Making the Network that Sustains Us Visible: Conversation with Rafaela Pimental of Territorio Doméstico, Madrid

Wanda Pimentel, Sem título, 1974.


This is part of a conversation with Rafaela Pimental, a member of Territorio Doméstico [Domestic Territory], an autonomous group of migrant women based in Madrid who have been collectively and horizontally working together for over a decade. TD has been a crucial site for making the issue of care visible based on the voices of migrant women working as domestic workers and caregivers. Their organizing often takes a creative approach, such as producing a music album or holding a fashion show or flash mob, as alternative forms of politicization. They are also engaged in a series of concrete struggles, for example, demanding the ratification of International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 189, which would force Spain to ensure the right to organization and dignity for domestic workers, and organizing legal support for women suing over violations to their rights. TD has been an inspiration for how it has opened up a discussion about care as a form of everyday action, a form of organizing, and a process for different social relations. These are fragments of a conversation that took place in Puente de Vallecas (Madrid) in 2015 (later translated and expanded upon), discussing how TD is rethinking and configuring the world of care based on its collective practice. The original interview in Spanish can be found here.

Susana Draper: When did Territorio Doméstico begin?

Rafaela Pimental: We started TD in 2006, after seeing that we were all having similar experiences: invisibilized, enslaved labor, compañeras who were not even being given anything to eat in the houses where they worked… TD is a space that has been created by many different women with cultural, language, and organizational differences. Many of the women started from nothing, others had previous organizing experience before joining. Yet, it has always been horizontal: we don’t have a leader who we call “general secretary” or “president” – NO! We would meet on the first day of each month to do a workshop and hold our assembly during the second week of the month. In the assemblies, we would say: “we’re going to talk about such and such item.” But, suddenly, a woman in a very difficult situation would come to us: she had been kicked out of her house, she didn’t have papers, she had been beaten, etc. Then we would set everything else aside. It was a moment and space for that woman to speak if she wanted to. She would tell us what had happened, with all of us there, listening. Starting from there, we would also recount what had happened to the rest of us, what was happening to us, or tell her that we were next in line to be in that same situation. Then that woman wouldn’t feel alone. Other women had experienced what she was experiencing.

Then we began the court cases, which TD has started to win. There were undocumented compañeras who were going through that situation and we would ask them: do you want to report it? If you want to file a report, then the collective will support you. It isn’t easy to file a report: imagine not having papers. They call you, they threaten you, they tell you that the police are going to come after you because you are undocumented… And you don’t know who you’re messing with. “You’ll see what will happen to you.” They say all of this to you, it’s not easy to keep going. There are compañeras who say, “I won’t report… I’ll leave it alone and get out of here.” But others decided to go ahead with it and we have respectfully accompanied them. That has been an important part of empowering the compañeras, of letting go of fear.

So far, Territorio has won more than sixteen trials. Those who had the courage to go to court, share their experience with others and this creates a sense that it is important to do so and that it is possible to win. Recently, there have also been two cases of trials initiated by Moroccan women who worked as bar attendants and were not paid by the owners. In another case, a Moroccan comrade was working as a live-in domestic worker and was thrown out of the house. To not pay her what she was owed, her employers told her that she had broken a bed and accused her of all sorts of things. She stood firm and told them that they had to pay her. Along with other feminists that we have met in the Eskalera Karacola,1 we supported her, we called our lawyer and started to work on the issue of a trial. Being accompanied by many women was very important for her. Because it is very complicated to file a complaint if you do not have support networks. Without papers, alone. Therefore the support of the collective is important, because she was being threatened: “you don’t have papers and you’re not from this country,” they would say to her. We believe that it is always important to have support networks when you file a complaint. That is why the collective has been so successful: each time there is a complaint, there is support. She told her boss: “Señora, even though I don’t have papers, I have rights.” And she won her trial. This started happening to other comrades and we told other women that those layoffs were not acceptable.

We have won more than seventeen trials. Through workshops on labor rights, we have gathered more information and knowledge, about what to do when they fire you, the time limits for filing a complaint, etc. We share information about this with others because we already know it. The important thing is to accompany people and for those who win their trials to go through the collective, for them to speak about, and thus encourage others to do it. We also accompany each other on the phone, when something happens and we talk. You have to be present. WhatsApp is important because there are people who are live-in domestic workers and do not have much time. Therefore, by listening on the telephone, we channel things through a lawyer or ourselves, we can turn in the paperwork, etc. That is what we started doing.

