So we have a new cleaning lady. Yes, I'm back in the cycle of a love-hate relationship with having a cleaning lady again. I still haven't gotten comfortable with the idea, and I still try to make myself look busy and I still feel immensely guilty. (But this post is about my breakthrough!)
This newest cleaning lady is the second woman we've hired here in Springfieldee, because the first one, a friend of my student's cleaning lady, was really terrible. I don't want to sound like a plantation owner or anything, but I don't think I'm a particularly picky homeowner and I still thought this first woman was bad. (For example, she swept all the cat hair under the bed instead of putting it in the trash, and even though I asked her if she would be able to clean the barbecue as part of her weekly tasks BEFORE she started and BEFORE she told me how much she would charge, she still made a fuss about doing it and tried to just ignore it, hoping I wouldn't notice after reminding her twice.)
Anyway anyway, this second woman is a breath of fresh air. Her name is Maria. She knows how to communicate, which is what I think it comes down to. I communicate what I need. She communicates what she needs. We discussed all the details before she started so things would be clear. Then she comes and does what we agreed upon. ROCKET SCIENCE. She's also friendly and lively and doesn't complain about her job or my apartment. (The complaining annoys me a bit. I don't go to my job and say, "Ugh, I HATE teaching English. I don't want to teach you today. I'm so tired. Your English is really bad. Don't you study?" etc etc. So I don't like it when the cleaning ladies come to my apartment and say things like, "Ugh, I don't want to work today -- I'm exhausted!" or "Your apartment is VERY messy, did you know that?")
So last week, on Maria's second day, it started to rain as Maria was finishing up. Alexandre had gotten off work early and was home with the car, so we offered to give her a ride home. It was a little far, but she would've had to walk far in the rain and wait at the uncovered bus stop.
I'm so happy we did this. We got stuck in some traffic, so the three of us got to know each other a little bit. We learned that Maria and her husband were from the state of Bahia and moved to Sao Paulo for a better life. This is a common story in Brazil, one I've read about often in history books (and in the plethora of economics articles I've been translating). But it was really interesting and important to hear someone's first-hand experience. Maria explained that maids in Bahia can make as little as R$150 a month for 40 hours a week. She mentioned that things were cheaper; for example, you could rent a small house in her town for as little as R$80 a month, but I pointed out that it meant rent was more than half of a maid's salary, and that even if things were more expensive in Sao Paulo, it's certainly be easier for her to make a salary and pay rent at much better proportions.
Maria and her husband (who works as a truck driver / delivery man) saved up to buy a small piece of land on the outskirts of town (here in Springfieldee). They've slowly been building their house on it. When we got to Maria's house, she eagerly asked us to come inside so she could show off the fruits of their labor.
Her house was huge! Because they had to build little by little, the house is kind of haphazard in shape; a room here, a room there, a random walkway with another room...things are also still very open, since they haven't had money to put in windows, only a big wall around the property. Maria's husband has done all of the construction, from laying the bricks to connecting the house to the sewer system to installing the electrical wiring. (That requires a lot of skill.) They have four kids, ages 10-18. When we got to the house, the three youngest kids were home. There were also some other kids from the neighborhood hanging out, playing. The youngest son and his friends were playing on the computer. It was an older computer but they were happy as clams with a motorcycle racing game. The teenage daughter and her friends were watching the nightly soap opera and chatting quietly. She was very polite and greeted us when we came in.
Maria's husband had already gotten dinner started. They had a wood-burning stove set up outside, and he was cooking beans over it in the pressure cooker. "To save on gas!" Maria's husband insisted. I didn't actually see a modern stove/oven, so I'm not sure if they have one.
Maria is already happy and chatty, but it was obvious how proud she felt of her own house, how comfortable she was, how in her element to be surrounded by her family and a bunch of children.
Richer Brazilians (the ones I spend 99% of my time with) like to insist that the poorer classes live in abject poverty, that they are all suffering and miserable. Some of these richer Brazilians will have you believe that everyone in the poorer classes covets the things they've got, that I have to be careful to hide my electronics so my maid doesn't steal them, to wash my expensive clothes myself so the maid doesn't ruin them, etc etc.
After seeing Maria's life, I realized that these fears reflect more on the people who profess them than the people in question. I think it shows how much the richer classes obsess over things like fancy clothes and electronics, and not necessarily that the poorer classes do. I realized that Maria probably thinks our lives are apples and oranges. My apartment is tiny compared to her house; it's quiet all the time because I don't have any children or friendly neighbors to liven it up; Alexandre and I have a lot of electronics, but what good is a Kindle going to do her? I don't think she necessarily sees much value in all of our stuff.
I'm not saying that Maria doesn't want things; the laws of economics state that everyone has unlimited wants and limited resources. I'm just saying that I don't believe now that she wants MY things, that she's looking down on me for my lifestyle or that she's judging me for the way I live or work or spend my money. I think she's laid back and sees her job as a job, and that hiring her as a cleaning lady is just a choice I've made with the money I earn. Also, she invited me into her house and tried to insist that I stay for dinner, so she must not hate me that much, right?
So like my richer Brazilian counterparts, my fears reflected more on me than on her; I feel guilty for having more than others sometimes, and I'm still trying to work out a way to balance my own definitions of pleasure with my responsibilities to people less fortunate than I am.
But I feel lucky that Maria invited us in. Sometimes I feel like I'm missing out on a lot of Brazilian subcultures, so I like to try to learn things when I can. I got to know the urban poor all too well back in the crappy beach town, and of course I'm familiar with bubble that is the Brazilian upper classes. But people who have migrated from the poorer Northeast to the richer state of Sao Paulo are new to me.
I hope this post doesn't come off as silly, like, "oh wow, poor people can be happy, too!". That wasn't the epiphany. I guess the epiphany was that people don't always want what I want, and that Maria is way more ahead of the game than I am in terms of working on her own goals, doing what's right for her and not comparing herself to others, etc. The epiphany was also that Maria probably doesn't see her job in some oppressive social context the way I do. It's important for me to remember that next time I want to take a nap while she's here.