January 23, 2009

Immigrant Worker at Latino Inaugural Ball Shares Hopes for Obama Era

By Anthony D. Advincula
New America Media

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Maria Perez speaks little English. For more than 20 years now, she has worked as a cleaner at Union Station here, six days a week, earning slightly more than the minimum wage. She is proud to be among the millions of Latinos who voted for Barack Obama and helped to make him the 44th U.S. president.

On the night of Jan. 18, at a celebrity-studded Latino Inaugural Ball held at the station, Perez was dressed in a gray sweater over her cleaning uniform – red shirt and black pants – as she swept litter with her broom and dustpan and snaked through the upscale crowd of more than 3,000 women in gowns and men in tuxedos.

Despite the disparities between her and the party-goers around her, Perez, 35, said that she felt united with them, at least that night, by Obama’s presidency.

“I am a Latino. My soul is a Latino, and I am happy I am support Barack,” Perez said in broken English. “Tonight I like it. All people here is happy and beautiful.”

On one side of the hall, the crowd roared each time a celebrity, like Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Rosario Dawson, Geraldo Rivera, Paulina Rubio and David Archuleta, came in and walked on the red carpet. Cameras flashed and wine glasses clinked.

“I am hope that Barack Obama fix the economia, give more jobs, give better health programs for all the people in America,” she lamented. “Of course, I am hope to hear about imigracion.”

An immigrant from El Salvador, Perez is concerned about the future of her three kids, ages nine, seven and five. The two older ones go to a public elementary school on Georgia Avenue, one of the economically depressed neighborhoods in the Washington, D.C. area.

“My heart want Obama to give my children a very good education. They good kids,” she said. “I want to keep my job because I can save some money. Just little, not mucho dinero.”

There are 15 cleaners at Union Station, Perez said. Most are Latinos. Some are assigned to clean the floor and hallways and others to clean the bathrooms. When they learned that the Latino Inaugural Ball was going to be at the station, she added, they all got thrilled. “We will see the Latino American actors and actresses,” she said. “For me, no chance to see the actors and actresses with my eyes, only in television.”

With the economic recession, Perez believes that there are no work guarantees for every American – and for most immigrants. Her husband, who is a dishwasher in a Chinatown restaurant, feels the pinch as more and more workers there get laid off.

As the hall filled with community leaders, sponsors, funders and supporters, Perez looked around, expressing her hopes that influential Latinos, mostly those who have political connections, would support immigrant workers.

“We Latinos, we must support Obama. He’s black, but I am dark, too,” Perez said smiling. At one point, she held the broom and dustpan in one hand and, with her cell phone, took a quick photograph of the band playing on the stage. “Tonight, I’m excited I will see Hor-heh,” she added, referring to actor George Lopez.

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