Race, class and domestic work in Latin America

The author on how she developed consciousness about the centrality of domestic work in her native Colombia and further afield

This image was originally published as the centerfold of the magazine, 'Revista Hola' in December 2011, sparking a mild and short debate about race and class in Colombia. 

Several months ago I was at a gathering with some friends I had not seen for a long time, when one of them asked me about my research.  I explained to them that I wanted to study the situation of women who work in domestic service in Latin America. Two of them reacted with astonishment: “You want to study domestic workers? Disgusting!” I was shocked and did not respond the way I should have. Once I recovered, I interpreted my friends’ disgusted reaction in two ways: The first is that they were referring to me and to my interests, which have become increasingly different from theirs. This first interpretation, in addition to being offensive, seems unlikely. The second is that they felt disgusted by the idea of doing research on the situation of these women. The second, is the most likely interpretation.

I confess that the “class monster” constantly haunts my thoughts. It is not easy to completely eliminate it after living for more than twenty-five years in such an unequal country as Colombia. Yet, I have proudly come to the realization, that I could have been a domestic worker in my country. That having grown up in an economically privileged home happened by chance. That I could have been born a few miles to the left or right, under completely different circumstances. I do not want to diminish the achievements of those around me, but when I hear them declare, “I have worked for everything I have,” I breathe deeply and try to remind them that having attended a private and mostly bilingual school, have a steady job where they receive a salary to buy a car and travel around the world, and having been born into a family with social contacts and money, are privileges few people have been afforded.

When my friends consider that research focused on the situation of domestic workers is disgusting, I ask myself whether they remember that it was these women who allowed their parents to work, because their parents had trustworthy caregivers at home whom they could trust to take care of them and clean the house. Whether they remember that these women had to wake up early every day to clean their employers’ houses, often leaving their own kids and home behind. Whether they ever had to clean a toilet or keep their house clean and if they are able to acknowledge the time and effort this work consumes. Whether they understand that most of the domestic workers are women just like they are, and that we are all human. As human beings, I believe we are equal. Life has taught me that the privilege I grew up with makes me more responsible, because perhaps I have more power than other people to try to improve society.

The activism that runs through my veins has forced me think about how I can help transform a social sector deeply grounded in ideas that can be traced back to the colonial era, which suggest people are less human because of their sex, the color of their skin, or the amount of money they have. When I asked people that share my concerns, many of them told me that I should question why I still have these girls as friends. That actually changing the ideas in their heads was very difficult because we were raised thinking that some people were inferior. That broader-minded people should be my target. I do not agree with this. Ten years ago when I left my hometown to study in Bogotá, the capital, I was close-minded. I believed that I alone was responsible for all my achievements, feminism seemed a movement of crazy women who hated men, I did not believe in same-sex marriage or adoption by same-sex parents, and I completely misunderstood women’s decisions to have an abortion. But, ten years ago I started meeting people that convinced me with arguments, and if they were able to open my mind, why can’t I plant doubt in others?

I still question today whether it was fine for me to stay quiet instead of responding to my friends immediately. Maybe I had to process it and write this post. I still have several doubts: why can’t they connect to people like domestic workers who are so important in their lives? How can there be such a degree of dehumanization as to refer to another person with disgust? How can we transform rigid social structures considering that these are educated people still tied to class ideas that can be traced back to colonial times?

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