The performers from "Our Work, Our Dignity." Photo courtesy of Lolys Arriola.

When Maria Aguilar landed in San Francisco in her late 20s, she was practically a different woman. She had left behind two young children in Guatemala, spoke no English, and knew no one. 

She found work cleaning houses, and started sending money home. “At first, it was very hard for me. I felt alone, lost.” said Aguilar, 42, in Spanish. Today, 13 years later, she speaks confidently about her rights as a domestic worker and as a woman — and her upcoming debut as a dancer. 

Maria Aguilar before dance rehearsal. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.

Aguilar is one of 11 domestic workers from La Colectiva who will perform alongside two laborers from the Day Labor Program on Saturday, Sept. 24, at Dance Mission Theater. Through music, theater, poetry, and dance, the show titled “Our Work, Our Dignity” will shine a light on the lives of the workers, their experiences as immigrants, and their self-empowerment. 

Under the artistic direction of Andreína Maldonado, the 13 workers have been practicing for two months in preparation for the big day, Aguilar said. 

Aguilar has practiced yoga and performed at festivals like Carnaval over the past three years through “​​Cuerpos Sanos, Mentes Sanas,” a dance collaboration between Dance Mission Theater and La Colectiva. 

“But this is different from the others, this is, like, our debut as artists,” Aguilar said, her eyes sparkling. 

In a statement, Maldonado said the show aims to allow immigrant communities, and particularly women, not only to express themselves, but to understand their history and its impacts, and heal from them. “These artistic tools are critical in changing our perspective towards a vision where we determine the future of our communities, and our bodies,” she said. 

Even the music, directed by musician Jose Lobo, uses language from questionnaires the workers answered. 

“Every single word that is in the songs was written by the workers,” he said, except for a chorus of his own that he added to the finale. 

Stylistically, Lobo took the music in many directions — it will include waltz, folk, cumbia and classic rock. He will perform along with the seven-member band Inti Batey, which will play various instruments, including the Puerto Rican barril de bomba and the Peruvian cajón. 

Lobo, who met several of the workers in a protest-songwriting workshop in 2019, said that part of what he aims for in writing this type of music is to transport the listener to the place the song is about. 

“There’s mention of thinking about your loved ones that are far away, and thinking about the fruits and the corn and the vegetables — and the landscape that you’re missing,” Lobo said. 

When she was all alone in a foreign place, Aguilar said she found a new family at La Colectiva. “We are from different countries, but we are one,” she said. “Because we all come to this place with one goal: Our family.” 

Back home, Aguilar’s children are now mostly grown up. In her spare time, she dances, in part, to show them what is possible. 

“We’re not just women, we’re not just cleaners. We can be more than just that.” she says. “Now [my kids] look at all these projects that I do, they look at my work, see that they don’t lack money for food. Then they can say, ‘My mom has been an example: If she could do it, I can do it too.’”  

For tickets, or more information about the show, click here.

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim nearly 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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  1. My first job was a dish washer in a restaurant for $2.65 an hour. That is nothing I want to celebrate. What I celebrate, is that with 40 years of careful, intelligent investing, I am now in the economic top 1%.

    1. Mark

      Dishwasher $2.65/hour likely means you’re as old as I am lol 🤣 sounds like the 1970s. 50 years and a helluva lot of hard work/ smart decisions later and voila! We’re both wealthy.
      The American dream

      James