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How a Mistreated Au Pair Learned to Survive in America

The USA is seen as a country of opportunities, but in many cases, in order to achieve your dreams, you have to sacrifice a lot. I often ask myself whether or not all of that sacrifice was worth it.

by Martina De Alba
Jul 1 2016, 4:00am

Martina shooting a gun on the Bundy Ranch, one of the stops on her 'VICE Does America' trip.

Last summer, VICE filmed Abdullah Saeed, Wilbert L. Cooper, and Martina de Alba as they embarked on an epic road trip during the frenzied 2016 election season. Their mission was to find out what the hell is going on in America as we come to the end of the Obama era and fall head first into uncertain political terrain. The show, 'VICE Does America,' premieres on VICELAND at 10 PM on July 6.

All three of the hosts brought their own unique perspectives to the show. So, we asked them to tell us a little bit about how they developed their own, personal views of America. This is what Martina had to say.

In 2008, when the recession hit the Spanish economy and Barack Obama won his historic presidential election, I moved to Brooklyn for more job opportunities. I grew up in Mallorca, Spain, the largest of the Balearic Islands. It's kind of paradise—lots of people go there for vacation and the weather is immaculate. But early on, I knew it wasn't the place for me to follow my creative dreams. First, my passion for graphic design took me to Barcelona, and then when the economy tanked in Spain, I followed my interest in video editing to New York City.

Back in 2008, I couldn't speak a word of English and I had no savings. I figured that the easiest way for me to make it to the City of Dreams was through an au pair program. Au pairs are like domestic assistants. They're typically foreign women who receive a visa, an allowance, room and board, and tuition for an educational course or two (usually in English) in exchange for providing house and childcare. The au pair program I enrolled in placed me with a wealthy and deeply religious Jewish family in Brooklyn.

The first weekend I was there, I learned right away what the family thought of me. I had to go with them to a state fair. Already, they had been working me far more hours than the program permitted. We went to the fair super early and stayed there all day and night. I decided to get a coffee to re-energize myself around midnight, exasperated that they still wanted to be there. Right after I ordered a coffee, the father of the family ordered me to take his kids and their cousins on the ferris wheel. Obviously, you can't bring drinks on the ferris wheel, so I asked him if he would hold my cup. The man just looked at me like I was crazy. After a long stare, he took the cup out of my hand. But as soon as I was about to step on the ride, he called to me and said that he did not want to hold my cup and that I either had to drink the coffee super fast or pour it out. It was a little thing, but I knew in that moment that neither him or his family was going to do me any favors.

The family lived on the south end of Park Slope, Brooklyn in a lavish Victorian house. Although there were a ton of rooms in their huge home, the family only offered me a bed in a very small and dark room in the basement, right next to the laundry. It smelled of humidity and I could barely see the sunlight from that shitty hovel. And it was so scary at night that I could rarely fall asleep.

I made $200 a week for 48-plus hours taking care of this family's kids. It wasn't until I tried to purchase the necessary things with that paltry salary in New York City that I started to realize for the first time what it really means to be an immigrant in the United States. Paying my cell phone bill practically consumed my entire pay check.

And apart from being exploited financially, the family also treated me like shit. They reminded me every single day that I belonged to a lower class. One time the mother of the family accidentally called me on the phone when she meant to call her own mother. I picked up and said "hello," but she didn't recognize my voice and just went on a five minute diatribe about how much of a horrible and worthless person I was. When she finally realized that it was me who was listening, she tried desperately to apologize. But I already knew that she looked down up me, because she'd made it clear in the past, so it didn't make any difference. The only reason I clung to the job was that if I had left the au pair program, my visa would've been revoked and I would've had to go back to Spain.

This abuse was not what I was used to. I come from a hard-working, middle class family who have always shown me the importance of values like generosity, humility, and tolerance—values that were sorely missing in that house. All this frustration I felt was actually what gave me the motivation I needed to try and find a way of staying legally in the country without being an au pair slave. Becoming a professional video editor and getting out of that awful house became everything to me. So, I put together an artist portfolio and got a sponsor and a visa that allowed me to work as a visual artist for three years. Eventually, I found myself working at VICE as a video editor and living a life that was lightyears away from the hell of my au pair experience.


Martina at a Civil War re-enactment, one of the many stops on her 'VICE Does America' trip.

Last summer, when VICE asked me to ride in an RV with Abdullah Saeed and Wilbert L. Cooper across America for the VICE Does America show, I saw it as an opportunity to learn more about a country I had fought so hard to live in. Since I started my career as a video editor, I've mostly stayed inside the Brooklyn bubble. This was a chance to get closer to the country I had adopted as my own and really understand what it means to be an American.

After just one week into shooting the show, I realized that as shitty as my immigration experience has been, I was still very fortunate. I met many other immigrants across this nation and I realized that adversity immigrants face is based a lot on the color of their skin and the country that they come from. Mexican immigrants escaping poverty and the violence of drug cartels and Middle Eastern refugees fleeing ISIS face an entirely different set of obstacles when they arrive in this country than I did—including an intense xenophobia that rivals anything my host family did to me. I didn't have to cross the border on foot. I didn't have to risk my life to come to the States and I can go back home whenever I want. I may have had it tough, but I know I am still privileged.

The USA is seen as a country of opportunities, which is why it attracts so many people from all over the world seeking a better life. But in many cases, in order to achieve your dreams, you have to sacrifice a lot. One thing I asked myself as I embarked on my trip across the country was whether or not all of that sacrifice was actually worth it.

What I realized is that America is a beautiful country, more than I could have imagined. Here I have met wonderful people, I've built a career as a video editor and I have learned to be more tolerant.

I know we still have a long way to go in terms of treating immigrants with respect and dignity in this country. But despite all of the pitfalls, right now I can say I feel at home and I would have taken the exact same path I took to get to this point without hesitation.

To see what Martina experienced on her journey across the country, tune into 'VICE Does America' on Wednesdays at 10 PM on VICELAND. The premiere is July 6th.

See Martina's video editing work here.

Tagged:
Travel
VICE US
america
immigration
immigrant
abdullah saeed
VICELAND
Spain
WILBERT L COOPER
Evergreen
Foreigner
post-opinion
Martina de Alba