I tried to organize my thoughts into an orderly progression complete
with smooth transitions and a tidy conclusion. It didn’t work, so I settled for snippets.
“Excuse me for bothering you, but I have a favor to ask.” Jovita nervously fiddled with the broom handle.
I was getting ready to leave for work and had come over to where she was sweeping the kitchen to say goodbye.
“Sure. What is it?” I asked.
“Would you be able to loan me 500 quetzales?” She looked everywhere but in my eyes. “My children need help with their schooling and we have been having a lot of difficulty lately. We don’t have enough food, either, and last night the children didn’t have supper.”
This wasn’t the first time Jovita had asked for money. Back in the beginning she’d asked for a raise. We were still in the negotiating stages and I’d raised her pay by five quetzales.
Then she asked for a paid Easter week holiday. Answer: yes, of course.
She’d asked me to be the godparent (er, fairy godmother) for two of her children. Answer: no.
She’d asked for money for the children’s schooling. Answer: no.
And now she was asking for a loan. Quite frankly, I was fed up with all the asking.
Jovita has been working for us for about three months now. We decided to let Luvia, the woman who helped us in the very beginning, go once we moved out into the country. The distance was pretty great for Luvia. Plus, she wasn’t all that great at housekeeping, so we let her go.
Jovita is 39 years old. She has seven children. She walks one hour each way to get to my house, and she comes three times a week: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. She arrives at eight and leaves at noon.
She is quiet and unassuming, and after Luvia’s chattery, bubbly bossiness, I appreciate the calm.
I pay Jovita Q40 for four hours of work. This is the equivalent of two bags of cornflakes.
Here, the person who cleans your house is called your “muchacha” (girl). Even if the woman is fifty years old, if she washes your underwear, she’s called a girl. This makes me profoundly uncomfortable.
In fact, having a servant makes my conscience get the nervous twitch. I was raised that it was uppity to expect other people to do my dirty work. Whenever I baulked at getting my hands dirty, my mother would shrill, “There aren’t any princesses in this house!” (She made no mention of queens.) (Actually, that’s not true. I think she periodically crowed, “I am queen! Obey! Serve!” Or maybe I’m confusing her with me?)
The do-your-own-dirty work logic went something like this: if we get so busy or have so much stuff that we aren’t able to scrub our own shower scum or corral our own dust bunnies, then we had better slow down. Caring for our living space and possessions helps prevent us from getting all-consumed with the rush-rush of life. It keeps us grounded. Furthermore, scrubbing a toilet gets us more than a clean toilet—it gets us some much needed perspective (and a loopy high from the cleaning products).
But then I wonder, is it even within a Guatemalan woman’s paradigm to believe that cleaning her own toilet might give her some perspective? Or could it be that that’s only what an elitist North American might think about the porcelain polishing? And if that’s the case…oh, the irony!
One of my biggest fears is that with a maid to pick up socks, my children will transform into entitled brats. According to this photo, it looks like they already have.
They haven’t, though, I don’t think. Taking a break from vacuuming and window washing isn’t going to shrink our souls (I hope). And besides, they still pick up, fold laundry, wash dishes, and do other odd jobs upon demand.
They even cut the grass by hand. With machetes.
The fact is this: our life is different here. At home we have zero-turn mowers, cars, and central vac to help out. Here we have Jovita.
And if I’m to be completely honest, having a maid is wonderful. It feeds my repressed Lady Grantham fantasies.
Mother’s Day was coming up. Jovita had made mention that all women have off from work on that holiday. I didn’t say much—I wanted to check with someone else about the local customs first.
So one day at lunch, over our bowls of potato stew, I asked one of my co-workers if it’s the custom for house help to not work on Mother’s Day.
“No,” she said. “But you can give her the day off if you want.”
The dinning hall was mostly empty so I pressed for more details. I learned that:
*her house help works six days a week, from 7 am to 4 pm (or was it 5?)
