When we arrived in Ecuador, my mother was warned by the local ladies that the maids would steal everything.
In the 1950s, Ecuador had practically no middle class. Some twenty families owned 80% of the country\’s cultivated acreage. The rest of the population were Indians and mestizos living in squalor. Everybody expected the maids to steal, but the ladies wanted my mother to be prepared.
How do you defend yourself against theft by someone who lives in your house, cleans your bedroom, cooks your food? My mother figured we didn\’t have that much to lose and relaxed her vigilance, so she wasn\’t surprised when, one by one, her lace-edged batiste hankies disappeared. One day, the maid disappeared too. Surprisingly, several months later she came by for a visit. My mother gave her coffee and some cookies. After they had chatted a while my mother said \”Maria, I am sorry that you took my handkerchiefs when you left.\”
\”Your handkerchiefs?\” Maria said. \”I didn\’t take those. I took your towels, senora, but not your handkerchiefs!\”
Our second Ecuadorian maid was another Maria. She was the youngest maid we had ever had–seventeen–and she disliked me. I was twelve, and I can see now that she probably envied me, with my school and my glasses and my violin. I was not allowed to give orders to Maria–or any maid–but if I gave Maria a message from my mother, she would ignore it, which would then get me in trouble. I was relieved when she left.
I loved the third Maria. She was a grown woman, and treated me like the child that I was. Short and squat, she wore her hair pinned up above her ears. The house we rented while she was with us had \”servants\’ quarters\” in the backyard, and Maria asked if she could bring her ten-year-old niece to live there. My mother agreed. When the girl arrived, barefoot and in braids, it was clear that she had never been to school, and my mother thought I should teach her to read. Our lessons were not a success. Like the second Maria, this girl seemed to resent me, despite my good intentions. The lessons didn\’t last.
We soon became aware that the third Maria had a novio, who would visit the little building in the backyard. As time went by, she seemed to be gaining weight, but it was hard to tell, since she was large-boned. Finally one day my mother decided to take the bull by the horns.
\”Maria, is there any possibility that you might be…expecting?\”
\”Oh, yes, senora, I am.\”
\”And when do you think the baby will come?\”
\”Any day now, senora, any day.\”
Horrified, my mother excused Maria from all but the lightest work and hastily collected a layette. Maria went into labor almost immediately after disclosing her pregnancy. My mother told her to get ready, that my father would drive her to the hospital, but Maria demurred. She mopped the floor. She emptied the trash. She walked me (quickly) to pick up some shoes that I was having repaired. And finally she let my father take her to the hospital.
She came back with a baby girl asleep under a thatch of straight black hair. The novio moved into the little house in the backyard, and my parents gave a party when the baby was baptized.
In the weeks that followed, Maria kept her daughter sequestered in her room. The weather was sunny and mild, and my mother suggested that she take the baby outside. Maria demurred, my mother–a firm believer in the benefits of fresh air and sunlight–insisted, and Maria finally took the baby in her bassinet into the backyard. But when my mother looked out the kitchen window, she saw that Maria had tented the bassinet with a shawl, so that not a drop of sunshine could reach her daughter.
It took my mother a while, but she finally got Maria to explain that she was hoping to keep her baby\’s skin as white as possible….
When we came to the U.S., that was the end of The Maids. It took my mother years to get over the shock. \”How am I supposed to give a party,\” she would complain, \”after spending the whole day cooking? I don\’t know how these Americans do it….\”