Stefanie Ritoper: From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, You’re listening to ReWork
[MUSIC: Fela Kuti from 1969 Sessions in LA – “This is So Sad”]
SR: I’m Stefanie Ritoper and I’m Saba Waheed.
Saba Waheed: ReWork is the redesign of Henry Walton’s legendary 19-year show Labor Review. Each week we bring you stories that rethink work.
SW: We interviewed Henry Walton right before he transitioned the Labor Review show to the UCLA Labor Center. We were mesmerized and humbled by his stories and vast experience. So to begin this, our very first show as the hosts of Re:Work, we wanted to start with a story from Henry. This one takes place on December 8th, 1969. At this point in his career, Henry worked as an ambulance driver. On this December morning, his job took him to a place he didn’t expect.
HW- We went out early in the morning sometimes on ambulance rides to pick up people to bring back to the clinic. One of the reasons for the Watts riots was that there was no hospital in South Los Angeles. So people would have to be transferred all the way up to general hospital from Watts to general hospital and back just for clinic appointments.
HW: Well I was on my way out to pick up patients early in the morning and normally I would go over to the harbor freeway and then across to Watts because it was faster. But on this particular day, I decided to drive straight down Central Avenue, something I just normally never did, but this day I did and I got to about probably around 38th or 39th street somewhere along there, and there was a crowd of people, you know, along the sidewalk and actually coming out into the street because the police had blocked off the street. And I remember thinking, wow, it’s awfully early for a parade. You know I just assumed that, it must be they’re going to have some kind of parade down Central Avenue, which happened occasionally.
HW: As I approached, the police officer saw the ambulance and he had the crowd part, and he flagged me on in, so I said “oh I guess because I’m in the ambulance, they’ll let me go through”, so I drove on in. And I drove down a couple of blocks and I started hearing this popping sound and my partner who was in the ambulance with me said “that sounds like gunshots”. And I said “no”. And then I heard on a loudspeaker, “Get that f-expletive deleted, ambulance out of here”. And that was when I realized we had driven into the middle of a gunfight.
SR: It turned out that Henry had driven the ambulance right into the middle of a skirmish between the Los Angeles Police Department and the Black Panthers.
[MUSIC: James Brown – “Say it Loud”]
SR: In the 1960s, the Los Angeles Black Panther chapter emerged from the shadow of its more famous Oakland counterpart, into the forefront of the black power movement in Los Angeles- and arguably the nation. They organized community breakfast programs, trained locals in black history and self-defense and published the Black Panther Community News Service, which enjoyed a robust following.
SR: It was a particular moment in the consciousness of Los Angeles and the nation. Black Panthers were pointing out that you had the right to stand up for yourself, to defend yourself. And this message resonated – not just in that people had the right to take up arms, but also in broader sense, that the inequalities that people took as given were not right- that people had the right to speak up for themselves, to do something.
SR: Back to Henry, in the middle of this gunfight. What did he decide to do?
HW- I had my camera with me, and, although, the statute of limitations has run out, it’s illegal for a civil service employee to take pictures while they’re on duty, but, and it was then too. But I, you know, kind of, well you might say, I took myself off duty for a few minutes and started shooting pictures.
SW: In that split second, Henry made a decision. His decision was that more pressing than getting his vehicle down to its assigned destination, he was now in the middle of something historic, he was the guy with the camera. He took a few shots before hiding to get out of the way of the danger. He decided to call some backup.
HW- Well I had belonged to a group at that time called “The Photographic Medium,” and we wanted to do social commentary photography. So after jumping out of the ambulance and crawling under it and then getting back in and backing the ambulance out, this was long before cell phones, so I got to a phone booth, and I called the president of our organization and told him what was going on, he called some other people and I gave them the streets where they could get in, and they came down and then we ended up with well, quite a few pictures.
SW: Henry’s friends arrived and had front row seats to this. In a short period of time, they managed to capture a number of photos of this monumental encounter. One photo shows a SWAT officer firing. Another shows the front of the Black Panther headquarters. Another particularly poignant photo shows a police officer pressed against the crowd, holding them back. They were snapshots that captured the unrest at the time, and also the budding resistance of the black community.
SW: The shootout was a kind of turning point in the history of the Black Panthers in Los Angeles. After a series of previous crackdowns in other cities, particularly San Francisco and Chicago, where police officers killed Black Panthers on the spot, it was the first time that the Black Panthers took up arms and fired back.
