I am normally a sentimental individual, especially right before my forbidden, as one of my friends calls it, so it should come as no surprise that I was overly emotional while watching an episode of PBS’s American Experience titled, Triangle Fire. It told the story of a fire that took place in 1911 in New York City at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. It claimed the lives of 146, mostly Jewish, immigrant women in their late teens/early 20’s. (At the time, this story became much more salient because these were the same women who were on the front lines of a strike against unfair wages, work hours and unsafe working conditions.) Throughout the show images of robot like women behind a sewing machine were being shown. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my mother and her days working in a factory right under our two bedroom apt.
I can still remember, me at 6 years old, running around the factory where my mother worked; weaving in and out of the 7 or 8 rows of sewing machines. My mother sat in the last row where I would sneak up behind her and watch her sew. She’d pretend she didn’t know I was watching her and every now and then she’d nonchalantly reach behind her back and start tickling me. After a while, I would stand behind her in anticipation and if nothing happened I’d start making all sorts of noises in order to get her attention. Towards the back, there were rows of tall metal rods where all the cotton and silky batas were hung up. I remember thinking it was so silly that people wore, what, to me, looked like fancy dresses to sleep. Needless to say, I have very fond memories of my mother working in that factory.
After watching the show, I vaguely remembered that my mother had gone on strike at the factory where she’d been working. I say, “vaguely remember” to disguise a symptom of Dominican culture where children have their place and they are not to have a say in family matters. I called up my mother in Santo Domingo to talk to her about the show I had just watched. I came to find out that the same factory that I had grown to love and see as a nostalgic symbol of my childhood did not conjure up the same feeling of merriment in my mother. She confirmed that she and a few others had, indeed, gone on strike. Ayayay, thinking about this now, I can’t imagine how scary that must have been for a mother of 3 girls and living in a country where you do not speak the language. The reason, she said with conviction, was that after 17 years of working at this factory she and the rest of the factory workers had received not a single penny for a raise. I asked how much she got paid and she said around seven dollars. I held back tears.
My mother like the brave women of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory stood against unfairness. I would have liked to have ended by saying that my mother and the other chicas beat the “man” and got their well-deserved raises, but they didn’t. Instead she felt forced to quite, receiving no unemployment and left to face the urgency of providing for her family. My mothers’ cries and those of the women of the Triangle Fire might not have seen the changes they wanted but their bravery has forever changed me. For them, I am thankful.