While living in Guayaquil, Ecuador I was asked by an American friend, “Do you have a dishwasher?”
“Yes,” I responded. “Her name is Maria*. ”Once again my sense of humor didn’t amuse, but bemused a friend.
When we moved to Mexico City in 1995, our adolescent 14-year old son was outraged and angry with us that we planned to hire a live-in maid. He viewed it as a form of slavery, despite the reality that he and we had lived most of the 1980s in Latin America with a live-in maid (sometimes two, but that is for a later story).
We explained the economic realities in Mexico where a maid is not a slave, but an employee with legal rights. She--and they always were she--with limited education and skills had to get a job to contribute to her family’s income and pay her way in life.
I hadn’t grown up with maids. Until I was 11-years old the only maid I’d ever known was either Hazel on TV or the one my mother spoke of from her childhood in south Georgia. After we moved to Houston TX in 1961 a day maid named Juanita appeared in the house. Except for the occasion when my mother would offer to drive her to the bus stop after I came home from school, I never saw her.
So my first experience was in 1972 when I stayed with my boyfriend’s parents in Lima, Peru. The live-in maid Zenaida and her prepubescent daughter Carmen lived in a room with its own bathroom, outside of the house.
Zenaida helped my mother-in-law run the house; Carmen went to an overcrowded Peruvian public school. Students were divided into morning or afternoon sessions since there wasn’t enough room for everyone to attend a full day of school. Plus many of the kids worked odd jobs before or after school.
Peru was all very strange for an untraveled gringa. I’d walk into the kitchen to the powerful smell of leftovers-bits from our plates, bones, vegetable cuttings and peelings, sweet potatoes and anything else remotely edible would be simmering in a gigantic tin pot on two burners of the stove. That was how dog food was made in Peru, packaged dog food wasn’t sold.
Learning I loved grapefruit, my boyfriend's mother had Zenaida keep a small container of fresh peeled grapefruit in the refrigerator. I soon learned Zenaida forced her daughter Carmen to eat the grapefruit too. Since I was pale, she thought it might lighten her daughter's skin too.
Through the home’s open windows secured by wrought-iron bars, wafted bells and whistles of vendors pushing carts as they sang out what was for sale. The only time I’d seen that was in the film Oliver. Selling everything from fresh rolls, to fresh fish to services like knife sharpening, buying used cans, jars, bottles, newspapers and used anything, or repairing (or at least attempting to repair) whatever needed repairing--the street was music.
Part of Zenaida’s job (and social life) included running out to buy, sell or gossip with the passing parade of life in the street. I often wondered why my soon-to-be mother-in-law had counseled me not to let anyone-not anyone know that her son and I were ‘living together’. Secrets in a house with maids? Not bloody likely.
After we married in a civil ceremony, my husband and I volunteered to house sit and dog sit for a missionary family who were going to the USA for a few months on home leave. Now I was the Señora, in charge of overseeing their maid Jesusa. What I remember most is I was told to keep her from using the floor polisher every day--”she’ll wear it out” the missionaries said.
We adopted a lopped-eared California pet rabbit, that I gave to Jesusa when the missionaries returned and we left the house. Years later in the mountains of Peru where Jesusa had come from, a sadder but wiser me wondered--had Jesusa been fond of the rabbit as a pet or dinner?
After one year living in Lima, Peru, we were leaving for graduate school in America. In the one year in Peru I’d gotten married, converted to Judaism (soon to been disowned by my father), taught high school and tried to learn some Spanish.
Would I miss the women of Surquillo market meticulously polishing fruits for sale; only to carefully, oh so very carefully place them back on the stand? Or the fish women who cut, chopped and skinned a fish beautifully in under 45 seconds? Or the milkman banging on his bottles to signal the households to send out the maid to buy milk? Or the D’Onofrio yellow carts with their whiny horns announcing the ice cream man?
Landing in Miami in 1973, I saw English newspaper headlines announcing gold had surpassed $100 for the first time. I missed it already. And not, for that first year had been quite a struggle.
*My generic name for all maids after an extraordinarily popular tele-novela (soap opera) called Simplemente Maria with a Cinderella-like storyline for the maid Maria.