*her help does the sweeping, laundry, cooking, and child care
*she pays her Q500 a month
*when paying per day, Q20 is the going rate
That night at supper, I reported the conversation, and then we had a mini math lesson, and then we all spent some time reeling.
These women work all day at the end of which they haven’t even earned enough money to buy a gallon of milk.
Why do they do it?
Jovita’s pleas for money tie me up in knots. I feel belittled and used, like all I am to her is An Opportunity To Exploit
It’s not her fault that she thinks all North Americans are wallowing in cash. We handed that idea to her via our smiley, let’s-help-all-the-poor-people short term missions, our wildly unrealistic reality shows, soaps, and pert newscasters, and our foreign policies that dictate, control, and ravage.
I get that it’s hard for her to understand that there’s another side to North Americans. That some of us drive clunker cars and have one income. That some of us toil for hours over our garden plots. That some of us pull two shift to pay off the college loan. That some of us have said no to credit cards and yes to saving.
Sometimes when she asks me for favors, I feel like shouting, Hey, look. I come from a rich country and you come from a poor country. Neither of us had any say in that. We each have to work with what we’ve got. I struggle with comparing up and wanting more, too—
But I can’t really say that to someone who has less than me, can I? That would be crass. Thoughtless and cold.
So what do I say? I say, I’m sorry, and then I explain that all the money we are using right now is through our sponsoring agency (a mostly true statement). We are volunteers. We do not have an income.
And when she apologizes profusely for bothering me, I tell her not to worry about it, that I’m sorry she’s struggling, that I’m glad I can provide her with a job.
And I leave it at that. Because it’s impossible to explain mortgages and homeowner’s insurance and the cost of living and our huge, wonderful supportive community and doctor’s bills and the ridiculous price of a college education. The gap is too wide.
I want to treat her well. I want her to feel respected, and in turn I want to be respected. For who I am, another woman, only two years her junior, attempting to raise children, love my husband, and make a go of it in this little world, just like she is.
So that’s where we are. It’s convoluted and messy. I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing, and I certainly don’t have answers. Straddling two worlds can be awkward and uncomfortable. It might even be silly, impractical, and unhelpful.
But hey, for what it’s worth, my floors are clean.
Ps. My sister-in-law, living in India, pointed me to this blog post. It. helps flesh out the conundrum even more.
I grew up in a third world country. We had maids from time to time. Some of them stole from us, one of them ran up a horrific phone bill, they all took stuff like food and sugar. We gave them old clothes and stuff.
And yes, they've pulled that kind of thing. Not just maids either. Random people on the street would come up to you and tell you this elaborate story about how their family was sick/ starving/ their cars broke and they couldn't get to work. You name it, we've probably heard it. It is really hard to figure it all out. I'm afraid I got rather hard hearted. We'd pay them a fair rate and try to help them with financial planning and stuff. But we didn't just hand out money. Just handing out money truly doesn't help. In many cases it makes things worse
You need to hold your ground. My husband (and his immediate family)immigrated from a third world country and the extended family bled them dry for years. When the money train was gone they became mean and nasty. They also learned to spend irresponsibly and are worse off now than before they had any help. (Who needs three video cameras and two pianos when no one plays piano?) My in-laws now have no money and no extended family to love. We know many people who have gone through this whether it was missions or extended family.
Also my husband graduated before coming to America as an Electrical Engineer making $50 a month which was a good wage. People can save thousands of dollars and spend lavishly while only making $30 a month. It boggles my mind how they do it! It is true that they all seem to think we have money trees over here, but it often seems the other way around to me. Maybe you should check out your maid's garden. There could be a money tree =D
We face the same issues in our daily lives, those on welfare with TVs, get to stay home instead of working, newer cars, eating better food, supported by those that work hard, limit spending. I weary of the hands out, those truly needing help I would gladly give, but too many are taking, and taking, and seems to be a generational problem. The hands out issue is common in the US also!
