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Ethnic Menial Labor

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Even Jennifer Lopez has to work under this gringo.

"Should Americans pick crops?
George says 'no'
Cuz no-one but a Mexican would stoop so low
And after all, even in Egypt, the Pharaohs
Had to import Hebrew braceros."
Tom Lehrer, "George Murphy", That Was the Year That Was

Throughout history, there have been stereotypes that certain ethnicities are more prevalent in menial labor such as line cooks, maids, cleaners, nannies, and farmhands, often in service to white characters. This stereotype is often an exaggerated case of the truth: Certain minority groups have indeed been over-represented in menial jobs due to a variety of factors, such as colonial history, refugee status, not knowing the new country's language and the immigration patterns of the creator's country. In Politically Correct History this will be carefully sidestepped, but in accurate or exaggerated Period Pieces and Historical Fiction, the older versions of this trope can still be found.

In American works, an early propensity for Irish and Chinese laborers in fiction as been replaced by Hispanic and Southeast Asian characters in contemporary times. Black workers were common post-slavery, and remain today in modern examples of Mammy (a serving woman) and (occasionally) Magical Negro. Western European works will feature Eastern European or North African characters in blue-collar jobs. Works set in Latin America might have indigenous menial labor working for the Spanish-descended upper class. For the specific reasons, see the analysis page.

Reasons for choosing blue-collar work might be The Illegal (they don't want to risk deportation by working for a reputable employer), not knowing the new country's language, or Worthless Foreign Degree (they are professionals in their home countries, but these credentials aren't recognized).

The reverse trope is Foreign Ruling Class. Super-Trope to Chinese Laborer and Chinese Launderer.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Comedy 
  • The singer/activist U. Utah Phillips makes reference to Irish railroad workers in his re-telling of the classic "Shaggy Dog" Story "Moose Turd Pie".

    Comic Books 
  • Jew Gangster: Ruby's family are Jewish immigrants from Poland. His father Isaac works in a sweatshop as a fabric cutter, while his mother cooks for a small restaurant she runs from a rented storefront.
  • A minor character in The Sandman (1989), Lyta Hall's black friend Carla, lives off the money her grandmother made by playing a maid.

    Comic Strips 

    Films — Animated 
  • Dumbo: The controversial "Song of the Roustabouts" is performed by black labourers
  • Fantasia's "Pastoral Symphony" segment includes two centaurettes, Sunflower and Otika, who are clearly designed to look black, while the rest are oddly-colored and Caucasian-looking. Sunflower is shown doing menial jobs like polishing the other centaurettes' hooves, while Otika serves as part of Bacchus' entourage. Both have been removed from later releases due to controversy.

