for workshop and most of the workers there were Latinas, like my mom's own sister who had migrated before we did and got her the job. Today it's a pretty word, like its French counterpart atelier, where, for example, seamstresses may be engaged in the gentler work of sewing bespoke shirts. That was not the kind of taller where my aunt and my mother sewed.

That she came home and kept house was the kind of double shift expected of working-class women. My mother, raised in a Spanish household in Latin America, never questioned it. My father didn't either; he was in many ways an enlightened man, but not when it came to gender roles. My sister and I were assigned tasks -- I soon taught myself to cook, which became a lifelong pleasure. But my mother kept house until her last days at the age of 91.

My dad did what he thought he should according to an American model he admired but never understood. Like being handy, which he wasn't. Neither am I, but in this as in so many other ways, I'm totally aware of my many limitations, while he would go up on a ladder to fix the TV antenna and soon I'd be looking out the window to see my dad in free fall. Among other things, I learned to be a nurse, a skill that came in handy when I had my own children.

Given to pondering philosophy and religion, and sharing the ponderings with his son, my father once considered the notion of hell. "I guess hell is the taller", he concluded, considering his wife's work and the other women at the sweat shop. He had only done a brief stint after immigration in another kind of taller, a wood workshop, where, given the ineptness I inherited, he cut himself on the very first day. Not long after, he managed to secure an office job, albeit very low paying.

My mother's liberation from taller hell came at a big price. But that is another hell and another story.