When Pope Francis called on Congress to respect the rights of workers and immigrants, he was also speaking to workers such as myself who cook and clean for senators.
As a young widow in war-torn El Salvador, I realized I could not support my children by toiling in the fields as a farm worker. America promised a better life for my family, so I embarked on the dangerous journey that brought me to Washington, D.C.
I’m now a 60-year-old grandmother who prepares fruits and salads for senators and their staff members as they rush to meetings. Even though I’ve gone from picking fruits and vegetables in the countryside to serving them to the most powerful people in the world, I am still struggling to give my family a better future.
I’ve worked at the Capitol for almost a decade, but I have only received a five-cent raise during that time. I currently only make $11.35 an hour, without any health care or retirement benefits.
As the sole bread-winner for my family, I cannot meet their needs on such meager wages. My second husband is 70 years old and disabled because of an accident at work. My 29-year-old son suffered a stroke and is bedridden. My 5-year-old grandson suffers from severe autism.
In order to be able to put food on the table and pay their medical expenses, I work a second job as a janitor. But even working two jobs is not enough — I have to rely on Medicaid for their health care.
The stress of working long hours for low pay has broken my body. After a heart attack last year, I had to have a pacemaker installed to keep me alive. My doctor instructed me to slow down or even retire — but this is a luxury poor people like me cannot afford.
I am not alone. My co-workers are also suffering similar hardships. That’s why we have joined together to strike for living wages and the right to form a union.
The pope’s address to Congress is a vindication of our struggle to achieve dignity.
The Holy Father reminded Congress food servers and janitors are also made in the “image and likeness of God.” As such, he called on lawmakers to welcome immigrants like me and honor those of us who struggle bring home “their daily bread” and “build a better life for their families.”
Even more importantly, Pope Francis blessed our efforts to organize when he told Congress to recognize that workers “create solidarity by their actions” and “create organizations which offer a helping hand to those most in need.”
I hope the pope’s words will touch the hearts of senators and encourage them to see us as human beings with hopes and dreams, and not just as simple servants.
The pope is on our side. I hope the senators we serve will join him.
Santos Villatoro is a worker-leader with the Good Jobs Nation, an organization of low-wage federal contract workers who are fighting to end the U.S. government’s role as America’s leading low-wage job creator. An immigrant from El Salvador, she has worked at the Dirksen Senate Cafeteria for eight years.