SW: The event was also a turning point in the local and national crackdown against black activist groups. The police declared the building unsafe and three days after the shooting, they demolished it. They also took it upon themselves to shut down the kids’ breakfast programs that the panthers were holding. They came in, without warrants, and made black panthers and kids alike evacuate the building with their hands on their heads. Claiming they were searching for something, they would overturn food trays, leaving eggs shattered on the ground.
[MUSIC: Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions – “People get ready”]
SR: Henry’s photographs were first shown at the Watts Summer festival a couple of years after the incident. Just this year, the UCLA Hammer museum displayed this remarkable collection again.
SR: Henry calls this incident one of the many “happy accidents” that happened to him throughout his career. He was just in the right place at the right time. It just goes to show that sometimes you sign up for one job, but you end up doing another- which leads us to this week’s theme.
SR: Sometimes you have to become someone different to fit into a new job. Or, sometimes the job is exactly the right fit- but your being in that job makes people turn heads. Maybe because you’re a different color, a different gender, not quite the expected. We are complicated beings, and more often than not, we don’t fit into just one role.
SR: This week we talk about breaking out of roles. We examine the story of one very remarkable person, Ramiro Gomez, who through his work transforms, and finds ways to transform the way others see people like him.
[MUSIC: Curtis Mayfield – “People get ready”]
SW: We arrive at the park late in the afternoon. It’s a bright day and the park is full of activity, children playing, residents walking their dogs, the basketball courts full. As we set up to talk with Ramiro, a woman comes up to greet him and they launch into a warm conversation like old friends. It’s a banter in Spanish, with hints of a Portuguese accent from Ramiro’s friend, a middle aged black woman with a friendly smile. Two small blond girls in brightly colored outfits cling to her side.
Ramiro: She’s been here as long as I’ve come to this park. She’s primarily Portuguese speaking she’s from Brazil and that’s technically no different than if I were in an office job talking to another co-worker.
SR: We’re in West Hollywood Park, a known convening space for domestic workers in the area. It’s also where Ramiro spent most of his days, when he worked as a caretaker for two young kids.
SR: Ramiro grew up in San Bernardino, the eldest of three children in a working class family. His parents were both always struggling to get by, his mother a janitor and his father a truck driver. Because his parents worked long hours, Ramiro’s grandmother stepped in to take care of him and his sisters, especially during the summers.
R: So my grandmother was my babysitter if you will, she was my nanny. There’s a movie called Mrs. Doubtfire that I really connected to and when my grandmother would take care of us sometimes we put on that movie and we’d be laughing it’s a story of a father being divorced from his wife and figuring out that in order to see his kids he has to dress up as like woman and be their housekeeper slash nanny. And my grandmother would laugh, she didn’t understand she didn’t speak English she didn’t understand but she just thought it was so hilarious that a man would dress up like a woman and take care of the kids. And like she would react I’m sure things would you know shock her as well. A man taking care of kids – a man dressing up like a woman and taking care of kids? What does that mean? And so she would ask us sometimes “hey kids put on the movie of the man that dresses up like a woman” and we would watch it together and those things started kind of shaping in my head what it meant to take care of things and take care of children.
[Clip from Mrs. Doubtfire]
SW: This was Ramiro’s early exposure to domestic work, though at the time, working as a domestic worker was far from his imagination. Ramiro’s whole family thought he was destined for another path- he was smart, he could go to college, get a good job, and have a better future.
R: All my aunts and uncles would always say you know, oh my god if anybody is ever going to graduate from college it’s going to be him. I have tons of cousins, older cousins, who hardly graduated high school and it was a pattern in my family, but I think my mom’s sort of constant presence – even if she was working hard all day she would still get home and help us with homework. All of that really pushed us and it told us that failing was not an option.
SR: Ramiro did try college. He went community college and then transferred to Cal Arts to study art. But the program wasn’t working for him, and he didn’t feel like he was on the right path. So he dropped out.
R: So you can imagine once I decided I needed to drop out that I looked at it as a failure and I couldn’t face my parents. I didn’t tell them for the first few weeks that I decided what I had done, I kind of waited, I just told them ya I’ll be back next semester, I’ll be back next semester and I remember just telling them, you know, that I was fine each time they asked how my schooling was and I told them I’m fine, I’m fine, everything’s good. And in college I have a sense of control over my grades, they don’t see anything, so I was able to hide it, but eventually they knew, you know, they knew that I wasn’t going to class.
