Taking care of both children and managing the house is too much for the pregnant wife, and I started to help so much it was eating into my workdays. When it got to the point where I was watching children more than working, I finally hired an “empleada,” or maidservant.
I had been dreaming about having maidservants, which I call “slaves,” since before even moving to South America. It’s one of the chief benefits of the expat lifestyle. I never liked cleaning or washing dishes, and I’d just as soon pay someone to do it if I didn’t have a wife to do it. And down here, it’s not that terribly expensive.
I wrote about an empleada the bachelor roommates and I had in Arequipa in 2008, but in hindsight the once-a-week thing is hardly a “maidservant.” In August of last year I hired a fulltime servant, and it was everything I dreamed it could be.
Se Busca: Slave for Pay
Obviously the first step is finding the poverty-stricken candidate who is willing to dedicate 50 hours a week to doing your housework for $400 per month. One of our friends has family in Peru’s department of San Martin, where there is a steady supply of young jungle women – mostly single mothers – looking to move to Lima for what would be, for them, a modern, middle-class life.
But going the personal network route presents risks. The greatest risk with maidservants is security given that, in short order, they will know the ins and outs of your house, where the valuables are and when you’re not home. They’ll have ample opportunity to make copies of your keys if you ever send them to the market or anywhere else.
Even if the girl is recommended, sometimes things go astray, as seen in the story of one of my wife’s cousins. Her family brought some mountain peasant into the house at the age of 13 or 14. The cholita probably had a heart of gold, but coming from a Quechua farming community to Arequipa city will present some challenges. When she was 15, she met a boy who either convinced her or tricked her into getting information and access to the house. However it went down, the house was robbed.
To avoid any security concerns, there are agencies which vet maidservants. We decided to go with Nanas y Amas. They conduct criminal background checks, blood tests, personal references and more on their candidates. They even take a picture of the women standing inside their houses – in most cases shantytown homes – in order to demonstrate that they don’t give out a fake address.
Maidservants in Latin America are either Cama Adentro or Cama Afuera, the former meaning the slave lives with you. My apartment actually came with a “dormitorio de servicio,” which I called the slave quarters. I converted it into an office, which is to say a small office. The slaves’ bathroom is really small, and only has a toilet and shower (no sink). I have heard that the wealthier the home in Lima, the smaller the slave quarters.
Given I had turned our room into an office, we were looking for Cama Afuera. But even if we had a spare room, I don’t think I could do the in-house thing. Too weird.
The agency offered up two candidates who would work Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. for 1200 soles per month ($370). If we didn’t like either of them, they would give us up to two more rounds of interviews with two candidates each before leaving us to find our own slaves.
The interviews can be held at their office in Surco for free or at our house for 20 soles in cab fare. We opted for our house. An agency escort arrived with two candidates, I served them all tea and we put one candidate in a bedroom while we interviewed the other.
The first woman, Chata, had all the right answers. She knew how to cook all the Creole dishes, she had been a maidservant since she was 13. She lived in La Victoria, the infamous district south of downtown Lima which is a neighbor of Lince. In fact, she only needed to take one bus from her house to mine. We were sold on her from the outset. The icing on the cake came when she chuckled about leaving work early, as if it were something only heathens did.
The second candidate would have been fine. But she didn’t impress us with every single answer like the first candidate, and she lived in Villa El Salvador. That shouldn’t matter, I tried to remind myself. But in reality, do you want your maidservant to have a one- to two-hour commute every day when she has to be at your house at 8 a.m.?
The women left, wife and I discussed for a minute and I called the agent within the hour to say we would like to hire Chata. Then I called Chata, who the agency had provided contact info for, to offer her the job. She agreed to report to work the next morning.
Now I had to pay the agency fee of 1000 soles ($300) for lining up the vetted candidates. I couldn’t help asking the agent how they prevent the client has worked something out with the candidate on the side. After all, they had given me her phone number. This is a common problem for English institutes, when the service provider (teacher) and customer (student) decide to cut out the middleman.
The agent said it’s obvious when clients do that. Some candidates go on interviews for months before getting a job. In fact, nobody hired Chata for over two months because nobody wants slaves over 40 years old. If a candidate disappears at the same time a client doesn’t want any more interviews, they put 2 and 2 together.
The agency warns the candidates that if they do that, they can’t return to the agency. And there is an inherent risk that their new employer won’t keep them around and they’ll be back in need of a job soon. The agent said it does happen, but almost never.