The trials have been very important because they have shown the importance of having rights and that you have to file a complaint when they fire you like that. The compañeras become really happy when we win trials. Others say, “if only I had known that when it happened to me, because I didn’t know that I could do that.” We are looking into how to put this information on the internet so that other compañeras can have that knowledge and can do something. When they go to the assembly and talk about the process, the accompaniment, it is really emotional.

Our lawyer is an activist and because of that activism, the complicity that we have had with her has been very important. She holds an open office once a week, in a space that many compañeras and migrants pass through, which has had a big impact.

The Fear

SD: Over time, you have been able to make this situation of precarity and slavery visible. How did you begin this process of emancipation that was able to address this fear?

RP: We created a worksheet: “Advice for being a powerful employee” to work on the fear that we would feel when the señora would say things to us, when she accused you of robbery, when she didn’t want to pay you, when she said you weren’t doing things… We could see that we needed to have little sheets of paper that would remind us: “No. I know how to do this and I am doing it. I know the laws. I know what I am owed.” We have worked a lot on this issue because we know that this fear exists. When we held the first protest, in 2008, when we went out onto the streets, there were a lot of compañeras who worked for two months to organize the protest, but many compañeras could not go… There was a very intense issue of the police asking for papers on the street. Then someone had the idea of putting on wigs, since many compañeras could not participate in the protest; however they stood on the sidewalk, watching and wearing their wigs, because they could not participate. … because of fear. It was a fear that pierced through all of us women and we knew that there were compañeras who couldn’t participate. We also worked on that a lot, searching for tools and forms of struggle so that the compañeras would not be left out. For example, using the catwalk or taking traditional songs and remixing them, so that compañeras who can’t be on the front lines, can be at the back singing, revolutionizing the issue of songs and chants a little… These are the tools that we have found for working through this fear.

We also deal with this fear by talking about our own stories. Knowing that we have all gone through the same thing, that this is not something that only happens to you, leads to empowerment because you know that you are not alone, that other compañeras are also experiencing the same thing and we strengthen one another. At the beginning of TD, this was one of our most difficult tasks: entire assemblies where we did go-arounds, asking “how are you today?” Compañeras without family here, without anyone to talk to, would spend half an hour talking about what was happening to them, the situation of their children in another country, their mothers, or a husband who would call her because she had left running, because he had threatened her… That is what we did: we would talk and later sing a song and hug each other. This showed us that we are all in this together and that the world cannot move without us. Imagine: it is terrifying when you are alone in a house and the señora points at you, says things to you… When you do not have family here, you do not even have an association or anyone who has your back, who will support you. Many women who work as live-in domestic employees can be found alone on a bench in the plaza, sitting there waiting for the moment to go back to work again… Therefore in the space of TD, we have addressed fear from that starting point. This has been really important.

Now there are compañeras who can speak, who can give a talk, who can talk about care work, about global care chains… This has emerged through our everyday practice. In TD, we are all equals, we all have different knowledges and we share them, giving each other strength and supporting one another. The woman who feels most comfortable speaking can be the one out in front, the one who takes up the microphone and speaks. Another woman, who does not want to speak, can participate in a theater sketch. You can talk about what you are experiencing through theater, you do not need theater skills to do it, rather you share it, as you live it. In other words, you do it based on your experience. For us, theater has been a very important tool, along with the radio, writing play scripts together. This has started to become part of everyday practice because it can give you the strength to say: “look, I am important here, yes I can do this.” Or if you can paint a sign, that is what you do. Because at the end of the day, when the product comes out, you see yourself in it and this generates confidence and takes away a lot of fear. Because you see yourself in the process.

At first when we were invited to places, there were about two or three of us who were the most prepared to speak on television or the radio, because we had the most experience. When they called us, the other compañeras would say, “ay no, I can’t see myself there, let Rafa go or let so and so go…” At one point I said: “Here we all have knowledge and it terrifies me when they hand me a microphone and when I have to speak, but then it goes away a bit and I just start talking…” But that happens to everyone. Then, when they invited us, we would say: “Let’s see, how many of us will go? Anyone who wants to can go. We will form a committee and look at it all together and figure out how to do it. We picked a day, we started to talk as if it were a social gathering…” One compañera would write, we would cut it down, we would come out with four pages and read it, and that was that.

