Elisa Silva was born in Mazatlán, Mexico and emigrated to the United States at age twenty, eventually settling in Los Angeles. In this interview, conducted during the mid-1920s, Silva describes her motivation for coming, her difficulties finding work, and the job she eventually obtained at a dance hall.
I am twenty-three years old. I was married in Mazatlan when I was seventeen. My husband was an employee of a business house in the port but he treated me very badly and even my own mother advised me to get a divorce. A short time after I was divorced my father died. Then my mother, my two sisters and I decided to come to the United States.
As we had been told that there were good opportunities for earning money in Los Angeles, working as extras in the movies and in other ways, we sold our belongings and with the little our father had left us we came to this place, entering first at Nogales, Arizona. From the time we entered I noticed a change in everything, in customs, and so forth, but I believed that I would soon become acclimated and be able to adjust myself to these customs.
When we got to Los Angeles we rented a furnished apartment and there my mother took charge of fixing everything up for us. My sisters and I decided to look for work at once. One of my sisters, the oldest, who knew how to sew well, found work at once in the house of a Mexican woman doing sewing. My mother then decided that my youngest sister had better go to school and that I should also work in order to help out with the household expenses and with the education of my sister.
As I didn’t even know how to sew or anything and as I don’t know English I found it hard to find work, much as I looked. As we had to earn something, a girl friend of mine, also a Mexican, from Sonora, advised me to go to a dance-hall. After consulting with my mother and my sisters I decided to come and work here every night dancing. My work consists of dancing as much as I can with everyone who comes. At the beginning I didn’t like this work because I had to dance with anyone, but I have finally gotten used to it and now I don’t care, because I do it in order to earn my living.
Generally I manage to make from $20.00 to $30.00 a week, for we get half of what is charged for each dance. Each dance is worth ten cents so that if I dance, for example, fifty dances in a night I earn $2.50. Since the dances are short, ten cents being charged for just going around the ball-room, one can dance as many as a hundred. It all depends on how many men come who want to dance. Besides there are some who will give you a present of a dollar or two. This work is what suits me best for I don’t need to know any English here.
It is true at times I get a desire to look for another job, because I get very tired. One has to come at 7:30 in the evening and one goes at 12:30, and sometimes at 1 in the morning. One leaves almost dead on Saturdays because many Mexican people come from the nearby towns and they dance and dance with one all night. In Mexico this work might perhaps not be considered respectable, but I don’t lose anything here by doing it. It is true that some men make propositions to me which are insulting, but everything is fixed by just telling them no. If they insist one can have them taken out of the hall by the police. One man whom I liked a lot here in the hall deceived me once. He was a Mexican. But since that time it hasn’t happened to me again. My mother takes a lot of care of me so that I won’t make any bad steps. My sisters do the same.
Reference: Manuel Gamio, “A Mexican Immigrant Describes Her Work in Los Angeles,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed April 25, 2021, https://shec.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/2551.
I love first person stories. It’s wonderful to hear of someone’s experiences from their own memories and in their own words.
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