Compelling Memoir Documents Author’s Escape From Generational Trauma Into A Life Of Labor Activism

Author Yvonne Martinez | Image by Matt Wong

The following is an excerpt from Yvonne Martinez’s forthcoming book ‘Someday Mija, You’ll Learn the Difference Between a Whore and a Working Woman’ (October 18, She Writes Press). At eighteen, Yvonne Martinez flees brutal domestic violence and is taken in by her dying grandmother who used to be a sex worker. Before she dies, her grandmother reveals family secrets and shares her uncommon wisdom. “Someday, Mija,” she tells Yvonne, “you’ll learn the difference between a whore and a working woman.”

She also shares disturbing facts about their family’s history—eventually leading Yvonne to discover that her grandmother was trafficked as a child in Depression-era Utah by her own mother, Yvonne’s great-grandmother, and that she was blamed for her own rape. In the years that follow her grandmother’s passing, Yvonne gets an education and starts a family. As she heals from her own abuse by her mother and stepfather, she becomes an advocate/labor activist.

Grounded in her grandmother’s dictum not to whore herself out, Yvonne heals, gets an education, and learns to fight for herself while teaching others to do the same—exposing sexual harassment in the labor unions where she works. Intense but ultimately uplifting, ‘Someday Mija, You’ll Learn the Difference Between a Whore and a Working Woman’ is a compelling memoir in essays of transforming trans-generational trauma into resilience and post-traumatic growth. 

(TW: Abuse, sex trafficking, sexual assault, addiction)

The Difference between a Whore and a Working Woman

It was one of those Salt Lake winters, when the snow was so fat that it knocked on the door to see if we wanted to play. By then, I was living in a two-story Craftsman on South West Temple with Mother, my stepfather, and six of my seven brothers. The black phone rang fire-alarm loud for Mother.

“You’d better come and get Mary,” the caller said.

“She’s shut Frank’s down again,” Mother said.

Before Mother could dispatch Stepdad to the tavern, a yellow cab pulled up at the end of our walkway.

The newest baby was in his crib, near enough to the fireplace to keep warm but not get burned. The rest of us were on the couch under a green army blanket with our backs to the window. We sat together with three panels of snow as our backdrop. Looking out the side window, we could see exclamation points cut by Grandma’s tiny heels in the new snow on the cleared sidewalk past the big balls of snow we’d rolled the day before for that day’s snowman.

Grandma Mary pushed open our chain-link gate, leaving it wide open. She was up our red steps like a life-size, spark-spitting top, her black swing coat in a full circle around her.

Mother opened the front door to a rush of cold, snow, and Grandma. Her black heels clicked across the black-and-white foyer. Mother tried to slide open the pocket door to let her in to the living room, but it got stuck mid-pull. I took another glance out the window and could see Grandma’s smashed cigarette in the snow outside.

“Goddamn sons of bitches,” Grandma Mary said. “Pinche Frank tried to cut us out again.”

Mother pulled hard to unstick the pocket door and slid it closed crooked behind Grandma. Hairpins fell out of Grandma’s hair onto her fur collar. She turned the top rhinestone-studded button on her black wool coat.

“We cost him more today than he’ll make in a week, cabrón,” she said. “Hijo de la chingada.”

Son of a bitch.

Grandma’s lipstick was gone. She walked over to the fireplace, pulled one arm out of her coat, and kicked the caked snow off her black heels into the fire. We stared at her from under our barricade of blankets. She caught us and took a step toward us.

“What the hell are you all looking at?” she said. “This ain’t no goddamn bingo game,” she added.

We hunched deeper into the couch. She pulled her other arm out of her coat.

Mother took her coat and picked the baby bottle up from the chair by the fire and pointed it to us and to the pocket door.

“You kids get upstairs,” Mother instructed.

We’d learned to walk in one line like a centipede, with the littlest brother in front. We moved into formation in bare feet over our blanket. Mother laid Grandma’s coat on the chair by the fire where she had been feeding the baby.

Grandma bent over and lit a cigarette from the fireplace.

“Get me a beer, will you, Margaret?” Grandma said.

Grandma walked back and forth in front of the fireplace while we lined up to leave, her black heels on the inlaid tiles. Beer in hand, she sat down and balanced her cigarette in a Skippy peanut butter jar lid on the chair arm. I moved the centipede of kids through the pocket door to the foyer and tried to close it all the way.

“Come here,” Grandma said.

My brothers were almost up the stairs. My feet on the warm hardwood wouldn’t move.

“Come on,” she said. “Come see your grandma for a minute.”

I walked over to her by the fire.

“Let ’er go, Mom,” Mother said, folding the baby tighter in his blanket.

I stood before Grandma with my back to the fire. She pushed my hair back and put her hand on my face.

“Someday, mija,” she said. “Someday, you’ll learn the difference between a whore and a working woman.”

Mother smacked the baby bottle down on the mantel above the fire.

“You get upstairs now,” Mother told me.

I went back to the pocket door and tried to pull it shut behind me. Mother shook the baby bottle at me.

“And don’t come back down until I call you!”

Grandma pulled the tab off her beer, took a sip, and leaned into the fire.

“I cut my own goddamn deals. Every girl in there does. Frank gets his cut on the drinks. That’s all he gets,” she said.

She took a sip of her beer.

“Son of a bitch,” she said.

The pocket door wouldn’t budge.

“Frank’s been trying to run the trade in there again, and some of those bitches were just giving it away,” Grandma said.

With her back to the fire, Mother propped the baby bottle up with a rolled-up blanket to the baby’s mouth in the bassinet.

“I told you to get upstairs,” Mother repeated.

I ran across the foyer, my feet against the cold black-and-white tiles and the melted snow that Grandma tracked in.

“Leave ’er alone, Margaret,” Grandma said.

Before Mother could get the pocket door completely closed, I heard my grandma begin to cry.

“I know I haven’t been a good mother to you, Margaret,” Grandma said.

“It’s alright, Mom,” Mother replied.

“I know you deserved better,” Grandma said.

“Just take it easy, Mom,” Mother said. “Just take it easy.”

I became a union official, organizing strikes and huge public citywide protest actions. It’s easy to see that I learned early lessons about leverage from Grandma Mary. That sometimes you need to break things up to make your point.

And I can only wonder how many times my granny’s hooker code about the difference between being a whore and a working woman led me through the many times I could have sold myself out but didn’t. Walking the line, doing what was right, no matter the cost.

You can pre-order a copy of Yvonne Martinez’s ‘Someday Mija, You’ll Learn the Difference Between a Whore and a Working Woman’ now.

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