[MUSIC: Nicolas Jaar – “Angles”]
SW: Shortly afterwards, an even more devastating event occurred. His grandmother, who he had been so close to growing up, passed away.
R: It threw my life completely upside down, I had to face something I had never really faced which was the reality that life isn’t promise and the things that, you know, care and love, can disappear you know in a matter of seconds and I look back at that time period and it still feels so real, it still feels like it just happened even though a lot of time has passed by. And then during the summer I decided to commit full time to be a living nanny. I was asked by a family that I had occasionally babysat and helped with their children if I was interested in being a live-in and you know that summer, getting that offer and looking back and thinking, I need stability, you know this is tough, how can I get away from this, how can I grow, what am I gonna do? Without knowing what the future held I just said yes.
[MUSIC: Nicolas Jaar – “Angles”]
SR: And so Ramiro moved out of the house, once again leaving his family. This time though, he was not moving out to go to school. He was moving in with another family, to take care of their newborn twins. His parents expressed disappointment at his choice.
R: They kept telling me “You need to go back to school. What are you doing? It’s not your Job, you’re a man, you’re…” You know, my mom wanted me to be in an office. She wanted me to be a lawyer of some sort. She was like “You’re almost done, just go finish it”. But I was be like “no, mom you can’t be a lawyer with Bachelors of Art Degree. You don’t understand, it’s not what I want, I don’t want that.”
R: Their words were very hurtful. You know, the fact that they didn’t work that hard for me to be then cleaning and doing the same job they were doing.
[MUSIC: Nortec collective – “Bar Infierno”]
SW: But Ramiro was off – he had made up his mind, and he was ready to embrace the full experience of being a nanny. In many ways, it was a culture shock, even just getting used to living in another person’s home.
R: The first time I went in there, it was very intimidating because I had never been into the Hollywood Hills. I can tell you that the space itself – the workspace – the home – is beautiful. It’s got floor to ceiling windows, it’s got a pool, and it’s got a majestic view of the Hollywood Hills. On a sunny day, oh my gosh, it’s just breathtaking. But I knew it wasn’t my home. Even though they had told me I had a room, I waited for them to point me to the room. They told me I had access to the refrigerator. I would wait for them to tell me I was able to go into the refrigerator.
R: The first few days were tough. I would say that I had to learn to lot of patience. I’m naturally a very patient person but when you are dealing with twins, having to feed them – especially at the time, they were only 6 months old – and it’s your responsibility to do so, the parents weren’t around. How do I feed one kid with one arm and feed the other with the other? – At the same time. And making sure that they’re propped up so that they’re not, you know, drowning, cause there’s no way I could, you know, it was a process of elimination. There was no way I could just focus fully on one because if I did so, the other one would cry and scream bloody murder. So I had to be vulnerable. I had to say, you know, “I’m learning. Teach me. What is it that you need me to do?” and that’s not something that a lot of people are comfortable doing.
[MUSIC: Pretty Lights – Finally Moving]
SR: And that’s the thing about domestic work. It’s a job that’s unlike any other job in that it’s very intimate. You’re in someone else’s home, performing duties that typically only the most intimate family member provides. This leads to tricky lines in negotiating the boundaries that might be typical in any other work place. Like, when are you working and when are you off duty? When do you take breaks?
SR: But little by little, Ramiro set up a routine and began to get into the groove. Understanding when to feed the kids, change them, play with them, and bathe them. Soon Ramiro was able to work into the routine park time for the kids to play. His favorite park was West Hollywood Park, which is a hot spot and worksite for nannies.
R: Here I am, this guy, you know, walking in with two blonde twins into the park that a lot of nannies use and they would look at me and say “who are you?, what are you doing?, are these your kids?.”
R: Some nannies were very very excited once I told them I was a babysitter and I was taking care of them, they were like “Oh my god, I’ve never seen one” or others would say “You know my son helps with my youngest daughter while I babysit here.” It’s like wow you know, so their son is technically a babysitter for their kid.
R: That presence of nannies coming in and saying “you’re just like us ..Let’s talk”, you know, was helpful. But then I also had other situations where there were some nannies who didn’t necessarily agree with a male being responsible for kids. They found it just completely beyond what a male should be doing, if you will.
SW: The nannies would engage Ramiro. And as more layers of his identity came out, the park space provided plenty of room for dialogue and exchange.
R: I generally would dress up the children – I was responsible for that too – in cute little outfits, I would dress them up, and the nannies would remark “oh my god, they love your kid … You dress them up so good. Oh my God, I want to dress up my kid in that.” Little by little they would get clued to my persona, and like I said, being gay is not all of me, it’s just a part of me, you know, just like with people like them, that are coming into work here, being a nanny is not all of them, it’s just a part of them.
