So according to my "Brazil Since 1980" book, Brazil has had a closed economy on and off since the 1960s. That meant no foreign imports in order to build up Brazil's industries. In the 80s, the government wanted to strengthen Brazil's computer and technology industry, so it put crazy tariffs on electronics imports. But that never took off, and the government eventually stopped offering low-interest loans and stuff. To stabilize the currency and reduce inflation, the government in the 1990s opened up Brazil to more international trade, particularly with surrounding South American countries. But then, apparently, in 1994 Mexico had an economic crisis that somehow affected Brazil. (This part is unclear to me.) To protect itself, Brazil put all the crazy taxes back on imports to protect jobs. These still haven't changed today. The result is good for Brazil when we talk about things like spatulas: a spatula sold by an American company (usually made in China) costs about 6 dollars. A spatula made in Brazil is about 75 cents. McDonald's hamburgers cost about 8 dollars. The problems arise when Brazil doesn't have its own industry to compete, but the taxes still exist. For example, a Toyota Corrolla is like, the pinnacle of a nice car here. It costs almost 30k. A microwave here costs about 200 dollars; and answering machine, about the same. Cell phones are hundreds of dollars. Of course, these things aren't vital, like food and medicine, but they do define “standards of living.” These laws also make my mousse for my hair cost 18 dollars. But if people can't spend their money on these products, they spend them on Brazilian products instead, right? Is it really better in the US to have all of our stuff made overseas, which lowers the prices but makes us wasteful? Are our lives really better when we can buy a new cell phone every year? (Or every 3 months, in Patty's case? har har.)
Similar questions arise when I talk about Dona Vera, the maid. After a long and interesting conversation with Alexandre about the status of maids in the context of the Brazilian culture and economy, I lost a little bit of my guilt. (I still wash my own underwear and empty the bathroom trash before she comes, but shit, I'm not gonna change overnight.) He explained that the pay is much better, and there certainly isn't the stigma that people have toward being a maid in the US. He pointed out that he felt really strange in the US to have someone bag his groceries in supermarkets and open doors for him in restaurants. He asked why those jobs are more “socially acceptable” in the US, even though the pay is just as low-- is it just because you're working for a company, and not another family? Is there some degree of removal when you throw in the idea of a “company” as your employer instead of a peer of sorts?
We also discussed wages and labor law protection in Brazil. (My boyfriend is smart, by the way.) There is a federal minimum wage, but it's awful, and useless. However, maids are still protected by it, unlike in the US. If their employer refuses to pay them at least the minimum wage, they can go to the courthouse and require it, including the back pay. Our maid makes about 3 dollars an hour. Sounds terrible, but to put it in perspective, public school teachers make about 5 or 6 dollars an hour, and I make about 8. Alexandre said that, combined with her husband's salary, our maid makes enough to send her kids to private schools, to have a cell phone, and to live in a safe part of the city. Yes, it still bothers me that the system is inherently unjust, that many people—citizens, not immigrants-- are maids because they were denied access to education from the start. It represents and encourages an underlying problem of income inequality that is alive and well in both countries. It's just that the US hides it better.
All of these facts are helpful, but I can't deny that culture shock takes awhile to wear off. Even if I understand better the philosophies and economic history of maids, I still don't get the logistics. This may just be me being an American brat, but I'm really uncomfortable with someone else in my house, seeing all my mess. I'm messy sometimes, especially when I spend the majority of the day by myself in the apartment. Sometimes I wait until 3pm to shower. Sometimes I spend 4 hours at a time in front of the computer. I don't have a desk, so sometimes the couch gets piled with papers for work and my dishes from lunch, and I wait until 10 minutes before Alexandre's going to come home to clean it. I like having control over who sees the messy side of me: no one (ok, Danette, you're cleared). And this is me being an American with a conscience riddled with the guilt of slavery: I feel really ashamed that I sit and type away on my computer while an older woman washes my dishes. I really worry about what she thinks of me, and that she's offended in some way. In this context, is it inequality or not? How much control do I have over the situation? Sure, I could frantically clean the apartment before Dona Vela comes, but is that the right thing to do? And what if I don't want to wake up at 6am to scrub the floor before she gets here so that she doesn't have to do it even though she's getting paid? In short, I don't want to make my bed, but that doesn't mean I want someone else to do it.
Do any of you think you'd have the same mental ping-pong game going on if you were here?
I guess I can end it on a fun note: when Dona Vela came in today, she brought... a helmet. Because she drives a motorcycle. Who knows? I just might learn something here.