USA: Domestic workers in New York created wrote poetry on walls
A woman’s work is never done—it just gets passed on to someone else. For the nannies, housekeepers, health aides and other caregivers in New York’s middle- and upper-class households, work means carrying others’ burdens: tricked-out strollers and spattered baby food, damp diapers, and dry cleaning—or the family secrets tucked behind a genteel exterior. On Sunday, Christine Yvette Lewis captured a bit of the warped edifice of American domesticity and colored it with memories of her native Trinidad. Taking a paintbrush to the wall of an old cottage, she depicted an island house from her homeland, and below, scrawled a scene from the adopted home where she works today: “Push Pale Pampered Baby in Ornate Pram Along Pompous Avenue … A Tale of Two Cities.”
Photo: Angela Jimenez
Though domestic workers are often known only for their quiet servitude in the homes of others, amid the stress and isolation of their job, they occasionally snatch a rare moment of play. On Sunday, “the help” had their run of the place in a stately cottage on the sun-soaked strip of Colonel’s Row on Governors Island, off the Manhattan Coast. A group of domestic workers went rogue and spent the day scrawling poetry, protest slogans, and particolored Devanagari script on the white plaster walls. The workshop brought together a crew of primarily immigrant women, many of whom started their careers as domestic workers and eventually became labor activists and women’s rights advocates. The art-making event was coordinated by Andolan, a South Asian domestic workers’ group, and participants of a domestic workers writing workshop coordinated by poet and activist Mark Nowak. (To hear an excerpt of domestic worker Nahar Alam performing during Novak’s workshop, please click here.)
Some of the writing on the wall reflected unspeakable trauma (“Beaten, raped, starved, work no end!”). Others expressed frustration and a growing willingness to challenge authority (“Why employer are powerful? Why my boss always give me heart [hard] time?”).
While the walls were populated with writing and imagery, women waved hello to a laptop screen that broadcast a live video chat with a similar group of domestic workers in London, part of a global network of women worker advocates that has crystallized in recent years. Meanwhile, Claiming Our Voice, a documentary about Andolan women producing a play reflecting their own experiences, screened on the upper floor.
Photo: Angela Jimenez
Nahar Alam, a former domestic worker and founder of Andolan, beams with pride as she watched fellow activists’ putting their imaginations on display, on the the stage, the screen, and now, the wall. The graffiti verses of poetry represent a different form of protest, she said.
“When you march, you follow, and when you do this, write on a wall, you do it from the inside. This is … different, but it’s the same powerful message.” For workers who have long been denied any outlet through which to assert their individuality, or even their personhood, she said that art “is a different release, and also powerful in the same way. We’re writing from our heart.”
Meanwhile, Lewis lovingly vandalized her corner of the living room with her quaint Trinidadian bungalow framed by palm fronds, a world away from the concrete of Manhattan. Through articulating her memories on the wall, she said,
“I go there … I yearn for the Julie mango. I yearn for the island.”
Story Type: Story