    Films — Live Action 
  • Angel and Big Joe: Angel is a Latino migrant farmworker. He forms a bond with Big Joe, a telephone lineman.
  • Beastly - which is a loose modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast - has a Jamaican cleaning lady as its equivalent character to Mrs. Potts. Instead of being cursed to spend her life as a sentient teapot, she is separated from her children, for whom she cannot acquire Green Cards. At the end, when Kyle's curse is broken and he's not beastly anymore, some Green Cards miraculously appear.
  • In The Big Lebowski, Walter and the Dude check in on a retired TV screenwriter who lives in North Hollywood. They find the guy trapped in an iron lung, attended by a Hispanic housekeeper named Pilar.
    Walter: Does he still write?
    Pilar: Oh no! He has health problems!
  • Bart, protagonist of Blazing Saddles, starts out as a railroad worker, and his overseer in the opening scene makes a specific reference to "when you was slaves". He later comes back for the other laborers so they can build a fake Rock Ridge to trick the bandits, in exchange for some land to grow crops. While Bart is black, Chinese and Irish workers also show up.
    Howard Johnson: All right. We'll take the niggers, and the chinks. But we don't want the Irish. [the assembled laborers turn and act as if they're about to go home] Oh, prairie shit. All right. Everyone!
  • Cake has the white Claire's Latina housekeeper/caregiver Silvana. Claire also has a gardener named Arturo, whom she sleeps with in one scene.
  • Denial. David Irving argues that he can't be racist because he employs black and Asian servants, saying that "some of them have very beautiful breasts." The dumbfounded reporter has to ask him to repeat that.
  • In Dirty Pretty Things, Okwe - played by Chiwetel Ejiofor - was a doctor in his home country of Nigeria, but as an undocumented immigrant in London, ends up working as a cab driver and doing odd jobs around a hotel. A lot of the hotel's staff are immigrants, not all of them documented. At the end of the movie, Okwe gives a brief monologue about all the ways people like him are invisible and treated as subhuman, yet society would grind to a halt without the services they thanklessly provide.
  • Carmen the Latina house maid in Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
  • Bubba's mother in Forrest Gump is depicted as a chef for an aristocratic family, from a long line of the same, likely back to slave roots. In the end, the trope is inverted: once Forrest cuts her in to the profits from Bubba Gump (since he was friends with Bubba, and the business was what he wanted to do with him after their military service), Bubba's mother turns the tables and hires a white cook.
    Forrest: And ya know what? She didn't have to work in no one's kitchen no more.
  • Played for Horror in Get Out (2017), where something is off about Walter and Georgina, the black groundskeeper and housekeeper to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Armitages. It turns out that out of a twisted admiration for black bodies, the Armitage grandparents have body surfed into the original Walter and Georgina, and the Armitages are helping their neighbors do the same.
  • An important plot point in God's Own Country. The film is set on a farm in Yorkshire, and Johnny's family hires a migrant laborer from Romania, Gheorghe, as the elders of the family are getting old and need additional assistance. Johnny resents Gheorghe's presence at first and treats him with some xenophobia, but then they fall in love...
  • Scarlett O'Hara's black mammy in Gone with the Wind.
  • Eulabelle in The Horror of Party Beach — an obese black woman, speaks in "Oh Lawdy!" colloquialisms, and is convinced that the monster is a case of bad voodoo. Amusingly, Eulabelle is one of the only characters in the film to display any sort of common sense about the eponymous horror: when one of the white "heroes" gives up looking for sodium to kill the monster after calling only one warehouse, Eulabelle berates him for giving up so damn easily.
  • In the Adam Sandler film Jack and Jill, Jack's family has a stereotypically Hispanic gardener.
  • Invoked in Knives Out. Marta Cabrera is actually a highly-skilled nurse attending to the aged Harlan Thrombey, but his family treat her like the maid. There are condescending conversations about how she's one of the "good immigrants", although nobody seems to know what country her family are actually from.
  • Machete centers on migrant workers, including the title character who seems to be just a Mexican day laborer.
  • The eponymous character in Maid in Manhattan is a Hispanic maid to a rich white man.
  • Meet the Fockers has the Hispanic Isabel, the Fockers' former housekeeper who runs a catering business. When she was working for the eponymous family, main character Greg lost his virginity to her. She also has a son, which leads to Jack (the father of Greg's fiancée Pam) trying to find out if Greg is the father of said son. He isn't.
  • Miracle on 34th Street features a housekeeper named Cleo early in the film whose entire purpose is to tell Dorothy Walker where her daughter is and then never be seen again. She's later referenced by Mr. Gailey when he takes Susan up to the store, but that's the last reference to her.
  • It seems that the entire crew of Rocky's restaurant in Rocky Balboa is Mexican, judging from the ranchera music they hear.
  • El Norte is a grim tale of a brother and sister who flee political persecution in Guatemala, becoming undocumented laborers in the United States.
  • English actress Alice Eve played an Irish nanny in the second Sex and the City movie.
  • The Shape of Water's main character, Elisa, is a cleaning lady at a secret government facility. She's white, but most of her coworkers aren't, including her Token Black Friend Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer). There's also a scene where the two of them smoke weed with some black guys who work in the facility's loading docks. This is contrasted with the science and security personnel, who are all white men in nice suits. The movie is set in 1962 Baltimore and spotlights the inequality of its setting.
  • Sunday Beauty Queen is a documentary about exploited Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong, and how they empower themselves by participating in an annual beauty pageant.
  • Triangle of Sadness: On the cruise ship, the passengers and "upstairs crew" of servers and attendees are predominantly Caucasian, while the "downstairs crew" of cleaners are predominantly Filipino with a couple of Middle-Easterners in-between. It becomes played with when they are stranded on a deserted shoreline and the Filipino cleaner Abigail is the only one with any survival skills, eventually ending up in charge of the mostly-white upperclass Caucasian survivors.
  • Baz Luhrmann's modern-day version of William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet turned the nurse Hispanic.
  • Many of the Puerto Rican women in the 2021 version of West Side Story are cleaners at an upscale department store.

