The movie “The Help” recently came out, and in brief, it told the story of what it was like to be African-American and work as domestic help in Mississippi during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. If you haven’t read the book, or seen the movie, you’re missing out. I think that as a nation it is always important to recount our errors, so that we do not make the same mistakes in the future. As difficult as these things can be to watch, it is history, and it should not be forgotten. The book and movie tell us about the mistreatment of “the help,” mentioning separate bathrooms for colored people in homes, requirements to eat from separate plates and silverware, and how much the help raised the child instead of the mother. It was shocking to look back, and believe that our nation could ever have thought like that.
Unfortunately, there certainly are still people who are racist. You hear it in stereotyping, generalizations, and from the people who cannot get over having a black president. Even the idea that we are still labeling black and white, astounds me. Is it not enough to call refer to people by their names, rather than by their color? However as many problems as we still have, I feel compelled to tell everyone clearly: “The Help” is not the past everywhere. In many places, it is still the present.
I have previously mentioned the social class structure here in Peru, and the dependency on having a service industry. Having a service industry creates an instant social structure. There are the people that have help, and the people that are the help. Now, I don’t want to generalize, and I don’t mean verbal harm to the people who have help. There are many cases in Peru in which having help is necessary. With the work schedule so different, usually 8-12:30, 5-8:30, it makes it incredibly difficult to get major tasks done. By the time you’ve prepared and eaten lunch, there is little time to clean or go get groceries before it is time to go back to work. So yes, there is a need here.
Regardless, there is an undeniable hierarchy. Middle-class and upper-class families higher maids to cook and clean. These women are expected to keep the house in order, do the laundry, run errands as needed, and often take care of the children as well. They are busy from sun-up to past sun-down, taking care of nearly every household task. Some families contract a woman to work on a daily basis, a 8-6 sort of schedule perhaps. These women usually make about $150 a month.
Other families have help that lives in the house. This of course means longer hours and perhaps higher expectations. I’ve noticed that when the family goes somewhere, the woman usually is expected to go to. So for example, if the family goes to the beach, the woman must come along. About a week ago I saw the living conditions of one of these women. Now perhaps it is better in some places, but what I saw almost made me sick. I hesitate to make a pop-culture reference, but the room was literally Harry Potter’s “cupboard under the stairs.” For the first time, the door under the stairwell leading up to my third floor apartment was open, and I saw where the woman lived. It’s a room no more than 3 feet wide by 12 feet long. Shoved inside it is a bed that takes up the entire width, and I can see in the back there is a toilet and sink. It is a closet. Without a doubt, it was meant to be a storage room. There are no windows and the roof is crumbling. Upset, I mentioned this too a friend. My friend said: “Well, it’s not like she spends a lot of time in there.”
It wasn’t that he was being insensitive, it’s just that’s how it is here. For me, this is difficult. To know that these women are working long hours and essentially taking care of the household deeply affected me. I have been to plenty of homes with help before, and I always felt uncomfortable. I didn’t like someone else washing my dishes and serving me. While I know it makes things easier on the female head-of-household and sometimes I’d love to have someone to cook and clean for me, I feel just awkward.
One of my classes recently got into a discussion about fast food, and as per usual, the US was the target of the discussion. While this is understandable since they are the restaurants we invented, it started to bother me when the students were talking about how we should eat more meals at home and cook more. While I am completely anti-fast food, I eventually had to shoot back to my students: “well, we don’t have anyone cooking meals for us and taking care of the house. It can be hard on parents to find the hour to cook a meal.” That one hit home with the students from other cities who are living on their own. “Yeah,” she said. “It’s hard to cook for myself and make time for school.”
Here, the country is completely dependent on having this service industry. You hire men to guard your house at night and women to clean it. It has been impossible for me to explain that hiring these services in the US would cost extraordinary amounts of money, and are reserved for the wealthy. What frustrates me is the low wages and the terrible living conditions. These women literally become part of the family. They know everyone’s favorite meals, cater to spontaneous demands, and make sure everyone has what the need. They are part of the home. Yet they earn so little for what they do.
I have felt this way for awhile, but what finally provoked me to write this was an article about Chile. You can read it here.
To summarize, it discusses a community like mine, where the domestic workers are not permitted to walk on the sidewalks (to keep up images) and must only take transportation, which comes out of their meager stipend for transportation. Failure to comply has allegedly resulted in beatings. Other similar rules exist.
While Peru is not as extreme as this, at least not as I have seen, both cases are a reminder that inequality and intensely stratified societies still exist today. I see this as something that will not change anytime soon, but as I pursue the studies of expatriates and the economy, I urge fellow expats to pay a fair wage. If you have the money to pay for a maid, you can certainly give her a living wage.
I mean no disrespect in this, as I know that the way of life in one country will not be the same in another. This is simply an outside perspective on something I am sure I might understand better if I had lived her longer.