Friday, June 17, 2005

Live-in Maid

I just got back from an excellent Argentine movie called Cama adentro; the loose translation is Live-In Maid.

The storyline is very straightforward. An upper-middle class woman and her live-in maid of thirty years are confronted by the harsh reality of Argentina’s recent economic crisis. The divorcee is out of money and cannot pay her maid for six months.

A very structured servant-master bond is shaken. The wealthy woman undergoes profound humiliation because of her loss of status. The working class woman is frustrated as she continues to work without pay. Once the maid leaves to find employment elsewhere, the dependence of her former employer is so great that she cannot do anything for herself. A very routine relationship becomes altered and these women suddenly become very aware of one another’s social positions.

The brilliance of the movie is that class consciousness is presented in a very subtle yet real manner. The acting is superb. Countless scenes are conducted through faint facial expressions and convincing body language. Regardless of one’s ideological inclinations, one is left feeling sympathy for both women. Nor does the movie try to instil a naïve message of hope. It has neither a ‘happy’ nor a ‘sad’ ending.

The movie left me with a personal snapshot of the paradox that exists in a profoundly unequal society like Argentina’s. This contradiction was ignored by most until the crisis peaked in 2001. Now that half the population lives in poverty, and around 10% continue to live like the rich of Manhattan, the juxtaposition is jolting.

About a five minute drive west from my house is Recoleta; an upper class neighbourhood that looks like it belongs in Paris. Twenty minutes to the south is Villa Soldati; a slum that from the outside is indistinguishable from a Brazilian favela or a Venezuelan barrio. The above pictures are from a recent trip to Barrio Piletones in Soldati.

The live-in maid has long epitomized the stark division between the exclusive world of the wealthy and an enormous passive underclass. This divide extends well into the middle class. While the elite have live-in servants, the middle class typically have someone come to their house once, if not several times, a week.

Families that could never afford such a luxury in North America or in Europe, are confronted with a mass of unemployed people who can’t exercise their labour rights.

If affordable, hiring a maid in Latin America is as ingrained as speaking Spanish. I don’t think I know of any upper or middle class families without one. My uncle has had Mari as his, and his mother’s, maid for practically his entire life.

After almost six months, I sometimes forget that I never grew up with this master-servant relationship in Canada. Mari now knows quite a bit about my life, as I often work from home and we occasionally chat. I’m curious to know more about her family, where she lives, what she thinks about her work, and her relationship with her employers (my family). She has a great sense of humour, and we make each other laugh a lot.

But I find that there is something about our relationship that inhibits me from being too friendly. A part of me is afraid of coming across as disingenuous. Perhaps another part of me is ashamed. Here I am in a poorer country enjoying a comfort that I couldn’t have, or want, in Canada. How does one go about reconciling such behaviour?

I am also less independent with Mari around. As I become more reliant upon her, I feel hypocritical for criticizing an upper class that I consider to be too lazy, and too consumed with consuming.


Blogger eduardo said...

Is Mari an Argentine or other South American immigrant? I really had no idea that having an empleada was such a common occurrence in Argentina.

You wrote:

"But I find that there is something about our relationship that inhibits me from being too friendly."

In Bolivia, I felt the same way. I can't describe it, but there are different dynamics in play when there is an empleada who lives in the household. On one hand, you want to treat that person with dignity and as an "equal" so to speak, but the set-up is not one of equality. The fact is that she is an employee.

The empleada at my aunt's house does not eat at the family dinner table but gets the same food. If you ask her to sit with the family, when does she stop being an employee and just another guest?

By treating her well, does your family feel guilty that they don't treat her as well? Does it make your family look bad if they don't get to know her on a more personal level and you do?

I don't think I could ever have a live-in empleada, instead have someone who helps with household chores would be a good help. But it is sad that they rarely see her own family during the week. In Bolivia, empleadas are expected to work Monday-Saturday.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Vikrum said...

Diego (or should I say d'hernan),

Excellent post. India is similar to Argentina and Bolivia in the sense that it is extremely common for middle class and upper class people to have servants. In fact, it is probably more common in India than any Latin American country since India has so many poor people and the caste system is one that encourages even domestic division of labor.

I agree with you that it is very strange (and sometimes uncomfortable) to go from the United States or Canada - societies in which only the super rich have domestic assistance - to societies in which servants and maids are the norm. And, like you, I have had to navigate this transition here in India.

Again, nice post. I put a link to your post on my blog.

1:13 AM  
Blogger Diego said...


Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I ask myself a lot of the same questions you pose.

Mari is an Argentine. I believe that she is an exception to changing demographic trends. Most empleadas that I've come across are usually immigrants from other South American countries, particularly Bolivia, Paraguay, and Peru.

Generally speaking, newly arrived citizens from these countries take on the least desired and lowest paying jobs. Barrio Piletones, a slum which emerged in the last 10-15 years, is almost exclusively made up of immigrants from these neighbouring nations.

These people not only face enormous economic obstacles, but political and racial ones as well.


Thanks for the shout-out!

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