One Saturday, Amá, a housecleaner, forces Julia to come work with her cleaning fancy homes in Chicago’s wealthy Lincoln Park neighborhood. There are three houses to clean—the first two are relatively clean and easy, but at the third house, a pretentious man named Dr. Scheinberg greets the women and shows them around briefly before telling them he’s leaving, and will return later. As Julia cleans the museum-like home, she’s disturbed by pieces of art and artifacts which depict strange sexual positions, and by the disgusting bathroom—Scheinberg has left a turd in the toilet.
As Julia tags along with her mother to clean houses, she witnesses firsthand—and for the first time, it’s implied—the humiliation and hardship her mother must endure each day just to make ends meet for their family. Julia’s journey towards empathy for her parents is one of the novel’s central plot points, and in many ways, it starts here. There is an implication that Scheinberg purposely left the turd in the toilet, as a show of the power that he has over these immigrant women who serve him.
While cleaning the bedroom, Julia and Amá have a stilted and uneasy conversation, and Amá asks Julia about how she’s doing in school. When the conversation transitions to Olga, Julia timidly asks if Olga had a boyfriend—Amá insists angrily that Olga was not the kind to run around with boys.
This passage shows that even as Julia and her mother do things that help them understand one another, there is still a deep rift between them. This rift centers around their conceptions of Olga, but more broadly those conceptions are colored by their cultural values—Amá’s ideas about Olga are driven by her beliefs about what it means to be a good Mexican daughter.
Dr. Scheinberg returns home and thanks the women in practiced Spanish—on their way out, Julia notices that he’s staring appraisingly at Amá’s body. As the women step outside into the snow, Julia is grateful—for once—to be out in the open air and away from the house. On the bus, Julia’s muscles begin to ache from exertion, and she thinks silently to herself about how hard her mother’s life must really be.
Julia understands her mother a little better now—and feels sorry for how hard she has to work and how much she has to put up with. At the same time, this experience makes it clear to Julia that she doesn’t want to end up like her mother, even though she is learning to appreciate Amá’s sacrifice.