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Where. Do I. Begin.

This story has been brewing for some time. It all begins with one particularly brutal classist society: Mexico. Then you have a safe neighborhood, a nice apartment, and a reasonably upper middle class young couple. And when you are reasonably upper middle class, you have an unspoken duty to society. It is this: you hire people to do things for you that you can do yourself.

To me, and to many Americans I would imagine, this feels very uncomfortable. Not necessarily wrong because you’re paying someone to work, but because this arrangement has all kinds of unspoken power differences inferred, rather demanded, by the rules of the game of classism.

First, it is very racially obvious who is the “patron” and who is the worker. Sorry, but the shorter and more brown you are, the more your life is “destined” to clean someone’s house, or street, or park, etc. Of course I don’t believe this, it is a long and unbalanced history that has shaped society in this way, but I am yet to find an exception to this rule in the limited scope of my experience here in Mexico. I would love to hear somebody refute this- but I will say it is the rule rather than the exception, so much like the rest of the world, yet blatantly, painfully obvious.

That’s pretty bad, but what makes it even worse in my eyes is that there seems to be an expectation that people of the “lower class” identify themselves when mingling among the middle class. Small women walking beautiful dogs through our neighborhood still wear their work aprons, as if the owner is sending a clear message: “This is my cleaning lady walking my dogs. Those nice dogs wouldn’t belong to her!” I know that this is a cultural perception on my part: perhaps they wear the aprons because it is comfortable and practical if you’re going to be cleaning. But EVERYONE who is in this position wear them, and to me it is an accepted identity to proclaim to the world: this is my position in life. This is what is expected of me.  I’m kind of tempted to buy one of these aprons and start going around town, walking my dog, going to the grocery store, etc, just like they do. You’ll never see a middle class person doing this, even if they ARE comfortable and practical. I guarantee you that it would get a lot of open-mouthed stares!

I saw this “keeping someone in their position” very clearly within the first month living in Mexico. A family acquaintance invited us to a fancy welcome dinner in a very nice restaurant in a very nice part of town. The dinner party consisted of the two of us, three other adults, and a 2 year old. And a nanny, wearing a nanny uniform. And although we were sitting in an enormous, empty restaurant, at a huge table accomodating more people than we were, the nanny had to sit in a chair outside of our dinner circle. And wait for us to eat. Next to us. Silent. And the 2 year old sat at our table. That, in my opinion, is not how you treat another human being, whether you are paying them or not. I think the people we were eating with, at heart, did not mean anything malicious. It was perfectly part of the societal norm. It’s just that I find the norm kind of disgusting.

The power imbalance creeps into the consciousness of everyone living in this society: I observe many embrace it, many ignore it, and have yet to hear many people talk about it. Out loud. Maybe they don’t notice it anymore. All I can say is that the voices on the upper middle class side of the divide are largely silent. I’d like to know what the other side of the divide has to say when we’re not around.

So, it was within this context of confusion mixed with quiet outrage the first few weeks in Mexico that I got a knock on my door. It was Imelda, the wife of the portero (rough translation- do-everything-man for the apartment building), who lives in a cubby-sized apartment on the ground level,  who asked me if she could clean our apartment. Horrified by the idea that I have no excuse not to clean for ourselves, I politely declined. She waited another day before knocking again. And asking again. And again, being politely refused. This cycle repeated about 4 times before I finally gave in. I do believe, despite all that I’ve said before, and how uncomfortable it makes me, that this is the right thing to do. You should employ people to help you if you have the means, because you are a source of income. Even if you don’t need them. Money on the table is better than a moral highground. And even if you can’t change their social circumstances, or the fact that you are tall and white and they are short and brown, by damned you have an opportunity to pay them a fair wage and try to treat them like an equal in the couple of hours you spend together. That’s it, that’s the best I got.

So, ok Imelda, come on in. Once a week. Name your price. Stop calling me Señora. I’m Megan. No, I will not sit here and tell you every last thing that you have to do. No, you do not need to clean my floor with a toothbrush, get up please. No, I’m not buying you a ladder, I think I can handle the tops of the cabinets, being that I’m 5’8 and you’re 4’8…ok? I got that one covered. Where do we go from here?

Little did I know what lay in store from that day on…

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