R: Once they realized that I was a gay male, there was some nannies who had a lot of issues with that. I’m like, well you’re in West Hollywood Park, you know, so how could you have an issue with me if you’re in a very predominantly gay area. And other nannies kind of would mediate, they would be like “Oh don’t worry about her… She’s just uptight. She’ll get over it.” And sure enough some of them did. Some of those that had those opinions of me at first, did eventually just say “You know what, you’re just no different”. And their kids would play with my kids and it’s like there’s no turning around that. They invited me because I could identify, you know, I would talk to them about novellas, I would talk to them about the kids. They could see me struggling, they could see me caring for the kids and I could identify with them.
[MUSIC: Chico Mann – “Harmonia”]
SR: And so the nannies warmed up to Ramiro. He was a young man in his 20’s, and many of the nannies around him were in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. They saw him as someone that could have been their son, and they saw him as one of their peers. These friendships made the day go by more quickly. If Ramiro had a rough morning, he could go down to the park and know that there would always be someone to joke with, to offer a word of advice, to pass the time with.
SW: Ramiro saw a lot of things in a new light, and began to understand the real meaning of caretaking on a deeper level.
R: Every day I come in, I questioned everything that I saw, I would see it and I would wonder “what is this, what is that, what does this mean?” I would see a nanny cheer a child up and that child had a very different skin color than them but the way the nanny cared for her or him, the child was something that, it’s just very maternal, very parental, very just beyond the skin color, those were their kids, beyond the fact that they were getting paid to take care of this child, those were their kids, especially the way they calm them. And I’d see that and it was just a sudden little thing that nobody else was aware of, that nobody else was witness to.
SW: And from this, somewhere in between the daily routine and watching the kids grow, a little bit of creativity sparked.
R: I didn’t necessarily have much time, the only time I had was the nap time. So in that nap time I would draw, and I had, you know, an indefinite amount of time, sometimes undisturbed an hour, other times undisturbed 30 minutes. And so coincidently my drawings would reflect that. And that nap time helped me kind of just get little drawings off my head. I mean if I was working in the morning, I would get an idea and I would wait till lunch time to sit and sketch something out. And then it was like during the nap time that I finally would sit down and draw.
R: I would draw with the kids in the morning and I would kind of copy their childlike drawings, but then I would kind of start playing with my – my job as well. Like I’d see the people and it was a sort of like a diary and I would draw them in there. And that became sort of the first project which was childlike drawings of the spaces that I was working in, and then I would just quickly draw in or paint the image of a worker, a gardener, a housekeeper or something.
[MUSIC: Nortec Collective – “Olvidela Compa”]
R: Eventually those little drawings also gave way to magazines. And some of the magazines were magazines that the family that I worked for would throw away – that were luxury magazines photographs of luxurious interiors and exteriors selling, you know, couches and selling this lifestyle. And I would look at those environments and say “hey, that’s no different than what I’m working in”. But this photograph isn’t capturing the whole truth, it’s not showing who’s maintaining that. I would put in the gardeners and housekeepers into those photographs. Every so often I would show some of those to the housekeepers that I worked for and they would give me a sort of laughter and just, they’d liked them. But I’d never show them to the family I worked for because I was scared of what they would think.
SR: Ramiro did share his artwork with his friends online, who gave him positive feedback and commented that he should share his pieces more broadly.
R: This neighborhoods and these parks and stuff, are full of people that are also in the entertainment industry. I had no reservations of sending off some of those drawings to people. One of the first people I email it to was the director of that movie “A Better Life”. So I emailed – sent off an email – with the images of the magazines that I painted and didn’t hear back for a few weeks. Then, one day, I was in the kitchen feeding, getting dinner ready, then I get an email and my phone buzzes, I look at it and it’s a direct email from Chris saying, “I am on a movie set, I just spent, you know, the last few hours looking at this work on my phone, I can’t really see it very well but what I see I love, you know, let’s talk, you know, email…” And then he shared my work with like 30,000 of his followers. I was like “oh my god what is this?”
SR: So then Ramiro took a big step and actually decided to leave his job as a caretaker and jump full-fledged into his art. It was at this point that he came up with the idea for his cardboard cutout project.
