My Mom’s Wonderful Cleaning Tradition Links Us Across the Miles
When I was a kid, you didn’t know it was Saturday so much as you heard it. The signs were always the same: First, you’d hear the horns providing a brassy backup to Celia Cruz’s powerful rhythm, then you’d smell the chemical lemon of Pledge furniture cleaner.
My mom, whose singular mission those mornings was to eradicate every speck of dust from her house, would assign each of her three children several tasks, and would inspect our work before considering the job done. These chores were always soundtracked by what we called “her” music: The Spanish-language station, which served a heavy rotation of power ballads and songs I associated with various family gatherings back in Mexico. I can’t remember if my siblings and I ever suggested she change the station, but that’s probably because we knew the answer would have been a solid “no.”
That people listen to music while they clean isn’t unusual; putting on a favorite playlist or podcast can help even the most daunting chore seem more enjoyable. But what did surprise me was when, several years after I first moved 3,000 miles away from home, I woke up on a Saturday morning, decided my kitchen was in dire need of a deep cleaning, and turned on Selena’s greatest hits to keep me company while I worked. For a moment, I worried—what’s the phrase again? Oh, right—that I was turning into my mother. I reminded myself that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, and besides, I had a stovetop to clean.
I haven’t looked back since. Now that I do not know when I’ll be able to travel home next, knowing my mom and I are probably doing the same thing, to the same soundtrack, every Saturday morning provides a small bit of comfort in a world with very little.
There are memes about this ritual, and shared memories across the Latinx diaspora about the Saturday mornings we spent helping our parents clean. In June, the actor Dascha Polanco posted an Instagram video of her dancing, mid-cleaning, to the indelible “El Beeper.” And while the most pervasive shorthand often features an older woman dressed in a bata de casa and rollers, pressing play on hits from decades gone by, that stereotype belies the truth of a cross-generational tradition—after all, a clean home can be a source of comfort for most people.
Lucina, who lives in Oakland, California, grew up hearing Luis Miguel, Alejandro Fernandez, and Banda el Recodo—artists that largely made up my mom’s playlist, too—blasting as her mother vacuumed outside her room. Now, the daughter of Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants follows suit—including her mom’s habit of having a beer as the day’s chores go on. For her, as it is for many, the music is the core component, and a way to “claim space,” she said. “It feels like my way to proclaim to the world that I belong here.”
The United States is home to 41 million native Spanish speakers, according to the Census. Spanish is also the second-most spoken language in the world, and the global music charts are constantly dominated by Spanish-language artists. But while mainstream U.S. radio will offer up the Justin Bieber remix of “Despacito” or songs by Latinx artists that perform in English, you often have to turn to Spanish-language stations for anything more.
When I was little, this separation was more toxic than I realized. By calling Spanish-language music my mom’s music, I was drawing a line between us that shouldn’t have existed. I’d try to drown out the ranchero with a walkman full of boy bands, never realizing that many of their songs were influenced by Latinx sounds. (It is also not lost on me that when *NSYNC released a Spanish-language version of “Gone,” I promptly lost my mind.) The artist-led fight against the music industry’s flattening of Latinx music to one genre has been a long time coming; so, too, has the need to make space for a certain kind of duality that exists within multicultural communities. Yes, the music my family listens to is Latinx music. We also just call it music.
But what to me was a warm link between my mother and me, even from across the country, is also rooted in an insistence to celebrate a shared heritage and language—a lifeline that feels as crucial as ever for so many people who have historically been erased from or made to assimilate into “mainstream” American culture. When Sara*, who lives in Washington, D.C., was growing up, she admits she was embarrassed that her mom, who moved to the U.S. with her family when she was a toddler, listened only to music sung in Spanish. “I remember thinking, ‘Why won’t you listen to normal American stuff? I’m really lucky I didn’t get the chancla more, because what she was listening to was normal,” she said. Her mom never ceded her culture to assimilation—and over the years, Sara has cycled from shame to putting on Selena Radio while she irons.
For some of us—and especially those who broke our mothers’ hearts by moving further than a car ride away—keeping the weekend cleaning tradition alive is a way to ease homesickness. But like all traditions, the habit of listening to the same music our parents did when we clean comes with its limitations. Mayela, who lives in Mexico City, warned against making people feel like outsiders for not ascribing to a particular tradition, no matter how pervasive, and Sara noted that she takes more of an issue with the stereotype of Latinx women in particular as housekeepers or maids than she does with the idea that she would listen to “Suavemente” as she cleans. Latinx culture is by no means a monolith, and our individual cultures are in a constant state of exploration and definition. What it means to be Latinx-American, whether at work or at home or while cleaning, is up to each of us to define.
There are certainly days when my chores call for One Direction, and others when I lean into the English-language songs by Jennifer Lopez and other members of the broader Latinx diaspora. But as one friend pointed out to me, we’re now reaching the age in which many of us aren’t just turning into our parents—we are the parents, which means that one day, a generation of kids will reminisce about the way their parents woke them up at 7 a.m. blasting Bad Bunny. Until then, we have floors to mop and rugs to vacuum, and as my sister noted, a good song in any language certainly helps pass the time.
But she made me promise not to tell mom she was listening to la música, too.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
This post originally ran on Apartment Therapy. See it there: I Fought My Mom’s Favorite Cleaning Ritual—Until I Got Homesick, and Turned Her Music Up