Thursday, December 15, 2011

Domestic work, child labor: gender and race in a small town

Every morning when I walk out of my house in Chinique, I turn the corner and walk past the houses of some of the wealthier Ladino families that live in my town. Invariably, there is at least one young woman, in some cases a girl, sweeping the street in front of the houses. One of the girls looks quite young -- maybe 10 or 11 years old at most. She keeps her eyes focused on her work, dutifully passing a broom with plastic bristles over the rough surface of the street, which is paved with octagonal paving-stones. We are talking about the early morning hours here, sometimes between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m. Need I mention that the women and girls are all Maya -- distinguishable by their cortes and delantares (traditional skirts and aprons). This morning on the next block, in front of the post office, I saw two young girls. One, dressed in traje típico, was sweeping the street in front of the house of the mayor-elect.  The other, dressed in pink pajamas bottoms and a sweatshirt, was standing on the curb, watching.  They were about the same age, and not dissimilar in looks. That is, their skin tone, hair color and so forth were about the same. So ethnic//racial identity, as many have noted, is not based on phenotype, or not based solely on phenotype. The working girl was the servant; the non-working girl was one of the children in the household, standing around watching someone in her age cohort working, and this before 7 a.m.  I would imagine that most of the young girls are live-in servants, and perhaps older women who are domestic workers would live at home, if they are married and have children of their own. Domestic work is one of the few sources of paid employment for women (and probably barely paid at that). But there are few positions available -- it is a small town. I know this because a friend had a financial crisis recently and his wife, who has not previously worked outside helping with the family business (a small store) decided she was going to look for work. With a third-grade education, and two small children, domestic work was about the only thing for which she could qualify.  But she didn't find anything.

Last month, during the celebration of the Día de Todos los Santos, when I went to the town cemetery, late in the afternoon of November 1, I saw a large, prosperous family, with a young Maya girl who was taking care of the family's children. She looked to be only very slightly older than the children for whom she was caring, and to an outside observer, she seemed happy. She was hugging the children and playing with them, but it was clear that she was there as a servant and not a member of the family. This was the only family I saw that brought a servant with them to the cemetery.

Children work at many other things. A few days ago as I was walking up the street towards the market plaza, I passed two young boys standing near a pile of firewood. One of them, the older of the two (possibly 8 or 9 years old) asked me if I needed some firewood. I said no, mostly because I didn't have any money on me, but I felt badly. These boys had undoubtedly come from a rural area at 7 in the morning carrying firewood into town, and looking for purchasers. This afternoon as I walked through the busy market place of Chichicastenango (the first time I have actually been in the center of Chichicastenango on a market day), and was accosted at least three or four times by young boys wanting to shine my boots. One was very insistent, and followed me for about half a block asking me if I wanted to have my shoes shined. I didn't -- I was on my way to a meeting, the boots are only three days old, and I started to get annoyed (but tried not to express it) after the second time the same boy asked me, since I had said no twice before.

The markets are full of young children tending points of sale, sometimes with a parent or sibling but sometimes, apparently, nearly on their own. Or walking through the markets offering merchandise for sale. The other day I wanted to purchase some vegetables from a girl who looked to be about 9 years old. I only had a large bill, and was concerned that she might not have change (a lot of adult women market vendors frequently are unable to change a 10 or 20-quetzal note). But she pulled a large wad of bills from her apron pocket and peeled off the change. At the main grocery store, the Despensa Familiar, there are always a gaggle of young boys, between 5 and 10 years old, offering plastic bags for sale. Sometimes they are quite insistent. The last time I was there one boy asked me at least three times if I wanted bags. I didn't; I bring a woven basket as I am trying to reduce the amount of plastic I use. And again, I started to get a little annoyed the third time he asked me if I wanted bags. But again, one feels a bit harsh being so insistently negative. He really needs to sell those bags; that is why he is being insistent. He is not there to play. It is not a matter of indifference to him whether he sells or not. I haven't figured out an adequate or ethical response. I am not about to buy things I don't need, especially not those that damage the environment, like plastic bags, or are unhealthy (like sweets). I don't think just handing out quetzales is a solution to the problem of poverty (even if I had enough to go around). So, I find myself in these slightly uneasy situations...



  1. Perhaps wealthy families looking to hire "señoritas" prefer hiring young, single women from the countryside because they figure they will be more submissive and willing to work long hours, and won't have to take off work to care for their own pesky kids.

    It's worth noting that "maid" also used to mean a young, unmarried woman in English. And when you see a "Se busca señorita" sign, it has the same sense as "maid" does in English.

    I think it's perfectly ethical to not buy things from children, especially when you don't need something.

    I have a feeling that their insistence may be partly because you're sending mixed signals which might be confusing them. Are you making direct eye contact? Direct eye contact is uncommon in Guate, especially in rural communities. I've noticed that my husband, who is ladino and from the Antigua area, rarely looks at his father in the eyes out of respect for him. So if you look vendors in the eyes (which Americans consider a sign of respect), you may be indicating way more interest than you mean to.

    Next time you go to the Dispensa, watch the body language of the other ladies when they say "No" and see what they do. I'm guessing they probably waggle their finger and give a quick glance at the boys faces, maybe even with a frown.

  2. Thanks, Sonia, for taking the time to comment and sharing your insights. The kids at the Despensa are not more insistent with me than they are with other shoppers (I've stood back and observed) - which might say something about the level of poverty here in Quiché. Regarding eye contact: in my rural community, children and adults I only know by sight whom I see on my daily walks make direct eye contact with me as we greet each other.

  3. Your ethical dilemma will never go away as long as you are turning your back on other human beings, especially children. That's the bottom line, I think. That we always tend to turn our backs to others due to different reasons is ok but it will never be ethical, particularly looking a these children's eyes. Eyes speak...