SW: He would place life size portraits of nannies, housekeepers, gardeners- often times people he knew personally- into affluent neighborhoods from West Hollywood, to Beverly Hills, to Bel-Air. His work gained the attention of national media, including CNN, the LA Times, NPR and the Huffington Post.
SR: Though Ramiro’s parents initially expressed disappointment when he left school, they soon came to support his choices. They visited him when he worked as a nanny and brought gifts for the children he babysat. And when Ramiro’s work began to garner national attention, it really started to click.
R: It gave them the sense that I was on the right path the entire time, that’s what it was intended for me, and they just couldn’t see it but, you know, their presence at some of the art shows that I’ve had lately, their support of some of the interviews and press that I’ve gotten, their words, telling me that their proud, that gives me validation.
[MUSIC: Pretty Lights – “Finally Moving”]
SW: Ramiro intended for his art to open up conversations about the way employers treat nannies and other household workers. But it also opened up unexpected conversations.
R: The nannies that I’ve worked with personally, they love what I’m painting about, they’ll often use that sort of as a way of starting a conversation, about what happens. Very often I’m walking around and a nanny will walk up to me and say, “Oh my god, hey, I know you. This other nanny told me to talk to you about the situation I had with, with a family. And so I’ll give them my ear and I’ll talk and I’ll figure, well, who do I know that I can connect them to, to help them, in this case. Or, um, some nannies that I’ve talked to, once they realize what I’m painting about and thinking, they’ll open up and say, yeah, you know I have this situation, and I can’t talk about it. And so I’ll take that and paint about it. And that’s the whole thing – that the community’s so vulnerable here.
[MUSIC: Nortec Collective – “Bar infierno”]
SW: Nationally, nearly one in every four domestic workers doesn’t get paid minimum wage. And a QUARTER of live-in domestic workers don’t get five hours of uninterrupted sleep because employers wake them up to work. Other workers suffer verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. And employers that provide sick days and health insurance are hard to come by.
SW: Working in people’s homes, domestic workers tread a blurred line between the home and the workplace, family member and worker. What’s more, domestic workers don’t receive the same type of protection under the law as other workers.
SW: These are the kind of stories that Ramiro and the nannies in the park would exchange in hushed voices, and these are the kinds of experiences that Ramiro tries to capture in his art.
R: My pieces are interruptions of spaces, affluent spaces. I’m interrupting physical spaces, affluent neighborhoods, with the cardboard cut-outs. But I’m also interrupting imaginary spaces. What it means to sell a lifestyle full of luxury- it means that, that person will depend on the work of somebody else. In the case of every one of us, we depend on somebody to provide food at the supermarket. We depend on our clothes to be made by somebody. We’re all connected in this sense.
SR: Unlike other artists, Ramiro’s exhibit space isn’t in a museum, it’s the world we live in. So what happens to art that lives in the streets?
R: They technically will last a few days, if that. Others will disappear within a few hours. I don’t know exactly where they end up. I’ll leave contact information, I’ll date them. I’ll say, you know, if anyone has this piece let me know. I’ll leave a little message often, but, nothing.
R: Artists are told to create work to be sold. But when everybody’s been doing that and that’s not getting the message across, I, as an artist, have to figure out a different way of doing it. I don’t know if, I don’t know if they end up in the trash per say, but I want to say that if they do, that’s a really interesting ending for the piece, a very interesting full circle moment for the art piece. To start in a dumpster, to create into an image and end up back in a dumpster – It’s commentary on how things happen in life.
SW: When we met Ramiro in West Hollywood Park, he had halfway completed a mural on the wall. This one is more permanent, he told us. Maybe it’s good to create something that will be around for a while.
[MUSIC: Chico Mann – “Harmonia”]
SR: This show covered stories about Henry Walton and Ramiro Gomez. To view Ramiro’s work, you can follow him on Instagram – look for Ramiro-Gomez-Junior. He has a blog at Ramirogomez jr.blogspot.com. To learn more about domestic worker organizing in California and across the country, please visit domesticworkers.org.
SR: We want to send a heartfelt thank you to Henry Walton for his 19 years of Labor Review on KPFK, and for reminding us to keep to his central principal – solidarity. We look forward to his quarterly return on the show.
SW: You’re listening to Re:Work a program of UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This week’s show was produced by Stefanie Ritoper, Saba Waheed, Ob1, Danyaal Waheed, Gardenia Montero, Jasmine Morales, and Mor Gedalia.
SW: Tweet your reactions to this show to @uclalabor or comment on Facebook at /uclalabor. Till next time, rethink, rework.