I was going to pay anyway. The fee comes with a 90-day guarantee. If things aren’t working out or the maidservant quits, we get another round of candidates.
But things worked out … at first.
My wife is an amazing cook, and it pained me to tell her that Chata’s versions of the same dishes were just a little better. And Chata knew how to make things wife didn’t, like ceviche and cau cau.
The house achieved a degree of cleanliness I didn’t know was possible. Before children, wife would pull out the couches for a sweep and mop three times a week. Chata did that every day. She dusted the wine and pisco glasses every day, and cleaned the bathtub every day. She scrubbed the mud and dogshit off my training shoes once a week, and ironed underwear and other garments that don’t necessarily need ironing, just to help fill the workday.
Wife is an excellent cook and homemaker. My only complaint was her organizational skills. Under wife, the kitchen cupboards and refrigerator were pure chaos. The spices all over the place in the cupboard, I can never find anything. Produce going bad at all times in the icebox because nobody knows where anything is.
Chata’s arrival changed that overnight. Everything had its place by Week 2. She started saving glass jars and bottle tubes which we would normally throw away to save pasta and other foods, adding another dimension of organization. It was a great honeymoon, and I was 100% completely satisfied.
The only thing about Chata that irked me a bit was her tendency to laugh at things that weren’t funny. She may have been trying too hard to be agreeable. But that wasn’t necessary because I was also trying to be nice.
Your Liberal Hang-ups
As a gringo in Latin America, it won’t be long before you meet grown men of the upper class who don’t know how to fry an egg, who have never washed their own laundry because they grew up with maidservants. Most gringos, including me, don’t want their own children to turn out that way.
Many gringos detest the classism and racism in Latin America. We don’t want our children to treat others, even if they are mountain peasants washing the dogshit from our shoes full-time for $370 per month, like they’re lesser beings.
So I had this big liberal hang-up to be nice to the maidservant, to provide a workplace where she wasn’t a lesser being. I didn’t want a revolving door of impoverished women taking care of the home and children. I wanted to find the right one and keep her forever, like a part of the family. So I treated her well in hopes she would stick around forever.
If you have these kinds of do-gooder hang-ups, you will inevitably get depressed by the maidservants’ backgrounds. Chata was basically sold into domestic service as a child. Originally from Huancavelica, her mother died when she was 12. The next year her father, drunk according to Chata, fell to his death from a three-story building, leaving her and her sister as orphans. Chata was sent to a family in Lima and she never heard about her sister again. Now in La Victoria, Chata has two daughters finishing up vocational school, one to be an interior decorator and the other a chef. The father of her children is still in their lives, but with another woman.
According to Ward in Cusco, who has more experience in the industry:
We usually have a maid who comes in the morning to do all the house work, cook and clean, and another girl to babysit in the afternoon when the kids are home. We’ve been very fortunate to find some really good girls but when you learn a bit more about their backgrounds it often makes you think hard about how fortunate you have it, at least that’s been our experience.
We’ve had a girl whose father was murdered up in the Altiplano region and started domestic work when she was 12. Another who lives in a poor area of town helps with some of the social programs like the soup kitchen, so she knows all the stories of the families or women in the area who suffer husbands that come home drunk to beat their wives and leave them pregnant with another kid they can’t support, etc.
Now we have a girl who was “given away” by her mother when she was eight so the mother could be with her new boyfriend. She at least ended up with a family who seems to have treated her reasonably well.
We had another who was raped when she was 15 and ended up pregnant and out of school, had to walk three hours from the medical post where the baby was born to return home (no roads). We also have another girl who was practically stolen from her family in the country by an aunt in the city. She has been doing domestic work since she was 11 or so. She now takes care of an 11-year-old boy who was abandoned by his mother.
Just a lot of tough stories. It helps me stay a bit humble and realize how fortunate I’ve been.
The agency rep told me that they check up on both their customers and their candidates during the guarantee period to see how everything is going. I had built a bit of rapport with this agent and she could see I’m a good gringo, so she opened up a little. She said that the employers are a problem more often than the maidservants, in fact almost always.
She said the law prohibits some practices like, for example, having the maidservant cook Seco or Aji de Gallina for the family. But then they make the slave eat Arroz con Huevo (white rice and a fried egg or two). Or they demand more hours than agreed, or dock her pay for things like broken dishes or spoiled food. She even said some maidservants suffer physical abuse.
