Monday, August 24, 2009

Hired Help

While visiting el esposo's aunt when we were in Spain, my older son asked if the woman who lived with Tia Maria was also our family.
"Not really," I answered. "She actually works for Papi's tia. She's kind of like the maid." In truth, this almost 80-year old woman has been employed by el esposo's family for more than 60 years, having raised three generations of their clan. And for that reason, my husband immediately corrected me.
"Pepa is not an employee," he insisted, "she's family!" And the truth is she does seem like family. She dotes on my children, loves my husband like one of her own children and is truly one of the sweetest women I've ever met. But that doesn't take away from the fact that when we visit, her apron is on, she prepares and serves us our food on trays, does the cleaning and shopping for el esposo's aunt and sleeps in a small room off the kitchen. (Don't get me wrong, it's not a tiny closet or anything, but it is clearly a servant's room.) And of course for all of this, she receives a paycheck.

I didn't want to diminish my husband's love for this woman, but I was curious how the boundaries and definitions were drawn when speaking of "hired help." There is a woman who performs the same tasks in el esposo's home, she cleans, cooks, etc, and has been doing so for more than 10 years, yet she's not considered part of the family. She is the help, even though she gave us a wedding present when we got married and we also greet her with kisses and hugs, as we do with the rest of the family.

Unlike the United States, the "help" in Spain is not differentiated by race. The woman cleaning the toilets generally will have the same white skin and copper highlights in their hair as the woman who pays her. Maybe this is what makes it easier to become part of the family. But I would hazard a guess that class issues work as equally large barriers to overcome. But at the end of the day, having hired help in Spain, as it is in many other countries, is part of the cultural norm, and without race to muddy the waters, seems to be a lot less of a contentious situation.

I often joke that I wish I could have a woman come to my home, like the woman who works for my husband's family. She would clean the house, iron the clothes, leave a delicious dinner prepared, and be considered like almost part of the family. Kind of like Mr. Belvedere, Mrs. Garrett from Different Strokes or Tony Danza on Who's the Boss?. But here, I don't know what you would call that person except housekeeper...or slave and for various reasons, both of those titles make me a little queasy. What do you think? Would you like to have a housekeeper? Is that what you would call her/him? Why do you think in other countries employing domestics seems to be a cultural norm and easier to do? Is it our history of slavery that adds a layer of guilt to the mix? What do you think? I'm listening.



evelyn.n.alfred said...

I would love to have hired help to do laundry and dishes and things of that nature...I even remember as a child saying that I was going to have the type of job that would allow me to afford such a treat just because I hated to do my chores (still do).

Being a teacher though, I couldn't afford it, but I can still dream.

Lovelyn said...

I studied in Zimbabwe briefly when I was in college. One thing that struck me when I was there was how many people had maids. It seemed like no matter how poor the family there was always someone poorer to be their maid. I remember going to a woman's house for dinner. She lived in a crowded township with her family. They had dirt floors and didn't even have a complete roof on their tiny two room house, but they had a maid.

The Golden Papaya said...

I'm glad you wrote this post. This issue is in the forefront of my mind, too.
My husband and I are both teachers in Brazil, and we, like most middle-class people here, have a woman working for us.
We call her the baba (accent on the second syllable)--she's the nanny for our 4-month old, but also cooks and cleans.
Race does play into it here. The babas are mostly darker skinned than the families they work for, although not always. Our baba is from the interior, and lighter-skinned indigenous looking.
I've hesitated to blog about it yet, because of all the conflicted and guilty feelings that I am sorting out, but maybe I will try to write something soon after all.
Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

LT said...

Keep dreaming. I'm right there with you:)

This is exactly what I'm talking about. Thank you for sharing your experience.

It was actually your last post that inspired me, thanks back at you.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

In the Caribbean the women are called "helpers".

It's not something only rich people have. Middle and working class West Indians will have helpers as well.

I do think class plays a role.

Rarely are the helper and the employer from the same social economic background. Sometimes there are not even from the same island.

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