Opinion: How whiteness erases the work of Latino people
The self-image of the “white” American middle class, as depicted in film and on television ad nauseam, begins with a block of large, orderly homes with big lawns. The kind you might see decorated with plastic reindeer at Christmastime, holiday lights dangling from the pitched roofs. Or the curving suburban tract of an early Spielberg drama, with cul-de-sacs and boys pumping the pedals on their bicycles to go faster. When the movie camera enters into the homes themselves, we see carpeted spaces, and polished dining-room tables, and mom at work in the kitchen in heels and an apron.
When I wander into these neighborhoods in real life, they do, in fact, have the otherworldly feel of a movie set. In the class structure of this country, the role of Latino people is to build the movie set of white perfection again and again.
There are the sculpted bushes and trees you see in the most affluent corners of Southern California and southern Connecticut. The newly painted wood of a ranch-style home in tonier neighborhoods of suburban Arizona; the windows freshly washed, reflecting back mirror images of trimmed oaks and maples in greater Denver. I am taken in by the constructed perfection, disposable incomes spent creating scenic paintings in three dimensions. The magic here is that it all seems effortless. No one is sweating in these neighborhoods, unless they’re in jogging clothes, working out to make their bodies as taut and chiseled as the landscape around them.
Finally, I turn a corner, and I see a pickup truck with scratched skin and garden rakes and shovels arranged in the back, and then another pickup, spick-and-span with a logo sticker on the door that announces the presence of a team of construction workers employed by a family-run business with a Spanish surname. Or a landscaping business named for a state or city in Mexico. I see a woman of Indigenous features, with weary eyes, walking down the street in her everyday work clothes, headed to the bus stop, and I can feel the clean kitchen counters and the scrubbed faces of the white girls and boys she’s left in her wake.
At the end of the day, the pickups and the maids file out, taking their Mexican and Central American and Caribbean and South American bodies out of these places, and the fleets of bloated SUVs file in, bringing in the lords of these magnificent properties.
We see our mothers and fathers head out each morning to perform this work, when night is still darkening the dawn sky. The effort of erasing Latino labor from the self-image of the middle and upper classes subtracts from the United States’ knowledge of itself, placing affluent American families in a kind of dream-space untethered from grim and unpleasant socioeconomic realities. The Spanish-speaking help appears only fleetingly in their family photographs, if at all. The public image of the privileged is an illusion of affluence and control, and mastery of their surroundings. They would have us believe they summon the gleam and order of their gated communities and suburban “estates” with a mere snap of their fingers, a wink of their eye, like the famous, benevolent blonde witch of a bygone television sitcom.
Every day, Latino people help create the illusion of the effortlessness of pampered whiteness. We are very much conscious of ourselves in this role. It shapes our self-image.
I’ve seen a meme with a photograph of a group of Latino gardeners attacking a leaf-covered street with leaf blowers: the caption declares, “let me sing you the song of my people.” We Latino laborers drive and walk away from the perfect suburban neighborhood at the end of the workday with a sense of satisfaction.
Many of us have seen these spacious structures rise from empty lots thanks to our own labor with hammers and saws. But white people quickly forget our brown presence (unless we’ve broken a dish or mangled the tricky business of trimming the lawn). They internalize the sense of achievement that comes from the labor we’ve performed to create spaces that are uncluttered, polished, vacuumed.
But we live with the knowledge of a powerful truth: work and muscle are the basis of everything. We know where the beams are inside the walls; we have wiped the soiled face of a stranger’s bright child in our care, and heard her speak her first word. We’ve stood on the roof and seen and repaired the cracked asphalt tiles that keep the family inside dry and warm.
Whereas the people who employ us enter their perfect, mortgaged spaces and practice an act of self-delusion every day; because in erasing us from their minds they deny how interdependent we are. As individuals, we are disposable to them; but we know that, as a collectivity, as a class of people, we are irreplaceable.
Without us, without the labor of people of color, without our farmworkers and our mechanics, the citizens of the United States would wallow in their own filth and their cars would not run and their toilets would not flush. We, as “darker” people, as outsiders and newcomers, are forced to study white people, as people of color have since the idea of whiteness and color were invented.
Héctor Tobar is a professor at UC Irvine. This essay was adapted from his forthcoming book, “Our Migrant Souls: A Meditation on Race and the Meanings and Myths of ‘Latino.’”