Merida Expats And Their Household Workers

Beryl Gorbman

How many of us have had regular household workers in our homes before moving to Mexico? Not too many. But labor is so inexpensive here, and in Centro our houses require endless cleaning, so we’ve hired housekeepers. We’re not used to it. I’m not, anyway.

How do we relate to servants? What are they to us? Are they people or invisible presences who get our houses clean? Do they have their own lives? Do we get annoyed if they say they can’t come in because someone in their family is ill? Do we understand their values well enough to know that caring for a sick family member is far more important than a job?

As most of my readers know, my opinion is that we have had a group of people here for a long time that has not represented the best elements of the USA or Canada. The skewed values, the cliques, the disresepect for the local people, the pointless power hunger, are legend. It’s been a bunch of people who don’t have much to do except eternally work on their overdone houses (hey guys – it’s just a house for god’s sake!). Of course, there are many exceptions, and I’m pleased that we have a new wave of younger expats, who behave differently, and who I will talk about in another article.

The Mayas who come into our homes every day are as intelligent as anyone else, even though many expats (and Mexicans) think of them as stupid and backward. We seldom consider their opinions about us, and if we do, we feel they aren’t very important. We barely notice them as they quietly go about their work. They become shadows.

But these servants who the foreigners pay as little as possible to, are right there in the midst of our lives, observing the most intimate details. “The help” hears every domestic fight, notices every indiscretion, knows about their employers’ money worries, logs every unclassy act and every mood in our homes. They know who has kiddie porn on their computers. They see lonely people who sit in their homes for days without a phone call or a visit. They pity those of us who eat out of cans. They anticipate who will pretend not to know about the annual holiday alguinaldo.

These servant-boss relationships are often the only extended contacts gringos have with residents of the villages of Yucatan.

Every evening around five p.m., the busses to the pueblos start filling up with all of our gardeners, albeniles, housekeepers, and other servants who get on the commuter bus, much as some of us used to do in the US when going home from work, and recount to each other the high and low points of their days. They tell stories about us with hilarity. We are their daytime soap operas, albeit somewhat boring ones. They entertain each other with stories of what goes on in our homes. They exchange information.

Many of the domestic workers have worked in more than one household as the years go by, and enjoy catching up with the gossip about their previous employers by discussing them with the current employees. They may share hints on how to deal with unpleasant situations (some of those old guys see them as available for sex) or caution the newer workers by telling them why they no longer work for a particular employer. The bus isn’t just a ride.

But once they get home, their real lives start. Family time, cooking, playing with children, and talking to neighbors. The gringos and their peccadillos fade into nothingness.

Our household workers think we are endlessly rich and they don’t understand our values. Where are our children? Why don’t we go to church? Why do two people need two cars? Why do two people need such a huge house? Why do people have a dozen cats living in the house? Why are we always having work done on our houses? But hey – it’s a job. And a lot of the time, the employers leave them alone and they can just do their jobs and get out before four p.m.

Wealthy Mexicans who employ the villagers at least understand what families are and are usually properly religious. And the Mexican employers know they are expected to pay an Xmas bonus and also help out with emergency medical expenses. It’s part of the relationship. The Mexican employers may not respect The Help very much, but they know the rules. The relationship between Mexicans and their Maya servants is an ancient one, with hundreds of years of tradition. Everyone knows what to expect.

I remember about twenty years ago, I was invited to the home of some wealthy people for the mid-day meal. A woman about my age, who I’d met through a computer tech discussion, was one of the daughters of the family. A driver picked up each family member from their workplace, and came to my house to get me.

When we got to the very lovely home in Itzimna, the big table was set beautifully, with good china, silverware, and glassware. Food was already on the table and everyone had an assigned seat. I remember wondering where in the world they had bought food like that, because I never saw food of such high quality in the supermarkets. I began to realize the huge differences of the privileged world in Merida.

Platters were passed around, there was a lot of English spoken for my benefit, and the mood was happy and relaxed. When we had finished with the food on the table, the mom, who was beautifully dressed and coiffed and sat at the head of the table, reached under the table and pressed a button. Immediately, two huipile-clad Maya women appeared with carts to remove the used dishes. Then they brought the next course. No one spoke to them or looked at them. I said thank you when one of the women served me a plate and I realized it made her uncomfortable – I had broken the unspoken rule, crossed the undefined line that allowed the Mexicans to regard the servants as basically inanimate objects and allowed the servants the luxury of not having to talk to them or be artificially cheerful.

The differences between our llives and the villagers’ are voluminous. It’s kind of hard to imagine your polite, immaculate, hard-working housekeeper living in a one-room concrete block house with no modern plumbing, but that is often the case. The concrete room may sleep seven or eight people.

People who work in our homes are the lucky ones. With a minimum wage of under six dollars per day, which is what most of the men earn, and the twelve to twenty dollars we pay our servants, an intact family, with two working adults can earn about $21 per day, more than enough to feed everyone.