Thus we started using that tool and it has been very powerful. Right now there are six or seven compañeras who are prepared, who can speak on a panel, on television. We have made short films about care work, we have participated in radio shows, we have traveled to Amsterdam, Zurich, Vienna, Italy. In other words, we have gone to lots of countries with compañeras who never imagined that one day we would be sitting around talking about all this. Thus, in TD it has been important to know that we all have knowledge and that we need to know how to express it in common and not put limits on anyone, or say “no, you don’t know.” We know that we all have different skills, that we can value one thing more than another, but it is not because you cannot do it. You have to be encouraged. I think that if we had left things as they were, in the old way of doing things, with an association, a leader, all of that, nothing would have changed. Anything but that! If nothing is changing, you must question yourself and figure out what you have done so that only the work that you do is visible and why you have not been able to carry out work that could be multiplied. If all the work really falls on one person, if everything falls to you, then you have not done political work. You have to make an effort so that this knowledge and skill can be passed on to other comrades, so that they see that they really can do it. With these tools, the fear starts to disappear.

A YouTube playlist of the diverse actions (demonstrations, flash mobs, songs, presentations, skits, interviews) that members of Territorio Doméstico engage in. Click the icon on the top-right to scroll through the videos.

Invisible Knowledges

SD: Let’s talk a bit about invisible knowledges, which are socially assumed to be something that comes naturally with being a woman: knowing how to clean, to cook, to take care of children. It is assumed that domestic work does not require training, and yet, in TD, as well as in the project that some of you started with more people, Senda de Cuidados [Paths of Care], you began to emphasize training through workshops that make visible the knowledge required for this type of work.

RP: When someone comes to work, they carry a lot of invisible things with them: cooking, eating, cleaning where they live.

In Senda de cuidados there is a training committee. We do courses for men and women: courses on care work and cooking. Sometimes we obtain access to courses through social services. There are some courses that we cannot do, because they are very expensive. Since we are a project without resources, for the moment we survive thanks to cooperation between friends, who have collaborated in order to bring the project this far, but it is still not viable on its own. Therefore, what we do is grab onto existing networks. When someone tells us: “they are teaching a course on geriatrics there,” we see the possibilities. Often people cannot do those courses because you have to pay and there are people who sometimes can’t even afford food or can’t pay for transportation. Therefore, we have tried to find courses that are on a Saturday or Sunday morning and we pass the hat to try to pay the transportation for those people so that they can attend the course. We buy them tickets so that at least they can go to the course. There are basic courses on care work and later advanced ones, caring for people who are sick, who have Alzheimer’s. We have a compañera who is a nurse, who is a volunteer, also a physical therapist, who volunteers with the Ferrocarril Clandestino network in Lavapies; there are compañeras from Territorio who are volunteers but also teach about care work and, above all, about how to manage the household, how to treat people, how to insert a catheter, etc. There is something like a team there where this work is being done and this is how courses are carried out. It would be better if we could have more courses, more often, but they are hard to obtain. This is something we are working on. In TD, we are doing a course on Gestalt psychology with four compañeras thanks to scholarships from another association. It is a very expensive course but we are doing it. We are doing that course, because often, when we look for something, there is no time, there is no space, you have no way to do anything beyond your job. We have been able to do this, but it is very difficult because this issue has never been given much consideration within the university. Now we are reaching the university little by little, but it is because we have people embedded there who have tried to bring up this issue.

We have sat at tables with sociologists and anthropologists many times… But they do not pay any attention to you. In those spaces, you are like an object and that is it. Sometimes they call you and ask you to recount your story as a victim and nothing else. Yet, recently we are noticing a change. But it is because there are people embedded there. They call you from the university because this knowledge is not socially recognized and we think that yes, that we have a lot to learn, but we also have a lot to teach. This is really important for us but it is going very slowly. Imagine all of the problems for those of us who have degrees from other countries – it is a whole ordeal to have them recognized. Many people have given up on this because there are so many obstacles… It is very complicated.