    Literature 
  • Sam and Dinah Johnson, the resident handyman and cook of The Bobbsey Twins' white family respectively, are both black.
  • Matya the Hungarian nanny in Capital, despite her degree in mechanical engineering. Lanchester has said he was writing about the real-life social phenomenon of highly educated Eastern Europeans coming to do menial jobs in Britain in search of higher wages and the "London dream".
  • Eccentric Neighborhoods: In 1950s Puerto Rico, wealthy matriarch Clarissa cannot find household help among locals because she is a Mean Boss. In the end, she hires a Guatemalan maid through an agency, but it does not occur to her or anybody that Xochil might be indigenous. Clarissa is floored when Xochil arrives in a traditional Mayan dress and bare feet.
  • The whole point of The Help by Kathryn Stockett, and its 2011 film adaptation, is about a white journalist interviewing black maids.
  • The House on the Lagoon: Whenever any of the Mendizábal daughters has a baby, she must have a nanny. These nannies and additional posts are filled by members of Petra's family. Petra, a Puerto Rican descendent of enslaved Africans, has been working for the Mendizábal family since the beginning.
  • In The Japanese Lover most of Irina's coworkers at a nursing home come from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti and earn low wages. She learns enough Spanish and French to make friends among them.
  • Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was all about workers in Chicago, but the main character Jurgis was Lithuanian. Poles and Slovaks were mentioned extensively (as were the Irish, but the Eastern Europeans had mostly displaced them from the most menial jobs).
  • A Long Petal of the Sea takes place in Chile, a Spanish-speaking country and the ethnic labor is of indigenous origin. Juana Nancucheo, a woman of Mapuche ancestry starts working for the Vizcarra family when she is around six or seven. Then when daughter Laura Vizcarra marries Isidro del Solar, she brings Juana with her. Juana stays with the family for decades. After a centenarian Laura dies, Juana moves in with Laura's son Felipe.
  • Peter Grant's mother in the Rivers of London novels cleans offices for a living. Something of a subversion, in that she cleans very nice offices, so is reasonably well-off for a laborer, and her connections with fellow West African co-workers throughout London's cleaning industry actually prove very useful on occasion.
  • The black nanny (at one point called a "stand-in mother") in The Secret Life of Bees, who has "mammy" written all over her.
  • The African-American Dilsey and her extended family serve the Compson family in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Like the above examples, she is a fully realized character and offers one of the only morally and mentally sound perspectives in the whole book.
  • Clare's childhood maid in The Time Traveler's Wife is black.
  • Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet, unlike many of these examples, her station in life was another part of the book's dissection of racism in America. Calpurnia is treated as an equal member of the family and is written as a fully-fleshed-out human instead of as the flat "Mammy" stock character. She has a much bigger part in the book than in the film, which had to cut many scenes and subplots for time and many of Calpurnia's scenes were too.
  • Richard Henry Dana's classic memoir Two Years Before The Mast frequently mentions Hawaiian workers.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In a 3rd Rock From The Sun episode, Strudwick's family was shown to have a Hispanic pool boy.
  • Played with in All in the Family with Lionel Jefferson, a young black man who would come by the Bunker house once a week to pick up their dry cleaning. Archie, a cranky old racist, initially takes a condescendingly affectionate attitude towards Lionel, but it evaporates the moment he learns that Lionel's family owns the dry cleaner, make a lot more money than he does, and want to move into their neighbourhood. He eventually forms an Odd Friendship with Lionel's father, George, whose business skills and hard work he can't help but admire. And eventually The Jeffersons would get their own Spin-Off.