But in many village households, our housekeepers are single heads of household, which may include children, adult siblings, and elderly parents. With the $20 per day that we pay them, they struggle to support all of these people.

And how about their expenses other than food? How about the cost of schoolbooks? Shoes and clothes for everyone? And the cost of transportation between their villages and Merida runs about $3 per day per person. Virtually none of them owns an automobile, a computer, or more than two outfits. Government subsidy programs have allowed most people to buy refrigerators, which look like huge alien shiny objects that dwarf their tiny homes.

When they go to the clinic and get prescriptions, they often can’t fill them. A round of antibiotics, at about $40, is nearly impossible for most families.

They do not see dentists. IMSS doesn’t provide dental services so they aren’t treated until the condition becomes an emergency. Usually, they just pull out the offending tooth.

A lot of the early American expats here were Southerners. Texans, Floridians, people who were accustomed to telling dark-skinned people what to do. They were comfortable moving here (although they seldom tried to learn Spanish) and found it an easy transition to dehumanize the Maya in the same way they had dehumanized black workers in their homes in the US. But the Mayas were less feisty, and the employers were thrilled.

Today, there are some expats who try to do the right thing, to help out with family emergencies, to give a generous and early Christmas alguinaldo, and afford some respect to their workers. Generally speaking, these expats have less worker turnover and other problems.

Foreign homeowners and village Maya live in two very different worlds. Both groups regard the other as strange and impenetrable. There are no answers to the questions raised here.

About BG

Beryl Gorbman is a writer and private investigator who divides her time between Seattle WA and Merida Yucatan Mexico. She has published two works of fiction, 2012: Deadly Awakening, and Madrugada. They are both available on Amazon and other outlets. Also at Amate Books, and Casa Catherwood in Merida. You can read about them in various articles on this site.
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18 Responses to Merida Expats And Their Household Workers

  1. suk says:

    We were very lucky, we had a cleaning lady almost 15 yrs in USA home bc my professional work & nt shift, when I am off I do not want my quality time for cleaning house. We hired maid company in Virginia, then we moved to Houston my pay is double but living cost is much cheaper, no state tax, we hired Mexican lady, I can give her big kiss everytime she does clean our house, I pay her $20 US per hour, yes good pay, our hospital nurse assistant get only $10 US so our lady does get good pay. But she does such a good job, I do not have to supervised, 4 hours, done. Our house is spotless anyway except walter is get so many papers, mails, he is getting disorganized & spoiled. Our Merida home, our lady was with us 10 yrs. She is spend most time with walter so we treat her like our family & spoiled her. Walter paid her $200 peso but she works only 3 hrs. Ofcourse when I am there I tried to teach her missing points but when I am on vacation I do not want to work with her. I remembered when I grew up we had a maid & dad had 2 sergeant took care of his boots, uniforms, mom thought maid how to cook, clean, etc. I can’t be a mean boss lady. Y got to have a skill to be manage theses servant. I believe we all have equal to be born. I can’t handle lazy ass or want free lunch but as long as work hard for support family earn the money, they should get respect. So whoever out there at least lucky to have someone taking care you, pls repect them. We are all equal as a human.

  2. Bill says:

    Powerful. Sounds like my childhood in Alabama. I think you have read “The Help” about black maids and their white employers in Mississippi? Interesting that the first wave of expats into Merida included quantities of Deep Southerners who of course had lots of experience with The Dark Other. One interesting difference, which you point out, in the Merida vs. Deep South stories, is the, for me, continuing puzzlement of how white southerners often projected onto black southerners virtues of stoicism and wisdom (“my mammy was so good to me,” etc, ugh, and all the Faulkner stuff ad nauseam, “they endured,” etc.) while simultaneously turning them into demonized robots. Wild, crazy. And Southern blacks ultimately resorted successfully to a fuck-you strategy. The Maya tried that, sort of, during the Caste War of 1847, but since then seem to have turned to a resigned invisible-wall approach to the high-falutin ladino white folk. Do you, Beryl, have any Maya friends, in our sense of the word? Is it even possible for a white yankee to build that bridge to a fellow human of such a different world? If so, please write us about that, how does it work. It would be very enlightening.

  3. Kinbote says:

    Don’t forget that not all expats have housekeepers.

    • BG says:

      Well, this article is about those who do.

    • Marc Olson says:

      I tried housekeepers for several years, and now have none. My house is not as clean as it used to be, but this situation just works better for me. I wonder if many other foreigners here have tried having employees and, as I have, decided to do their own household work after all.

  4. suk says:

    BG, most my expat friends are very giving peoples. I think American are very giving peoples. I think Mexican is more brutal to Mayan even they did to our Korean immigrant 100yrs ago. So pls do not accused to our American, without them Mayan can’t get that kind of earning power & suppot their family. What do u think?