And I laughed at the idea of making Chata wear a uniform!
The rep also had positive stories. In fact, she was the daughter of a maidservant, and her mother’s employers served as her godparents at her baptism. Later they paid for her to go to college, and now she’s a professional working in an office. So that’s not bad.
That’s the kind of employer I wanted to be. I mean, paying for college would only come after decades of service. But I’m trying to be the nice gringo and ideal employer so Chata can stay with us forever.
One example, which ultimately happened with the second one as well, was addressing their instinct to eat in the kitchen. At lunchtime, each one went into the kitchen to eat their lunch standing up. I had to instruct each one to sit down at the dining table to eat.
Peru’s labor laws require employers to give their workers absurd benefits, which is why three out of four workers in Peru are employed illegally – to avoid that. I wasn’t going to give Chata health insurance or the right not to be fired, but I knew some Peruvian families give their maidservants bonuses, or “gratificaciones,” twice a year.
Chata had only worked for us for a couple months, so the full bonus required by law – half of a monthly salary – would have been excessive even according to my own liberal sensibilities. But I thought 300 soles was generous for Christmas, and Chata appreciated it.
In addition to the bonus, Chata would get a lot of time off for Christmas. Wife was in Arequipa with the children for one week before I joined her, so Chata would have one week of half days and then one week of vacation. And I didn’t discount anything from her pay for the light workload, which I imagine most Peruvians would.
During her week off, Chata went to Huancavelica to find her sister. She remembered where they had lived as a family, and her strategy was to ask the neighbors. I thought her plan was pie in the sky, but I advanced her full December salary to help her in her quest.
As it turned out, I was wrong. Chata was able to locate her sister, who had grown up in Huancavelica but relocated to Lima two years ago. She was living in the Huaycan slum which recently made world news when residents trying to lynch two pollsters ultimately led to a riot which killed one local resident.
The sisters reunited after almost 40 years. They had a lot to catch up on.
New Year … things sour
I don’t know exactly what happened after Christmas, but everything went to shit. All of a sudden wife wanted to hire a new maidservant. I was beside myself. Why?
Apparently while I’m satisfied for being able to spend a full workday in my office with no interruptions, wife had to watch the children more than she wanted in her late stage of pregnancy. She alleged that Chata would take more time than needed to scrub the toilet or clean the bedrooms in order to avoid caring for the babies.
Then Chata cut her finger while cleaning a clothes-hanging rack we had bought from Promart (another vignette coming soon). I rushed her to the poor-folks hospital, where she ultimately required 10 stitches. I spent 150 soles when it was all said and done, which I reminded myself was the good gringo thing to do. I also gave her a day off.
When she came back, I saw what wife was complaining about. One day I came downstairs as wife was ordering Chata to watch the children for a while, and Chata ignored her while insisting the bathroom needed cleaning. She said she would help with the children in a few minutes. My management-theory classes came back to me via the term, “insubordination.”
I realized that Chata was an excellent maidservant for the domestic duties, but not exactly an enthusiastic babysitter. It became more obvious with each day. She didn’t want to be with the children, especially the boy, who I admit is bravo like a toro. Chata wanted to cook, clean and organize.
Wife and I didn’t fully appreciate our needs during the agency interviews. We just knew we needed help. If anything, the focus of the interviews (you know me) was food and culinary skill. As each day went by, with wife complaining all the while, I realized we needed a new maidservant who would be a babysitter first, everything else second.
So I schemed how to interview candidates behind Chata’s back, in order to retain her as long as possible without her realizing that we were planning to fire her.
For this new round of interviews, we made it clear to the agencies (employing more than the original service) that we needed a maidservant who can watch a three-year-old boy and one-year-old girl for up to eight hours a day, and that a third baby was coming in March. The candidates needed to know this upfront, before applying.
For this new job description, there weren’t as many candidates, which is why this selection took a few weeks and more agencies (plural). I attributed the sharp drop in supply to Peru’s becoming rich as f%#!
But we got a new maid. And she’s great with the children. I fired Chata. I told her I’m sorry for everything, but it’s not going to work out. I wrote her a recommendation letter and gave her an extra week’s pay. Tears welled in her eyes a little as she left.
Wife says Chata got out of line in her duties because I was too nice. She wants to be harder on the new one.
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For an oldie but goodie featuring the Colombian perspective, see Marrying the Maid.