I was waiting for this post. Thanks for articulating things that are hard to talk about.
Ok, all I want to say about the help situation is this—you are supplying her with a job. That's as far as your obligations go. If she would like a more full time job, or extra work, I'm sure she can get it. I think she is taking advantage of you.
But, what I REALLY want to comment on is this: Your son is wielding a machete with his left leg in the direct path of the blade! Freaking me out! And, I was raised with 4 brothers and I have 3 sons. So, I'm pretty much used to the way boys operate! 🙂
In many South American countries the woman (always a woman) who cleans the house has someone else who cleans her house and sometimes that person, too, has a house cleaner. There can be four tiers of this occurring beginning in, say, an affluent household in the city. The "classes" are different and the pay, etc., but it's a strange and somewhat self-sustaining economy. Which is not the same thing as saying it's great for everyone.
The complexity of your situation is so difficult… possibly it's one of those situations where "what would Jesus do" is not so helpful. After all, he had nothing material to give, so far as we know.
If this happens again, perhaps you could gently ask her if she is not happy with her employment with you; you could offer to help find her a more full-time position elsewhere. If she jumps at this chance, her need may have been genuine; if she demurs, maybe the requests will stop or at least slow. But I recognize this doesn't address the actual and very difficult conundrum.
You make an excellent suggestion. I have already told her, on more than one occasion, that if she needs to get full-time work, then we will support her in that decision; we can, after all, only offer her part-time work. She demurred.
Just to throw a wrench in things, I experience some of the same things here in the states. People of lower income status ask me for money all the time. Sometimes the request is legitimate, sometimes it is not. It leaves that horrible taste in my mouth when I find out I've been had, but I feel good when I find out I've helped. So, my response is all about how I feel, which is probably not the best way to approach it, at least for me. I will never make these people believe that I am not rich (I'm not), nor will I ever stop feeling badly that some of them really struggle. So, I give what I can, say no when I can't, and try not to think any more about it beyond the encounter. Maybe it is my urban situation, but didn't any of you experience this in the US? There are a lot of poor people here.
Being a missionary in Africa I definitely understand. It can be difficult on both ends. Yes we do have house help and yes when we were in America we did everything ourselves as well. Of course here as I am sure there it takes so much longer to get anything done , house help is needed and affordable, unlike in America.
Being here seven years and working amongst the poor can be draining. But I had to adjust my attitude first of all not feel guilty for what I had and they did not. Second of all I had to stop trying to explain I did not have the only for whatever reasons I did not have money. They don't understand that and never will and will always think we do have money. Plus I use to hate hearing myself say it all the time.
We also came up with a few rules, one is no loans. If they asked for money for a certain thing if we choose to give it we gave it as a blessing not a loan.
Just went back and read some of your comments o other posts. If her husband works and she has all those other things that should help you not feel guilty. They are responsible for themselves. I would look at the part of maybe what you pay her. I know you said the going rate is a certain amount. I know here the going rate depends on if you are white or not. It is usually different. WHat is your life style that you live there? Is it as the people, middle class of the people or higher class of the people. You should adjust what you her based on that to a point. Meaning that if the going rate is for house help of a lower class than yours you should adjust. Here the going rate for example would be between $10 to $20 a month if someone was working for another national. Sometimes could be $30 to $35 if the national was higher class. If someone worked for a white person they can earn as much as $200 of course their responsibilities are a bit more and expectations of work is higher. We are white but have many African children and live sort of middle so we only pay $100 plus their transport. We also have a rule of no requests. However we give blessings here and there to help out. You may want to talk to her before she asks another request. So the key is to know you are being really fair and not taking advantage of the low pay due to culture but not to pay too much where dependency can be a problem or place them in to high of a salary that cannot be validated other than poverty and guilt.I always remember what my husband is always quoting me…A workman is worthy of his wages… Not sure if that helps at all
Is there irony here in how you got money for this venture to Guatamala? Just wondering, since I don't understand enough of what's going on to make a judgement.
