Sucia/Dirty Written by Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez

Photo: National Immigrant Youth Alliance

The worst insult I have ever heard my mother utter about another woman was that she didn’t keep her kids and/or her husband looking clean.  I wish I could bottle that intonation that she uses when she is referring to a woman who seems to forget her duties, and allows her man and her children to leave the house without their clothes pressed, their faces washed, and their hair tidy.

She will say: Esos niños se ven sucios. // Those kids look dirty.

And she is not trying to make fun of the children, instead when she’s referring to a husband’s untidy appearance she is not holding him responsible for his own tidiness.  No, I have always known that she is disgusted with the woman-of-the-house for not fulfilling her duties.

You see when labor has historically been gendered, and marital tasks have been inherently also gendered, women are oftentimes traditionally tasked with things like laundry and thus to fail in these tasks is to fail at being a woman.  I do not believe, nor do I endorse this, but I have been raised to believe all this to be true.  A lot of us have been raised this way, if we are truly honest with ourselves.

When my mother says: Esos niños se ven sucios. // Those kids look dirty.

She is making a gendered assessment of a woman and of what womanly tasks are and should be.  However she is also adhering to respectability politics.  When my mami makes a remark on someone’s proximity to cleanliness, she is making a statement about someone’s class status.  I grew up poor, but my mother did everything she could, used every tool at her disposal, and ensured that we never looked poor.  Yes, we have had might have only one nice pair of church shoes but she made sure that they were cleaned and polished and treated with care.  Yes, we might have had only one nice beautiful Sunday dress but it was always pressed and always clear of stains.  My mami ensured that we were at least looking like we were keeping up with the Joneses.

My mami knew that respectability politics meant a semblance of respect, that brown poor folks do not often have the courtesy of receiving but might get lucky if we are wearing their best outfits and on their best behavior.  This is a reality, still, today.

However, if the acceptance of poor brown folks comes under the heavy veil of sexist impositions that demands that woman upkeep and maintain this false reality, so that we can attain some false sense of acceptance by richer and usually whiter folks then I do not want it.

When my mother says: Esos niños se ven sucios. // Those kids look dirty.

She is trying to climb up on that socio-economic ladder, and be respected – and that is respectable work because it has meant a sense of survival for folks like us for so long.  But we have been learning, through things like the industrial prison complex that imprisons black and brown folks for profit, that no suit will save us.  Martin Luther King Jr. was killed wearing a suit, which his wife probably pressed, and that did not save him.  Black and brown youth are criminalized no matter how many degrees we’ve got under our belt, we are stopped and frisked and treated as unworthy.

When my mother says: Esos niños se ven sucios. // Those kids look dirty.

I get it, but I reject this prescription for social and class mobility.  I reject it as a brown immigrant woman who has had to carry the burdens of living as female in a patriarchal society and brown in a racist world and an immigrant in a USA that wants us gone.  That is how I honor MLK, by rejecting respectability politics and checking myself when my upbringing makes me want to impose those politics on innocent bystanders.

Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez is a grassroots foreign citizen, maneuvering and resisting assimilation and respectability politics through what she calls her a chonga Mujerista ethics. Born in Managua, Nicaragua and currently living in Nashville, TN.