Volume > Issue > Briefly: December 2001

December 2001

Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence

By Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo

Publisher: University of California Press

Pages: 308

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Elizabeth C. Hanink

Every time I look at the beautiful peach tree in my back yard, I am reminded of Marina Muñoz, a part-time babysitter who tended my young children years ago. The once spindly sapling was a gift from her to our family, something her husband brought home from one of his jobs as a day laborer. Even if you eschew household help, it is impossible to live in any large city today without being aware of its systematic dependence upon immigrant workers.

They are everywhere, whether as janitorial workers in office buildings, restaurant busboys, or members of a platoon of day-hires at the nearby Home Depot. More hidden but equally pervasive are the armies of individual housekeepers and childcare workers, indispensable to their employers, yet a frequent source of tension due in part to the asymmetrical and private nature of their employment.

Largely through anecdotal reports, but also using a wide variety of other sources, Hondagneu-Sotelo concentrates on the experiences of Mexican and Central American domestic workers whose low-paying jobs cannot by definition fit the usual model of industrial productivity. Instead, they require many of the “caring” qualities that the women themselves see as feminine characteristics rather than job skills. All this explains in part why dignity and respect top their priorities instead of pay rates or legal rights. It equally explains why departures from workplaces are often abrupt and acrimonious. Within this marginalized group a hierarchy exists: live-in or live-out, English or non-English speaking, personal referral or agency-placed. Every progression is a triumph of tenacity — and luck.

The author, a daughter of domestic workers but also a consumer of household help, was instrumental in setting up the Domestic Workers’ Association in Los Angeles (for which all proceeds from this book are earmarked). She writes from a position of strong advocacy for social justice and solidarity with these laborers who are, figuratively and literally, so much a part of our landscape. Yet all the while she carefully maintains a nuanced balance about their employers.

Paulinus of Nola: Life, Letters, and Poems

By Dennis E. Trout

Publisher: University of California Press

Pages: 326

Price: $55

Review Author: Brian S. Tishuk

St. Paulinus (c. 352-431) lived during the patristic age and interacted with the likes of SS. Augustine, Jerome, Martin of Tours, and Ambrose. A fascinating man, he proves himself a worthy topic for Dennis Trout, a Classics professor at Tufts University. Born into a pagan family of wealth and political status, Meropius Pontius Paulinus forged a successful career as a lawyer, Roman senator, and provincial governor. Yet he relinquished his career, converted to Christianity, renounced his secular life, and founded a monastery in Italy.

That St. Paulinus justifies such attention can be gleaned from the high regard in which others held him. For example, at the end of the fourth century, “the name of Paulinus outweighed that of Augustine” in Christendom. SS. Paulinus and Augustine exchanged letters over a period of more than 25 years, with four letters from St. Paulinus and eight letters from St. Augustine surviving. When Pope Zozimus died in 418, two men claimed to be his successor, and neither would yield to the other. In an attempt to end the schism, Emperor Honorius entreated the assistance of St. Paulinus. In sum, St. Jerome says of St. Paulinus: “Everyone admired the purity and elegance of his diction, the delicacy and the loftiness of his sentiments…and the vividness of his imagination.”

Despite the many pleasures of his work, Trout mars his treatment of St. Paulinus with his apparent goal of deflating the public and accepted view of the saint encapsulated in the quote by St. Jerome. He thus introduces us to a private Paulinus whose renunciation is insincere, whose scriptural exegesis is self-serving, and whose writings seek only to show himself in the best possible light. Trout searches for “the historical Paulinus,” with the same underlying biases of those who have searched for “the historical Jesus.”

St. Paulinus renounced the world, but did not completely divest himself of his wealth. He controlled or owned much property and relied upon this wealth to build, for example, two churches on or near former estates, and many structures at Nola, including an aqueduct and a traveler’s hospice. Trout notes that “both Paulinus’s own writings and the witness of archaeology suggest that Paulinus displayed his munificence at Nola on a grand scale.”

In support of his belief that wealth could be used properly, Paulinus relied on the parable of the rich man who suffered eternal punishment because he failed to feed or help the sick Lazarus who lived at his gate: “In short, not riches but men through their use of them are blameworthy or acceptable to God.” The saint also said: “if you love yourself, beware of loving yourself alone.” And this: “What good will it do us to be free from riches if we remain rich in sins?”

Trout terms St. Paulinus’s reading of St. Matthew as “revisionist” and contends that he “far preferred the gospel story of Lazarus to that of the rich young man seeking the path to eternal life.” Trout’s objections are ill-founded, however, because Christ Himself answers the supposed “conundrum.” In response to the rich man’s question about how to obtain eternal life, Christ responds that he must follow the commandments. For salvation, this is enough. The rich man replies, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” Note that he did not ask what more is “required for salvation,” but asked Christ what more he could do. Christ then answered with the charge to give away all of his possessions. However, he prefaced it by advocating this for one who “would be perfect.” Perhaps Trout believes that every monk ought to be “perfect” in the way Christ advocated, but that is not a matter for exegesis.

Paulinus of Nola offers many insights into St. Paulinus, other Fathers of the Church, and the milieu in which the Catholic Church found herself during the late fourth and early fifth centuries. It also offers an educated evaluation of Paulinus’s letters and poems. This renders Trout’s book a valuable asset. However, Catholics, and Christians generally, should be aware of the author’s biases, which lead him to interpret the saint’s words and actions in a way that diminishes his religious conviction, his exegetical insights, and his sanctity.

We, the Ordinary People of the Streets

By Madeleine Delbrêl

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 270

Price: $24

Review Author: Patty O'Connell

Madeleine Delbrêl (1904-1964) was an extraordinary practitioner of and evangelist for the Catholic faith. We, the Ordinary People of the Streets is a compilation of periodical pieces as well as “conference notes, jotted-down ideas, personal reflections” that showcase this French woman’s struggle to help working-class residents in Ivry-sur-Seine, France, and her appreciation for the divine in the everyday. English-language readers are probably not familiar with her because her writings have previously been unavailable in translation. This volume helps to fill that gap.

This is not a biography. Glimpses into Delbrêl’s life are scattered throughout the prefaces, the introduction, and paragraphs preceding certain sections of the book. After a primarily secular youth and an attraction to Communism, she embraced Catholicism and founded a celibate laywomen’s group dedicated to serving others and witnessing to the Gospel. Trained as a social worker, she attended to the immediate needs of her often oppressed neighbors; on a larger scale, Delbrêl attacked a system that perpetuated such abuses as deplorable factory conditions and unconscionably low pay. Most importantly, she prayed for the people of her city.

Delbrêl’s words are sometimes somber, as when she discusses the “weight of contempt” endured by common workers. But she can also be overwhelmingly joyful: “Is the doorbell ringing? Quick, open the door! It’s God coming to love us.” Regardless of her tone, she felt compelled to communicate her beliefs. Toward the end of her life, preceding a student pilgrimage to Chartres, she wryly remarked, “I don’t know how the idea became so common today that speaking is something optional for a Christian.”

We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, first published in French in 1966, organizes Delbrêl’s writings chronologically, offering useful timelines of significant 20th-century developments in Church history including, for example, the election of popes and the worker-priest movement. Jacques Loew — a Dominican priest, dockhand in Marseille, and founder of The Worker Mission of Peter and Paul — wrote the lengthy introduction to this book. Delbrêl’s own writings are marvelous, and one grasps the true enormity of her work through the various contexts in which her words and actions are placed throughout the book.

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