You mean getting people to donate money to support us? Ha! I suppose one could say there is a connection, but it's stretching it.
(It's like having the guy who is building your house continually and repeatedly requesting financial assistance for his personal expenses. So really, it's not the same at all…)
But we wouldn't be paying him two bags of cornflakes.
This is too befuddling. I'm going to bed.
Well, the whole situation sounds like quite the sticky wicket in more ways than one. Difficult enough when dealing with people in and of your own culture but throw in the fact that you are of one culture/belief and she is of another . . . seems to me it's not a good idea for you to "help" her by the loan(?) of money. (Haven't you already found out she's lying to you about her circumstance?) It's so hard in that you could reinforce the belief that all Americans are wealthy or reinforce the belief that Americans are uncaring and selfish. Can there ever be true understanding between you? Between Americans and Guatemalans? It also could be that she is out and out scamming you. Something smells quite fishy about the whole thing to me.
"It's so hard in that you could reinforce the belief that all Americans are wealthy or reinforce the belief that Americans are uncaring and selfish."
Exactly. This is the fine line we're struggling to walk.
Darrin and Julie
Jennifer, thank you for this meaningful post. I worked in Honduras for 4 years with MCC and struggled with my life in respect to the lives of those around me, and of course my home help with whom I spent time every day. It is thought provoking to see someone else putting this experience into words. Bendiciones, Julie
You Can Call Me Jane
Your response to Zoe's comment helps- I, too, was thinking about those hungry kids! I think providing a slightly more than fair wage would be a good start- you're showing her value her work (which it sounds like you do) and can rest assured that she's making a decent wage. I've also heard that in some cultures, people ask for favors to gauge your level of interest in friendship. They actually put value in "owing" you so they can pay you back/reciprocate- the back and forth is a way of establishing relationships. I don't know if that's what is going on here or if it's poor money management. Either way, I would think building on that relationship could show her that you care even if you're not willing or able to give/loan monetarily.
Interesting concept. However, it sounds more like an African concept to me than Guatemalan…maybe?
If they truly don't have supper to eat, maybe you could make them some food? Perhaps that won't help with the school bills but at least they'll have a meal.
Maybe that's a lame response to your question. Really, I don't have any answers. I'm sorry. Let us know how you end up dealing with this. We can all learn from these situations!
Oops, in my wildly haphazard writing and editing process, I neglected the part that explains that her family has a nice house, a new, flat-screen TV, and she sends her kids to the more expensive schools. I know this from a friend who has a much closer relationship with her (and gets asked for stuff and lot more often). I suspect they have credit card debt. I don't think for one moment that they don't have food, and if that were the case, sell the TV. But still, even with all that knowledge, it's really hard to deal when someone pulls that my-kids-are-hungry card.
But how can her family be doing that well if she makes so little money? It sounds like housemaid pay there isn't commensurate (quality of life wise) with that in the US. When a woman works to clean my neighbor's house for 2 hours here in the States, she earns way more than the equivalent of 2 bags of cornflakes. I guess that's the part I have a hard time understanding. Is housemaid pay there reasonable (in their economic context) or not? I understand that you are paying more than others do. But is everyone underpaying/taking advantage of the available labor market, or are the wages actually reasonable for the work done?
On the other hand, if her statements aren't true, then she is being manipulative; and you should find different help, if possible. That's too uncomfortable a situation to live with. Or it would be for me, anyway.
Ok. That was some very helpful info, which actually makes the situation even more difficult, as you said.
I like Jane's response.
Suburban Correspondent, I share your confusion. I don't understand how the market works, how people can live on so little, how it actually plays out on a day-to-day basis. It boggles my mind.
She's getting more than the national minimum wage. (MCC bases the amount we are to pay our workers on the Living Wage: the amount it costs to feed a family of four for one week.)