On the other hand, there is not even a program for talking about domestic service and care work in schools, for talking about this with children. A lot of things are at stake there: we are raising children in homes and those are the children who later will become the other part, who will be very dependent, but we cannot do much because we are working in relations of inequality. They pay us to do that work and unless you have a very close relationship, you have no power to decide – to say, “well, I am going to decide that this child does this, we are going to educate that child.” They often say to us: “I pay you to do this and that. I am paying you here so that you work, but my children can do whatever they want.” These are the barriers.

The only way that something could change would be through talking about this in schools, like they are slowly starting to do with the issue of gendered violence. Because it is there where you can start talking to boys and girls about the issue of care work, of why your mom is doing that, why your dad does not do this, that is: how tasks are distributed in the household, what you do at home, your responsibilities, even as a five-year-old child, what do you do, even if it is just putting the laundry in the basket, or at least giving your mom a kiss because she made food the food that nourishes you while you are doing homework. Not even that. Children do not value that. They say: you’re my mom, you are here to do that.

SD: It is strange how there is generally never time to think about how childcare is weaving a future. That is something that you emphasize; I’m also thinking about Mujeres Creando, in Bolivia, who have workshops for thinking about care. But beyond that, we think about caring for children as something automatic, a service, without questioning what it means to care for a child, about how our vision of that care forges a different future (or not).

RP: I have a Peruvian friend who says to me, “I don’t like taking care of kids,” and she breaks apart the idea that it is a knowledge that naturally comes with you. We are women but we do not have to be moms. These are labels that are placed on us, that are automatically given: you are a woman, so you can take care of children. We are experts on household issues because it has been hammered into us, but you know… We can be experts on other things. And if we are experts in that, then it should be valued. This is what I tell the compañeras: when it is time to negotiate with employers (for vacations, holidays, pay, schedules), I say: “we have to make use of our wisdom and expertise, if you are good in the kitchen or with the children, when you go to negotiate, ask for it from that position, make your knowledge into an alternative to speaking. You negotiate based on what you know. Since many of us know how to cook well, on that day you cook something that they really like, that day you have to know how to use that knowledge to negotiate.

SD: Let’s talk a little about abolition, when people talk about abolishing domestic labor. What do you think? You fight to make visible the situation of domestic labor as enslavement, I think about the signs-slogans: “slavery is over,” “without us [women] the world doesn’t move.”

RP: … or “they wanted arms but people came”… For us these are slogans but they are like a philosophy. They are philosophy but it is not seen as a philosophical problem. It has only recently become an issue. That question of whether or not domestic labor should be abolished is complicated. What do we think about it? It’s a complicated issue… “let’s take the lids off the pots.” I wonder: I am 54 years old, I have been a domestic worker for 23 years: what do I do? Another would say: what do I do with my parents? We have placed this issue at the forefront because these are things that are being uncovered, like peeling an onion, and we will have to see what is there… What I am clear about is that domestic work and care work are things that have given us strength and tools, and if it is there and gives you things, we are going to make it political. How we were able to make it possible for many of us women to work in canteens, in companies, or selling little trees. That can also be political. It is what Silvia Federici says: we have to take out all the pots. And starting from there, you can see how many open fronts there are. If women are the ones doing it, then it should be paid – commissions should be paid. And when they are making the political agenda, care must form part of it, and they shouldn’t make cuts to the dependency law, to social rights. They took away the school cafeterias a long time ago, and many of us women have to return home to make food, because we are the ones who have to go pick up the kids and make food, because we still live within this dynamic of men not taking responsibility. We have many single women who have children, nieces and nephews, and that have to run from one job to another and to pick up the kids. And what is the state doing now? What do we do? We are losing out on life. We run around like crazy, to the bus, the train… We go look for the kids, we take them home, they eat, and then we have to take them back to school… We leave them there, we go back to work, later if the child has to go to the doctor, we take them to the doctor. And there go our lives. So, what are needed are laws that contribute and make it so that one is not living like this, so that after we leave the private space, we aren’t forced to return to it again and again and we aren’t forced to take responsibility for our parents yet again and lose out on life. We often have to leave our jobs outside the home in order to go back and care for our parents. Why? Because there is no law of dependency to protect from this. Because the pension law that they fought for is evaporating…

We must look at these things. And if we have to flag all of this, grab it and hold onto it from the position of domestic service and care work, and visualize it in this way, then I see the political importance to it.

