When the New York Times published her statement about attending the Women’s March on Washington, Teresita Villasenor knew she had come a long way. Born in the Philippines and brought to the United States as a victim of human trafficking, Teresita’s first experiences in America were of slave-like conditions where she slept only a few hours a night and was given barely enough food to survive. Today, as a member of a Liberty Hill grantee called the Pilipino Workers Center, Teresita is a worker leader who helps the organization do intake for abused and underpaid domestic workers seeking help. To earn a living, Teresita is a full-time domestic caregiver herself.
When Teresita left the Philippines, traffickers took her to Hawaii, where she was eager to start her new life working on the island. At first she had no idea she was a human trafficking victim. But her dream of coming to America quickly became a nightmare. The people who brought her to the US promised her citizenship, but never followed through. Soon she was starving and severely overworked, but because of her immigration status, she “was afraid to call the police.” At the same time, she knew little about US labor laws and had no access to information about her rights.
Eventually, Teresita made it to Los Angeles, but as an undocumented immigrant and domestic care worker, she was still mistreated at work. “I faced very low wages, long hours of work, abuse, discrimination and exploitation,” she says. Then she learned of the Pilipino Workers Center from a brochure at the Philippine Consulate. "When I found Pilipino Workers Center I said, ‘Oh my God!’ When I heard a lot of stories, like mine I felt blessed. Because without Pilipino Workers Center I felt like I was alone.”
Now, when she’s not caring for people with disabilities, Teresita devotes her time to the Pilipino Workers Center, helping exploited domestic workers like herself find justice. Her role involves doing intake for the organization and analyzing care workers’ stories to decide what services they need. The center helps with everything from representing workers in wage theft claims to navigating domestic violence situations and providing immigration services. The Pilipino Workers Center also fights to pass legislation benefiting domestic workers and provides resources like self-care seminars for its members.
For Teresita, the new administration’s attacks on immigrants and other marginalized communities are personal. Immediately after the inauguration, she traveled to Washington D.C. to join the Women’s March representing the Pilipino Workers Center with the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “It was overwhelming. I’m so happy that I joined the march,” she says. “We showed our resistance.” Teresita knows it will be a tough battle for immigrant rights, but she remains steadfast. “We are going to fight. We will continue to build a stronger base. We show that we are not going backwards. We are going forwards. And I still believe that we are the past, present and future of America.”