    • BG says:

      I think your comment is excellent. I am not singling out Americans for their attitudes. The way the Koreans were treated in Yucatan at the previous turn of the century was criminal. It took each of them years to work their way out of their “contracts” and plus they were fooled in the first place, being told they were going to Hawaii. It is no wonder that many of the Korean families have moved back to Korea. There are many of their descendants here, but unfortunately, no one has opened a Korean restaurant. I think Korean food is one of the great cuisines of the world.

  5. Barry says:

    We don’t know too many of the indigenous people, but we do know an ever increasing number of Mexicanos. We treat the Mexicanos just as we wish to be treated. Infrequent or casual workers we associate on a strictly business-like basis. We contract for work, they perform the work and then we pay them. No muss no fuss.

    Mexicanos that we see and use more frequently, the lady that cleans our house, our gardener, painter, and others, we treat as members of our extended family. If they are in need, we help them. If they need time to help a family member, of course they can take the time. They get their alguinaldo on time with a card and a smile. Why would a reasonable person treat another human being any other way?

    We have known Nortes that treat Mexicanos, particularly wait staff and housekeepers, like servants. We no longer associate with those people. Just because they are the beneficiaries of lucky sperm does not give them the right to be condescending to anyone! Live and let live. Lend a helping hand when you can, but one shouldn’t ever think that they are better than anyone else!

  6. Well let me just say that having a housekeeper for me is a MUST, I came to Merida for the colonials and I stayed for the help. :) Im at a point in my life where I have enough stress so I dont feel bad about hiring someone to come in a couple of times a week and do some chores around the house, and its good for them because otherwise what would they do to make money?? For me the hardest thing was finding the muchacha that was right for me… one was too rough on my clothes, one stole some of my silverware, UGH! Then I found my current lady and things have been wonderful ever since… I never feel guilty or anything because 150 pesos is a lot of money to them.

  7. Rod LeBlanc says:

    The contrasts between our relations is remarkable. I was moved to think of Hegel, Camus, Christ and Zapata within a short time of reading. And then my own careless attitude towards others.

  8. Elsy Encalada-Flores says:

    I am a Yucateca who lives in US since age 24. At home we had two ladies who were my mother’s helpers. They were live in maids, however my mom always introduced them as her “cousins”. They always ate before we did, and sometimes with us (the kids), but never when grandma Mequita was eating (she was born and raised in Spain, and believed that maids were not supposed to be treated as equals). She always said that even in heaven there are angels, cherubs, and archangels, so… (You can skip the next paragraphs if you run out of time, but…).
    Nena and Tito, brought along another sister to live with us and became my younger brother’s nana. We were not rich, however, dad had to feed them all! To us, they were part of the family and we were raised to respect them as my mother did. However, sometimes I imitated my grandmother Mequita, and in front of her, I bossed them around asking them for water with ice, or jello from the “ice box”, or to fetch me the salt or sugar. All these to grandmothers delight. However, when my mom was around she would ask me “hijita, levántate a buscar lo que quieres, no estás mocha” (Little daughter, go yourself to get what you want, you are not handicapped”. I knew better not to abuse my power in front of my mom.
    Nena, Tito and Loly, took turns to go the market in San Sebastian with my mom and one or two of my little sisters. They took turns to walk us to and from school, they ran most errands for mom and grandma, cleaned the house each day, did the dishes, washed and ironed our clothes (except my dad’s who were sent to the dry cleaning places), and when I was 15, they chaperoned when I went to the movies or birthday parties, etc. etc., (but grandma made them walk behind me, my mom asked them to hold my hand or walk along with me).
    They were at my house for ever! I mean until one got married and her older sisters chaperoned for her, staying with us, after Nena got married. Guess who was the Godmother? Yes. My mom, who asked Nena to be the Godmother to my younger sister. So they became “comadres” and visited each other twice a year. Grandma of course could not believe it and twisted her mouth when Nena came to visit.
    I am impressed by the way you explain in your article, the way of how some people consider servants as shadows, how they pretend not to know about aguinaldos, or that they are intelligent, hard workers, great cooks, and have their own cultural backgrounds and many questions about gringo’s cultures, values, etc. I am impressed of how you view all these facts. As you said, (and I agree with you), we are their soap operas, and they know so much of our lives!
    By the way, my mom has a live in companion that tells us all she hears about the neighbors from other maids at the stores. We know she does the same, however she is treated as family, and only shares what she thinks is convenient. So far, she has proven her loyalty.
    Well, if you skipped all my comments, just know that I love your articles.

  9. Stan says:

    Even more than usual, your candor, humor, wisdom and refreshing literacy illuminate this article and bring me so much pleasure in reading it. While you could address the subject more briefly, you don’t hesitate to add more, respecting your readers’ ability to stay with you for a more complete perspective.

    You and several other local bloggers are among the primary reasons I can’t give up on the prospect of eventually residing in Merida (after a decade of visiting). We may never meet, but I would somehow feel more at home as a result of sharing the city, and I would certainly benefit as a resident from the insight gained by being a reader.

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