The plight of the Peruvian woman should not be disregarded. My associations with department heads and managers at multi-national corporations here in Lima could not have taught me this as readily as living with a local family. The former group, however, serves as a good place for answers to the questions raised by the latter group. For instance, let’s consider my host family’s empleada (domestic worker) situation.
In every culture I’ve experienced, except my own, everyone has a maid. Some even have a few. Many of these maids make so little money that they’ll resort to theft. They don’t steal jewelry or money or other valuables so much as staples: toilet paper (papél higiénico), rice, diapers.
“Yes, I had two but once I went back to work I hired another,” says Patricia, a 30-year-old married Peruvian woman, who has one child.
Two parents with only one child can’t make it work with just one maid, let alone two? Surely her husband could pitch in.
“Oh no! In our culture the house is the woman’s responsibility. He doesn’t say anything.”
I’m curious how one manages multiple maids. Most of the problems I’ve seen arise in my host family’s house, I explain to Patricia, happen during the day when the family’s out.
“The maid would sit at the kitchen table for hours, talking on the phone or sending text messages.”
“Exactly,” she says, nodding her head to indicate she’s seen it all before. “That’s how it goes. When I started to have problems with one of our maids, I discovered which was the most reliable. She didn’t like to talk bad about people but when she saw things, she would tell me. Once, when my son was still a baby, my maid told me one of the other maids was stealing our diapers.”
“Ah, that’s true! That are expensive, aren’t they?”
She nods again, gives me a feeling that we’re on the same page.
“Sure enough, I looked in the new maid’s bag and there were some diapers. I had to tell her–” she makes the hand gesture of a neck being cut.
“Was it difficult to find another?”
Patricia frowns as if to say no.
“Really? The mother of the family I live with said it was really difficult to find one.”
“No, it isn’t,” she says. She tells me about agencies that specialize in maid placement services. It’s easy for maids and home owners to find each other through these agencies and word of mouth. Young women come from the mountains and jungle communities, find house work for a year, during which they save their money (especially by stealing toiletries and food staples), and then go to college.
I’m confused again. Three weeks ago, Marlene told my host family that she would be leaving for a few days to visit her mother. The maid, who came from the jungle, said her mother was ill. At that point I giggled to myself with the thought that the family would have to clean up after their meals, wash their own dishes, cook for themselves. In my mind, I heard a south Chinese woman I knew in Shenzhen deride northern Chinese women for not knowing how to cook and clean. I recalled the three maids my host family had in Mumbai. I railed against American commercials still showing a woman rather than a man advertising cleaning products. Now it’s time to learn about the Peruvian woman.
“Ingrid, there is one good thing about Marlene’s absence: the toilet paper doesn’t disappear,” I somewhat joked in Spanish to my host family mother.
Then the laundry starts piling up. The laborious effort of cooking leads to mountains of dishes in the sink. The floor takes on a greyish hue, as it will in an uncleaned house of six people. The sink in my bathroom accrues soap scum. The shower grows vertical beards of white, fuzzy mold. The 50 square feet of my bedroom floor feels as if a ticket-tape parade went through it. I start cleaning more dishes than my own. I start washing down the kitchen table, though I never eat there. I start sweeping my own bathroom floor. I would do more if Ingrid’s very particular methods didn’t cause her to redo my attempts. Furthermore, the man of the house isn’t exactly going to give me a break on my monthly rent for chipping in. I am, after all, just a woman; it’s my job to do such things.
Ingrid is exhausted three weeks into Marlene’s disappearance. From my first siting of her around 10 AM, she looks like a recently awakened Rip van Winkle. She starts to prepare lunch for her husband and two grown children. By 5 PM bags reappear on her face as she hangs what seem like miles of lines of laundry.
“Qué tal? Cómo estás?” I ask, hoping to give her a smile and distract her recent quietness with conversation.
She responds in a flurry of Spanish too rapidfire for my intermediate translation skills. I do catch that she’s run up and down the staircase today so many times that her feet hurt, something about her “machissimo” husband.
“Well, siéntate por momentito,” I tell her to sit for a minute. She flutters a response in Spanish so quickly that I can barely follow.
She says something about God’s will and having a good spirit.
“Pues, tienes una bonita alma,” I tell her that she has a beautiful spirit.
She smiles, says gracias, and almost hobbles away to go to the store– if her husband will let her use the car.
Moments later I hear her ask her 27-year-old daughter for some help, only for Evelyn’s voice to rise and words to shoot out of her mouth fast as bullets from an automatic weapon husband. It’s not in my interest to listen, yet alone translate when I do hear something. This too is the Peruvian woman. Evelyn is soon joined by her father upstairs: “Gorda! Gorda! Gorda!” My heart drops.
By 11 PM, she moves like she’s aged by ten years. She’s preparing dinner for the family and its other American tenant when I stop into the kitchen to give her a hug. It’s not my business, I tell her, but I care for her.
She tells me she places faith in God and in patience.
“Sí, sí. Paciencia es bonita. ‘Paciencia siempre gana,’ es lo que digo.” (Yes, yes, patience is beautiful. ‘Patience always wins,’ is what I say.)
She wells up with tears and I hug her closer, more tightly as if to transfer whatever good energy I can. When she laments the fact that her daughter is more concerned with finding the perfect face soap than in helping for a few minutes around the house, I don’t know what to tell her. It wouldn’t matter if I had the right words. Her 30-year-old son leaves his bedroom, right off the kitchen, and demands her attention. As a man, he has priority.
By midnight Ingrid finally has a moment to her self. She enjoys her nightly routine, finding salvation in studying Biblical passages and memorizing hymns and psalms.
I can’t expect her husband to help her cook and clean. That’s not his culture. I can hope, however, that God finds her a maid– and soon. The plight of the Peruvian woman isn’t enviable.