In my country, I worked for NGOs, neighborhood associations, advocacy organizations, with women and men. Later I came here and I started working as a domestic worker, but I am organized, I am a feminist, I am in feminist groups, in Territorio, in other alternatives, in Senda… In other words, I am here because I think this is a political way of visualizing what I am doing and I think this has to be in the forefront and that it must have fair recognition. Because it is not fair that we have a large number of women doing a job that is important for society and that we are still embedded in a special regime where just a year and a half ago we had to wait 29 days for a woman to get sick leave. You feel horrible psychologically because you are working with families that treat you like a beast or a dog, and you are living in conditions of complete slavery… Then, all of this causes health problems for the women doing these jobs. You don’t have the right to go on strike, you don’t have a contract, when you go to buy a television, there are people who tell you “you need a contract.” But a domestic worker is working eight, nine, twelve hours in a home and she can’t have a contract that serves for buying a travel ticket or for paying for a television in installments… In a European society where there are millions of millions below… Where they are robbing public money… And there are women stuck in a regime doing work that is as precarious and enslaved as this… It can’t be tolerated. And we continue in this struggle and what we want is to one day be able to have a care strike.

The movements in the square, the unions

SD: What is TD’s relationship with unions?

RP: We have had a big fight with the unions, they issue reports without asking us anything. They hold their meetings at times when women cannot be there. They have a privileged job and do not get themselves dirty doing things around the house. Because they still speak using the verb and the vocabulary of “helping.”

You cannot say “it’s that immigrants don’t come”; “it’s that women don’t organize.” Well, no, that is not true. Because this collective has organized itself but we had to seek consensus about where and when we can see each other. Therefore our activities are on the weekends, Sundays, holidays, because those are the days when we can meet. The days when live-in domestic workers can go out. It is the only way that we have for contacting one another. But if you do not know those ways of organizing, of attracting people, then do not blame us for not being there.

When I came here, it was national citizens who were participating in immigrants’ struggles. If they had not gone out to protest, they would have never obtained the things that are included in the Foreign Nationals’ Law here. For example, the medical card, which has been taken away now, but originally it was won by fighting for it.

It is such precarious and difficult work in terms of negotiating equality, because you can’t say “I’m leaving because I have a doctor’s appointment.” There are women who depend on their jobs for medicine for their mother, their father; it is not only your job that is at stake: if they fire you, you are taking a chance with many people’s lives. Not everyone can take that risk.

SD: What is your relationship with different types of feminism? You have operated in another space of struggle, the Eskalera Karakola, a space with an important feminist history…

RP: We started with three compañeras involved in the Eskalera: Silvia, Amaia, and I, and later with most of the women from the Eskalera. I think that when you talk about things, the experiential part is super important. When you live as you speak, when you are speaking about your experience, I think you already have other understandings. We started there and continued there and I think that we are one of the groups that is really comfortable with everyone in the Eskalera and they are very comfortable with us. If you have chosen to do work having to do with care, the strength of all those women who are there, that form of struggling for something with that creativity, also serves as a support for many feminists, it has helped make it so that our process, the power of having been in March 8, in which a ton of women participated, has contributed to the feminist movement.

There have also been encounters with some feminists from other spheres. For example, once, one said “always fighting against that and now the domestic workers come out with this.” A Colombian comrade went out and said: “Look, the first thing I want to say is that the domestic employees have brought out a struggle that was hidden under the rug.” And we went out to demand our rights, with all of our fears and everything. With or without documents. We brought that to light. Why do we have to work without social security? There are many domestic workers who are becoming the protagonists of our own history. Some feminists have ignored that issue. Even if you do not value that work, we do value it. We are mobilizing many women so that they replicate this story and that is important. One woman also said: “I want to respectfully ask you not to speak of women ‘of color.’ Speak of women.” What respect for the compañeras who are here. If feminists do not value the struggle that women are carrying out, that we have the ovaries to take to the streets, to demand our rights, as women, as citizens – and not as second-class citizens… If this is what you call feminist, then it is not the feminism we want. And that woman left. In Territorio there are many feminists who believe that our grandmothers, our mothers, our aunts, were all caregivers, and that sometime we might need to be cared for. We have to value that work because at some point one of us will need care, to give it, to receive it. That issue is always there. And we must acknowledge it. Therefore, it is a job that must have decent conditions. It must be recognized, it must not be hidden. All men and women must see it, we need to give it color and let it be a homogeneous color. We have to take on this issue and see that domestic and care work create room to open up several fronts, for different spaces and different movements. Comrades have died because of not having the medical card. It is a struggle that deeply impacts you. Thus, what we have experienced with each one of the compañeras from the Eskalera has been very interesting.