  • Lupe, Lucille's put-upon maid, in Arrested Development. The stereotype is subverted in "Staff Infection," where (via one of the series' trademark chain of events solely subject to Finagle's Law) Lindsay tries to put an end to a strike using Latino scabs, who turn out to be Lupe's family (whom Michael had directed to meet their bus for their Catalina Island family reunion at the Bluth Company's parking lot), one of whom is a university professor.
  • The Barrier: Manuela, the only regular black character, is one of the maids of a wealthy family.
  • The Cleaning Lady centers around Thony De La Rosa, a Filipino-Cambodian cleaning lady, as she takes jobs with a local gang in order to earn enough money to keep her immunocompromised son alive long enough for a bone-marrow transplant.
  • Kitty's Hispanic maid Celia on Dharma & Greg. She's a pretty standard case in most episodes, but when the main characters attend her niece's wedding we learn all sorts of surprising facts about her from her family and old friends, including that she worked as a sniper during her home country's civil war.
  • The main characters of Devious Maids are Latina maids working for the wealthy elite of Beverly Hills, although it's inferred from their off-duty scenes that they live normal middle-class lifestyles and can afford stylish clothing. Only Rosie and Zoila are legitimate maids. Carmen is using the job to develop connections in the music industry and Valentina is using the job to get close to her object of affection. Subverted with Marisol, who's actually an English professor who's posing as a maid in order to investigate the truth behind the framing of her son for murder.
  • Doctor Who:
    • The Afro-British Martha Jones is stuck as a maid in "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood" while undercover in 1913. But it seems a little bit different in her case, in that she's basically the undisputed protagonist for those episodes, the other characters are blatantly prejudiced toward her and she tries to demonstrate to them how wrong they are, and she's usually a med student.
    • In the episode "The Sontaran Strategem" the Sontarans disguise their army of human clones as Polish migrant workers who can't speak English very well so that nobody will notice they're not capable of speaking any language very well.
  • One of Fawlty Towers' most memorable characters was Manuel, the bellhop/waiter from Barcelona, who spoke comically bad English and was generally unqualified for his position. This was generally played as not his own fault, however, and more evidence of hotel owner Basil's cheapness for hiring Manuel - presumably a refugee, since Generalissimo Franco was still alive when the show first ran - in the first place. Notably, in all of the attempts at remaking Fawlty Towers for an American audience, Manuel's equivalent character was changed to Mexican rather than Spanish.
  • One episode of Gentefied focuses on Ana's mother Beatriz, who is overworked and mistreated at a sweatshop along with several other Hispanic and some East Asian laborers.
  • In Pasadena, two of the three maids portrayed on the soap were Hispanic.
  • The cleaning woman that George falls for in one episode of Seinfeld mentions that she grew up in Panama.
  • In an episode of Strong Medicine Lu rags on her colleague Andy regarding her Eastern European nanny/housekeeper and supposedly exploiting the woman. Andy angrily informs her that the woman was a doctor in her native country, that she is NOT underpaying her, and she has filed all the necessary paperwork so that she doesn't get into trouble.
  • Top Gear (UK) has the Top Ground Gear Force special, in which Jeremy Clarkson and co. are assisted by Polish migrant workers. One of them gets wounded during the chaos the trio naturally caused and the rest promptly flee as Sir Steve Redgrave discovers his ruined garden.
  • On The West Wing, when Josh is considering hiring Charlie Young as the President's personal aide, he is a little worried about hiring a young African-American man for such a position because of this trope. Leo mentions the situation to Admiral Fitzwallace (also African-American), who scoffs at the notion that there's anything wrong with it as long as the person is paid a fair wage and treated with respect.
  • In What's Happening!!, black single mom Mabel Thomas worked as a maid.

