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A Home Away From Home: Laboring Stories of Promise and Change

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

Book Review: Life Histories of Labor and Resilience: 25 Years of Casa Latina in Seattle by Yvette Iribe Ramírez and Ricardo Gómez. University of Washington, Information School, (2019). Published by Casa Latina. 317 17th Ave. S, Seattle, WA 98144

Book Review by Klaudia M. Rivera

Long Island University, Brooklyn

Life Histories of Labor and Resilience: 25 Years of Casa Latina in Seattle by Ivette Iribe Ramírez and Ricardo Gómez, is a testament to Casa Latina’s work for empowerment and transformation on behalf of and alongside immigrants and workers. It is a story of interconnected lives and a tribute to the thousands of immigrant workers, the staff, and the volunteers whose lives have been changed as the result of their involvement in the organization. It is also a gift to those of us who have celebrated Casa Latina’s work improving the lives of immigrants and workers, making change, and persevering.

The book highlights Casa Latina’s work educating, organizing and advocating for immigrant day laborers and domestic workers. It is organized in chronological order from the organization’s origins to the present and hopes for the future, with a concluding section on food –a cultural tradition that immigrants hold dear, miss from their past, and recreate in their new home. It builds on first person narratives from founders, staff, participants, and volunteers. The English and Spanish side-by-side narratives allow the reader to learn from people’s stories in their own words – in their own language. Iribe Ramírez and Gómez’s choice to tell Casa Latina’s history through the stories and in the voices of its members highlights Casa Latina’s commitments to popular education and the role of storytelling in organizing and making change. For it is through their individual stories that participants “can make sense of the forces that have shaped their lives and affect their social reality. Because reality is collectively constructed, it is also collectively that reality can be contested and transformed” (Rivera, 1999, pp. 489, 490). Archival and recent photographs as well as illustrations by Alfredo Burgos provide a visual companion to the testimonies of those who have forged the organization’s more than 25 years journey.

Casa Latina's journey organizing for a better world for immigrants and workers’ rights impacts the lives of those who benefit from its direct services and contributes to changing government policies in Seattle. It also transcends city and state limits by working alongside other giants in the struggle for immigrant and workers’ rights, such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) of which it is a founding member. Casa Latina is also a founding member of National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA).

Through the inspirational words of Hilary Stern, the reader learns about the organization’s path from its inception in 1994, when she worked with David Ayala and other founding organizers, until her planned departure in 2016. Having witnessed Hilary’s consistent labor for all this time permits me to say that her work is exemplary at many different levels. Hilary is a reflective visionary who while keeping focus on the goals for the organization, also adjusted the initial educational mission to meet the shifting needs of the community. Although from its inception Casa Latina focused its work on day laborers, they started organizing workers into a worker center when they realized that education was not enough to protect the rights of day laborers and that there was a need to get them off the street into a protected area where they could organize their labor better. Working with a consistent and admirable group of people, like David Ayala, Araceli Hernandez and Veronique Facchinelli among many others, she made her vision a reality. By the time Hilary left, Casa Latina had a home of its own and a team of grassroot staff members who had the experience and knowledge to steer it through its present and future. Sadly, not enough community-based organizations survive the departure of a founding visionary. Most succumb to the lack of funding, internal and external struggles, or change their mission under pressure to comply with funders’ whims. Not Casa Latina; not under Hilary’s tutelage.

Hilary’s recollection of the organization’s beginnings brought back memories of what I have known about Casa Latina since its inception and have learned first-hand from my visits to the center, especially while doing research there in 2004 and 2005 when I witnessed and documented the English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, at the time offered in a trailer along with the Worker Center where laborers gathered for a morning raffle that assigned them numbers to be dispatched to work. The workers selected by the raffle wore a chaleco –a yellow vest, that identified them for a day’s job –for la jornada. A couple of times I called the raffle numbers aided by David Ayala, always present in the early mornings. There was coffee in the trailer, a few computers, lists of collective rules hanging from the walls, a job dispatcher on the telephone, classes going on, a barber, and a food truck outside.

Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar/ Traveler, there is no road, you make the road by walking

(Antonio Machado, 1912).

The Testimonies:

Casa Latina’s story is built from the interconnectedness of people whose families are divided as a result of immigration and struggle in the United States for a job and a better day, the many who work for justice, and those who support their work. As I read the compendium, I searched for themes emanating from the stories shared by participants and staff about Casa Latina’s past, present and future. Reflecting on the themes, I realized that the stories tell about the relationship with a meaningful pariente –the family member who stands in when a parent is absent –someone who has changed our lives and we will never forget. This is in essence what Casa Latina means in the lives of so many people –a family member –a pariente, and a home away from home.

The stories shared by participants are the most telling. The theme of Casa Latina feeling like a second home is ever present in these stories. They tell about how at Casa Latina you can find someone else from the same place where you grew up, you can learn English, make friends, and have access to other Spanish speakers. They attest to Casa Latina as a place where you can obtain work and claim wages, and also as a place where you find human connections and emotional wellbeing. Participants share how at Casa Latina you are remembered, like Alvaro, who was beaten to death under a bridge because he could not get into a shelter but whose memory is kept alive in the English classes and at the altar of the Día de los Muertos commemoration. They tell about Regino who found a community at Casa Latina where he has secured jobs that enable him to send needed money home. Some are stories from people who have been with Casa Latina from its beginning, like Fulgencio, who participated in the initial meetings to form the organization. He is an artist who donated his art and collected art from his friends to be auctioned at what have become Casa Latina’s yearly fundraising events.

The stories also include those of the many participants who have grown into staff members, like Silvia Gonzalez. She came to Casa Latina in 2011 as a domestic worker and became an organizer for the Seattle Bill of Rights for Domestic Workers, which was approved in 2018, one of the many legislative accomplishments amassed through the years as a result of Casa Latina’s organizing, which has evolved into a Washington State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, introduced to the legislators in 2020 and pending approval. Silvia now works with Women Without Borders, a leadership development and empowering program.

They are also the stories of volunteers like Emily G. who shares how her work in the organization allowed her to explore her “own identity, white privilege, community, race, connection, love, inclusion, and exclusion…pretty much the whole gamut of human experience” (p.14). They tell about the day-to-day organizing that makes the lives of workers better. Jeffrey, who joined the organization in 2017, shares his first experience at the center, “I was helping in the dispatch center that summer, answering phones and helping dispatch jobs, and you'd see a hundred people show up on a Saturday morning, and then most of them are gone out to work two hours later because of the dispatch. So, it’s really a tangible thing to be able to see” (p. 20).

In my own work at Community-Based Organizations I have found food to be important for organizing and creating community. At El Barrio Popular Education Program in New York City’s East Harlem participants would bring food to share and we ran a food cooperative to generate jobs. When I conducted research at Casa Latina in 2003, I documented in many photographs the food truck parked outside. The last section of Iribe Ramírez and Gómez’s compendium is devoted to food, which includes recipes provided by the participants and their memoirs of what each dish means to them. Recipes and memoirs include those for tamales, chiles rellenos, mole, soups, tortillas among many others traditional dishes from many countries. The significance of this section is better conveyed by Casa Latina’s participants Rebekah Leidenfrost, Caleb Mechem, Carli Reinecke, and Dana West:

There are few things more synonymous with “home” than food. Food has the power to transport us back through time and space to a memory that is often little more than a feeling. Likewise, food is culture. Food is shaped just as much by geography and climate as it is by human creation. And food is community. Sharing food and passing family traditions down through the generations is a human ritual observable around the world (p. 73).

Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Iribe Ramírez and Gómez gifts us with an opportunity to walk alongside those who every day make history at Casa Latina making the road to improve the lives of immigrants and workers in Seattle and beyond. It is an opportunity to be inspired by testimonies of endurance, empowerment, change, and hope.

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