Christmas at Woodfin Suites 

When Woodfin Suites fired its immigrant workers, was it obeying the law or dodging a living-wage ordinance?

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Emeryville's housekeepers don't actually live in Emeryville. Many live in Oakland's Fruitvale district, the largest Latino barrio in the East Bay. For Dominguez and Melquiades, home is a gray, two-story apartment complex. Outside, along International Boulevard, signs in market windows list groceries in Spanish — chiles, tortillas, mangoes, and the other comfort foods of Mexico and Central America.

Dominguez' small two-bedroom unit isn't stuffed with furniture. A couch and fold-out futon in the living room face a console with a TV and boom box. A huge stuffed floppy dog lies on the futon; atop the television, a big white stuffed bear with red satin hearts instead of paws holds two more red hearts stitched with the word amor — Spanish for love. Christmas lights around the front window give the room its illumination.

The Fruitvale isn't really like Mexico, but there are enough Mexicans living there for it to feel like home. "You feel good here, but there's no work," Dominguez said. "You have to leave to find a job. That's why we go to Emeryville."

When Luz Dominguez first came to Oakland in 1995, she didn't know anything about any of the cities of the East Bay — not even the one where she was living. "It was very hard to find work," she remembered. "I would just walk up one street and down another, asking anyone I met, people I'd never met before. If I didn't have any luck on one street, I'd just go on to the next. It hurt, and I was ashamed. But you always have to think, 'I'm going to find a way.' If you get negative, it paralyzes you."

Eventually, she learned enough about her new home to begin finding cleaning jobs, which eventually led her to the Woodfin. That's where she met Marcela Melquiades, who grew up in a neighboring town on the fringe of Mexico City. Neither knew many people in Oakland, or had an extended family in the United States. Melquiades came here at age nineteen with her husband. They later separated, leaving her a single mother of three children aged eleven, eight, and seven. Now she lives next door to Dominguez.

"We share memories of the food and the places we both remember, and forget our problems for a little while," Dominguez explained. "We've become good friends." The two women are fifteen years apart in age, but they laugh and put their heads together and their arms around each other as though they were classmates in high school.

When she arrived in Oakland eleven years ago, Melquiades didn't intend to stay long. "For a while, we came and went," she recalled. "Like every immigrant, you always think at first that you're going to make life better at home — build a house or start a business. But time passes. You realize you can live better here, and you forget about your old goals. And you stay."

But she also had difficulty finding a good job, and having young children didn't make it easier. "Everything was new and strange," she recalled. "You don't know how things work. You don't know anyone. You have to ask about everything: doctors, school, whatever." She worked one Christmas in a factory, making tree ornaments. Other years she was a domestic. Eventually, she, too, got work in hotels. "I don't like kitchens or restaurants," she said with a laugh. "I like cleaning."

Eventually, Dominguez and Melquiades came to feel comfortable working at Woodfin Suites. For years Smith and other managers had been watching the housekeepers make beds, wash toilets, vacuum carpets, and clean up after messy guests. "I thought I had a place where people knew my work and respected me," Dominguez said. "When I first started working they didn't give me gloves, and I still cleaned the sinks and the toilets. I pulled garbage from the trashcans with my bare hands. I never said, 'If you don't give me gloves, I won't do it.' I needed a job, and I wanted to work.

"I felt appreciated," she continued. "Guests would say, 'Doña Luz, you're doing a great job.' I didn't care if they left me tips. In 2005 the hotel even gave me their Employee of the Year Award. So when they began demanding the card, I felt destroyed inside. I cried. I said to myself, 'How can you ignore all the good things I've done?'"

The two housekeepers declined to specify their immigration status for this story. But when Dominguez describes what happened at the hotel, she is still so angry that her voice trembles. "She told us we'd have to show her our Social Security cards so they could check the numbers," she recalled bitterly. "Before, they'd tell us sometimes they'd received a notice about our numbers not matching, but they never required us to take any action, or told us we couldn't continue working.

"A Social Security number can't wash toilets or vacuum floors or make beds. Only human beings can do that. Legal documents are very important, but real, physical work is what counts."


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