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.