SD: Have you worked in networks at the international level?

RP: Right now we have three comrades who are trying to see how we can coordinate at the international level. We are in the Turin group that was formed as a platform with other groups and we are working on the issue of Convention 189.

The ILO Convention 189 was made especially for domestic workers. They created it in 2011 so that there would be an improvement. This convention would be a rather beneficial improvement for us domestic workers, because under the special regime, we do not have some of the rights that other workers have. They only made some improvements in 2012, but, for example: we do not have the right to strike, there is no social security contribution, because even if there were one, they do not comply with it. We do not have all the rights that other workers have. That is why the ILO made that convention especially for us, so that we could have that improvement and be part of the general labor regime like other workers.

The Spanish government should have approved that convention more than eight years ago. It did not do so. We went as a delegation to the ILO and we realized that the Spanish state was not going to approve it. Since then, we created a platform called the Turin Group. We began organizing with other collectives and started a campaign to ratify the convention 189. Then we started holding press conferences, making videos, doing interviews. Later we circulated a petition and gathered over 100,000 signatures. We have carried out an important campaign in the media. It is the common goal of all the collectives of household workers. The Spanish government has not wanted to approve it. More than ten countries in Europe already have. Italy was first. More countries in Latin America have approved it than on any other continent. The problem is also that although they have approved the agreement, they have not implemented those policies. One of the policies was that, starting in 2010, there would no longer be special regimes for home care workers. We are very prepared in the sense that we do not want them to only approve the agreement with a photo and a signature. We want it to be approved and implemented! This is the demand that unites us on the national and international level because all of the collectives want it and we are demanding it. We are increasingly uniting with others across the world.

Our dream is to create links between groups so that one day we can create a struggle in which everything is connected. Starting from there you can start things that move foundations. We have been thinking about our goals in view of a global action: for example, on Domestic Workers’ Day, March 30, we could organize an event in every city, such as: at noon, domestic workers stop and leave. They could stop whatever it is they are doing, whether caring, sweeping, reading a text. It would connect to what they are experiencing in each city and each country at that moment. That changes things and it changes us. In October we went to the Christopher Columbus statue. We did a workshop, we talked about colonization, and we organized an action. We managed to sneak into the place where the image of Columbus is, without permission or anything, and we did an action that you cannot even imagine! It was amazing, we came up with slogans, we talked about the rapes of indigenous women, about everything that they have taken from us. It was so empowering to see ourselves up there, to see a 76-year-old compañera climbing up a ladder and when we found ourselves up there, talking to Columbus, insulting him, saying everything we had to say to him: you have to return all the things they took from us, you raped our great-grandmothers… We didn’t want to come down from there.

– Translated by Liz Mason-Deese

This article was first published as #preparando el 3J: Haciendo visible la red que nos sostiene: conversación con Rafaela Pimentel,” Lobo Suelto!, October 11, 2017. 


1 A feminist space in the Madrid neighborhood of Lavapies, that started in 1995 as part of a well-developed squatters’ movement, it has been essential for the creation of autonomous forms of feminist organizing.

Authors of the article

is originally from Uruguay and currently lives in New York where she has participated in collectives devoted to building commons in New York City, feminist research on violence, and prison abolition. She teaches at Princeton and is author of Afterlives of confinement, 1968 Mexico-México 1968, and Ciudad posletrada y tiempos lúmpenes.

is a feminist, activist, and domestic worker from the Dominican Republic who lives in Madrid where she has been part of different groups struggling for the rights of domestic and care workers, such as Territorio Doméstico, the Turín Group, the Observatorio Jeanneth Beltrán, Senda de Cuidados, and “eje de precariedad” – a group devoted to feminist economies.