Book review of Wilfredo Alvarez's Everyday Dirty Work: Invisibility, Communication, and Immigrant Labor (2022)
Everyday Dirty Work: Invisibility, Communication, and Immigrant Labor, by Wilfredo Alvarez (2022). Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.
In Everyday Dirty Work, Wilfredo Alvarez investigates the communication mechanisms of Latin American immigrant janitors who work in a predominantly White academic institution in the United States. More specifically, Alvarez explores the standpoint of janitors as they communicate with their superiors and coworkers and how they make sense of their social location from these workplace interactions.
Alvarez argues that although Latin Americans make up almost one-quarter of service workers in the United States, there has not been a welcoming environment for them to flourish occupationally. Some currents of public discourse even depict Latin Americans as a threat to the American Dreams of the native population. Such perceptions are exacerbated by the struggles for inclusion and legitimacy in the workplace, where communication is central. With few exceptions, the communicative experiences of Latin American immigrants in service occupations have not been well documented because the focus of scholars has been almost exclusively on white-collar occupations when it comes to the superior-subordinate communication process. Everyday Dirty Work seeks to fill this gap in the literature.
The book follows a consistent structure throughout, presenting within each chapter key definitions, an examination of existing scholarship, excerpts of interviews, and an analysis of the empirical data. Discussions of social identity are interwoven into all of the chapters to amplify the voices of Alvarez’s study participants. The relevance of the author’s personal experiences as a first-generation Latin American immigrant is noticeable and significant for the study. Similarly to the extensive work of sociologist Brandi Perri (2023), Alvarez used his distinctive background to study the experiences of custodial crew members within the U.S. higher-education system as a way to expose their social invisibility. Perri, however, faced language barriers in her project that “made it impossible to interview some janitors [as] the cleaners at this university speak over 30 different languages and funds were not available for interpretation” (2023, p. 33). The works of Perri and Alvarez are, therefore, complementary for those scholars interested in work of the immigrant service workers who toil in U.S. academic institutions.
In Chapter One, Alvarez details his methodology. Using an interpretative framework to analyze his empirical data, he spent four months working as a part-time janitor at a top-five university in the U.S. Southwest. However, this was not the first experience of Alvarez with that university; in the years before this study, he had both studied and worked there, though this time he returned as a participant-observer. As such, working as a janitor himself, Alvarez had the chance to take part in staff meetings and breaks on the “frontlines,” as well as interview, in Spanish, twenty-five other janitors to ask them about their communication experiences. Latin Americans currently represent 37.5% of the janitors at this university, and some of them have been working there for almost 30 years. Given his past with the institution, Alvarez also reflects on the importance of his positionality as a researcher and delineates both his strategies for maintaining the research’s integrity and interrogating the assumptions that he brought to the field.
In Chapter Two, Alvarez outlines key theoretical aspects of workplace communication, focusing particularly on the dynamics between superiors, subordinates, and coworkers. He points out that among communication-oriented studies of superior-subordinate interactions are at least three under-explored avenues. First, they primarily focus on White populations and white-collar occupations and thus lack ethnic and occupational diversity. Second, these studies privilege experimental and survey-based designs instead of qualitative interpretative frameworks that might offer more-nuanced insights into communication dynamics. Lastly, existing scholarship emphasizes individual differences instead of the complex processes of dyadic communication. In his study, Alvarez found that overall, “janitors described most vertical communication (with supervisors) as toxic and horizontal communication (with coworkers) as supportive” (p. 52). Participants were in general happy to be employed but very unhappy with the leadership above them. Providing feedback was perceived as dangerous, and some janitors avoided contact with their superiors altogether. In this regard, Alvarez explains that the university workplace functions as a microcosm of larger U.S. society, where labor is welcome but laborers are not.
In Chapter Three, Alvarez discusses how intercultural communication complicates the experience of those engaged in “dirty work” at the university. Using co-cultural communication theory and a model of non-dominant group members’ communication, Alvarez seeks to “theorize from the margins to foreground the communicative experiences of Latin American immigrant janitors in a society built to mute them” (p. 70). The janitors in the study were ambivalent about their communication experiences with the university’s faculty, staff, and students. While some janitors avoided those interactions because they were mostly harmful, others were able to establish some kind of cultural exchange with these stakeholders, making their overall experience more positive. As the use of language deeply permeates the janitors’ experience, Alvarez points out how culturally dominant groups (faculty, staff, and students) exercise their privilege through mundane interactions and argues that such power dynamics serve to oppress nondominant group members (janitors).
Building on the previous chapter, Chapter Four examines the janitors’ interactions with faculty, staff, and students to investigate communication as it concerns their race, ethnicity, social class, immigrant status, and occupation. Alvarez found that among those for whom race/ethnicity is an issue in daily interactions, about a half said that same-race individuals are the main sources of racially discriminatory messages. As he found, Latin American supervisors hold a belief described as “internalized oppression” (p. 104), acquired through their socialization into a system that treats them as an inferior race. In general, the janitors’ inability to speak English often leads to perceptions of a lack of intellectual ability. Alvarez explains that “[in] a society where ability matters, being perceived as lacking intellect primes others to perceive the message target negatively” (p. 106).
Chapter Five interweaves the author’s reflections with insights from his empirical research. Alvarez explores the theme of “arrivals” to describe how immigrants expect to arrive both physically (being geographically placed) and metaphysically (being able to enact a voice). The interviewed janitors have all arrived in the former sense but not necessarily in the latter. In Alvarez’s personal story, education was the path by which he was able to arrive metaphysically, though this is not a route available for most janitors due to the language barrier and their lack of financial resources. He notes, “janitors’ communication challenges, coupled with a lack of education (for some) and contact with host society members (for many), plant and foment a seed in their minds that learning English is simply too demanding” (p. 117). As a result, most janitors communicate only in Spanish, strengthening their identity and bringing some comfort in a strange land, but also alienating them from members of the host society. For Alvarez, immigrants will be able to flourish socioeconomically when their motivation to learn English aligns with U.S. society’s willingness to support immigrants’ language acquisition.
Alvarez ends the book by delineating his research’s implications as well as some future lines of analysis. His main argument is that organizations will only benefit from promoting intercultural understanding if all stakeholders are considered. Everyday Dirty Work is, therefore, a valuable study for leaders in higher education interested in relational processes across hierarchies, as well as scholars and students in the social sciences interested in organizational communication. By emphasizing the work experiences of historically marginalized people in lower-status occupations, Alvarez makes a significant contribution to the literature on social identities, and his focus on Latin American immigrant workers expands our understanding of how occupational identities intersect with immigration status.
Perri, Brandi. 2023. “Maintaining Value: How University Janitors Gain Status on the Job.” Humanity & Society, 47(1): 29–48.
Gustavo H. R. Santos is a Ph.D. student at the Faculty of Religion and Theology of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and a Research Affiliate at the Vancouver School of Theology.