About Jovita's situation: her husband works as a guard in the city, seven days a week. Guards make decent money, I understand, though what that actually means, I don't know.
Yes, she's being manipulative. But in many ways, she's been conditioned to do that. We are dealing with the result of a lot of messed up history: poverty, lack of education, the expectations of handouts from wealthy nations.
And I should clarify: after that rash of requests, we have gone two, maybe three, weeks without any requests. Maybe she caught on that my no means no? In any case, I was getting ready to explain to her that if she continued asking, I would have to let her go. So far, I haven't needed to say anything. Thankfully, because I really like her.
I struggled with the same thing as an MCC volunteer in Carcha in the early 80's. All the other EMM and MCC workers had household help purporting that it provided some much needed income for these families. This was true, but I still struggled as an idealistic 22 year old with the idea. And since we lived in town in a home with tile floors and an easy walk to the market, I chose to do our own cleaning, which always befuddled our K'ekchi' friends if they stopped by when I was down on my hands and knees washing the floors, handwashing our clothes in the pila or out back weeding the garden. Then, when our son was born and I breastfed him, that really confused both our K'ekchi' and Latin neighbors as anyone with money would certainly use bottles and formula, even though I spent countless sessions in women's group meetings affirming them in breastfeeding their babies. We all approach life from our own experiences and our perspectives of one another are influenced by that as well. But, I think this will always be a struggle for those of us born and raised in the first world.
You're right, Pam. It's a struggle. I might need to leave it at that.
(I'd LOVE to hear more about your work and experiences—if you want to share, feel free to email me!)
I spent a summer in Africa, and one weekend while I was traveling away from my host family, one of the boys robbed me blind of stuff, including a brand new bag my father had bought for me a few weeks before. The boy just happened to be moving away that weekend too so I could never confront him, although I did write to him. He never apologized; in fact, he asked for money to pay for his schooling. I never told on him because I knew he thought I was rolling in money. But I did notify him that as a student, I was pretty penniless and had nothing to give him in addition to what he took. It left a bad taste in my mouth for awhile. (While there, I was regularly asked for money, even by people driving nicer cars than I had ever owned)
I know that feeling, the-bad-taste-in-the-mouth one. I hate it.
Oh goodness. Another book in the making… Or at least we made a whole blog out of it. The complexities of mamas/muchachas never end.
I really, really, really want you to write a post on the subject. HINT HINT.
Did they give you any training at orientation on ideas of how to handle this situation? Is there something else cultural going on? Like if she didn't ask, she is not doing the expected ask, and cheating her family? (I got that dealing with an intern from another country one time.) Yes, complicated and thanks for opening this window. Do you also worry about people there reading your posts (via a translation device if they don't know English) or is that that just not much of a technical possibility?
1. No, not directly. It's so dependent on cultural context. And we knew from the very beginning that we could/would have house help if we wanted—three days a week and roughly X amount of money.
2. I've heard from others that her asking for things isn't done. Other people, similar economical status, are upset when they hear about this sort of thing. I guess people have their quirks no matter what country you're in?
3. No, but maybe I should be? (eek)
the domestic fringe
I don't really know what to say. This problem of "help" in a foreign country is way too far outside my realm of daily thinking. (translation: it's still early and I don't use my brain in the morning.)
It intrigues me though, mostly because I've always dreamed of having someone else scrub my floors and partly because life is so different in other places. We (I) tend to translate everything I know based upon my small American view of life.
The clean floors are very, very nice. (But you know what? I miss my central vac.)
the domestic fringe
My husband is always trying to talk me into central vac and I never really thought it was worth all the fuss, but you're making me reconsider.
And it's the opposite here in the states. Most home owners, or families, cannot afford to hire a house cleaner. We do it all ourselves. Like me. I have 6 kids, but can't afford to hire help. I get up extra early, start the wash, go out and water and plant the garden, check animal water, head back in and start the housework, meal prep, and somehow, in the day get time to work at home as I try to.