    Music 
  • The popular sea shanty "John Kanaka" is a tribute to Hawaiian sailors on American ships, known as Kanakas.
  • The Pogues' song "Navigator" is a sympathetic elegy for the Irish railroad workers - or "navvies" - in Northern England in the 19th Century.
    The canals and the bridges, the embankments and cuts
    They blasted and dug with their sweat and their guts
    They never drank water but whiskey by pints
    And the shanty towns rang with their songs and their fights

    Radio 
  • In one of his monologues on The Now Show, Marcus Brigstocke describes having some work done by Polish builders, who asked if he'd mind them working over the weekend.
    Marcus: Would I mind? I almost boiled them some cabbage!
    Hugh Dennis: (in "cockney racist" voice) Bloody Poles, coming over here, taking our jobs...
    Marcus: No, doing our jobs.

    Theatre 
  • In A Raisin in the Sun, Walter Younger is a black chauffeur. He's making pretty good money, but he still feels like he's essentially a glorified version of this trope, and the play focuses on his and his family's different ideas of what they can do with the money, and how they can meaningfully improve their station in life.

    Video Games 
  • In South Park: The Fractured but Whole, Professor Chaos hires illegal Mexican immigrants to be his Chaos Minions. They don't seem to mind the goofy and undersized uniforms made of bowler hats, t-shirts, and tin foil, since the professor apparently pays quite well (having been paid by the Big Bad). As a party member, after you help him settle his finances Professor Chaos can summon a Minion to act as a temporary party member to take hits for the team.
  • Super Mario Bros.: Prior to their more stable jobs as plumbers, Italians (Italian-American in the old American continuity) Mario and Luigi worked several blue-collar jobs among the many they've done. Mario debuted as a construction worker, while he and Luigi would go on to do factory work, pest control, and demolition.

    Webcomics 
  • In Hetalia: Axis Powers, there was a series of comics in which Lithuania lived with America and was hired to help take care of his house. This was to represent American outsourcing to Lithuania in that time period. Lithuania himself was pretty happy with the arrangement (it meant no longer working for Russia), but had to go back to his old job after America causes a depression.
  • In Home On The Strange, one of the characters gets a Hispanic maid...who turns out to be a middle-aged man.
  • Sequential Art has "Crazy Sven", the Eastern European taxicab driver.
  • Polandball comics often have Poland working as Britain's plumber.

    Web Original 
  • In Idiotsitter, the Russel family employs a Hispanic maid named Joy. She speaks fine English and is fairly well-treated by her employers — except for that time a high-on-peyote Billie and Gene laugh and commander her to suck on their dicks.

    Western Animation 
  • American Dad!: One episode has Francine and Hayley get jobs as maids. Their employer acts like they're Mexicans, at one point threatening them with deportation, despite them neither looking nor speaking in any way Hispanic.
  • Whenever a gag calls for a maid on Archer, it's always a Hispanic woman. But Mallory treats all her menials equally.
  • BoJack Horseman: In her youth, Bojack's blueblooded mother Beatrice had a Hispanic maid.
  • In The Boondocks episode "The Itis", all of the kitchen staff in Granddad's soul food restaurant are Mexicans. They're the only employees left over from the previous restaurant in that location because Ed Wuncler I fired everybody except the illegal Mexicans. Played with when Chico, one of the line cooks, takes Huey's side in an argument with Granddad about the value of soul food and expounds on how soul food was a survival technique for slaves who had no other choice but to eat the parts of the pig that the masters wouldn't eat. Huey and Granddad reply with open-mouthed stunned stares, to which Chico says: "What, I can't take an Afro-American Studies class at the community college?"
  • The Disney short adaptation of John Henry has Irish laborers (including an Irish foreman) working on the railroad alongside John and the black laborers.
  • On King of the Hill, Mr. Strickland has a maid named Lupino.
  • Parodied/Subverted in The Oblongs, as Pristine Klimer tries to talk to her housekeeper in broken Spanish.
    Housekeeper: Ms. Klimer, I told you. My name is Nancy. I'm from Ohio.
  • In an episode of The Simpsons, Marge is cleaning her house because she is afraid that a hired cleaning lady will gossip about how dirty it is. In her imagination three cleaning ladies with extremely stereotypical Oirish accents do just that.
  • Also played with on South Park, where one can hire the Mexicans at the Home Depot to do your (home)work. Twist is, they are quite competent when it comes to writing English essays on Hemmingway (just be clear when you ask them to write the essays), or teach math. They're also fairly decent private detectives.
  • Mammy Two-Shoes in Tom and Jerry was a heavy-set black housekeeper who often had to deal with the title characters' antics. Attempts to get around this have in the past included redrawing her as a slim white woman with an Irish accent, or more recently by redubbing her original performance to remove more offensive dialect from her lines (but not changing her race). A recent revival replaced her part with another slim white woman explicitly referred to as Mrs Two-Shoes.


 
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Alternative Title(s): Ethnic Menial Labour, Hispanic Maid

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We Get the Job Done

This Hamilton Mixtap song expands on the famous line from the play to tell the story of those who live in the shadows, who fear the next ICE raid, and who have built the US economy.

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