Magda usually visits me every two months, even though we don’t live very far away from each other. She lives in Syracuse; myself in a rural town. When we get together, we’re like sisters. We talk about the servants. Magda doesn’t like to use the word “maid” when she talks about her cleaning girls.
“They’re not maids”- Magda said- They’re are called “cleaning girls.” They charge by the hour. Once they finish their duties, they “jump” to the next house.
“Like grasshoppers!” I laughed.
Magda didn’t laugh.
Almost all of Latin America has passed through her home.
I’ve learned from her what she’s learned from them: their customs, their cuisine, different idioms. For example in Puerto Rico “chavos” means money and in Argentina they say “plata”; swimming pool is “pileta.” “Me tiene pelotas” , means “that guy drives me crazy.” “Es un boludo,” means “he’s stupid.” In Mexico “tiene guevos” means he’s very brave.
Her first cleaning girl was from Chihuahua. Her name was Juana. She crossed the border illegally, and after a weeks-long odyssey in the desert, (it’s easy to say) she wound up at the home a friend of her mother’s. For weeks, Juana worked as a maid by day and slept in the friend’s closet, alongside the dog. Eventually, she was reunited with her mother. She was only sixteen years old when she arrived in Syracuse.
But those weren’t the only debts Juana had to pay. She also had to pay her “coyote.” Her mother had already arranged a cleaning job with Magda. Because she spoke no English, her mother didn’t want her to clean for “gringos.”
“Juana was one of my best girls,” Magda said the first time we saw each other. “She always cleaned up quite well; she never complained when I asked her to sweep the garage, clean the windows or arrange the closets. The Latinas are great workers—not like the gringas, who won’t do anything if you forget to leave it off the to-do list.
“Why?” I interrupted.
”Because their response is always: “If you want me to clean something else, it will cost you.”
“They’re not dummies,” I said. Magda didn’t like that answer. Tell me more about Juana, I said, hoping she would forget the remark.
“Eventually, Juana became comfortable in Syracuse, and she started dating a Puerto Rican. As soon as she saved enough money, she bought herself a car. She was crazy about the mall, and on weekends, not even the INS could get her out of there.
“One day, I was reading the newspaper and Juana’s boyfriend’s name appeared. I gasped,” Magda said. She recalled the headline: “Gang fight leaves one dead; Jorge Martinez wanted on suspicion of homicide.”
“Can you believe it?” Magda said, still shaken.
“What did you do?” I said.
“I called her right away and asked her where she was during the shooting,” she said. She saw the whole thing. She said Jorge was just defending himself. He had already fled the city. I calmed her down and told her—almost threatened her—not to tell anybody what happened. Not even her mother.
“When I hung up the phone, Queta, I was shaking. The incident left me worried about my employee, but my curiosity won me over. I asked where she hid during the shooting, thinking the police would be looking for her.”
“Calm down, Enriqueta! Don’t sound so desperate. She hid in a closet—and she didn’t come out until the police disappeared.”
“What a nightmare! She must have been terrified,” I said, scandalized.
Magda continued with the story.
“Juana never heard from Jorge again and, luckily, no one else found out about what happened. I concluded that Juana needed a medicine-man’s cleansing—it seemed that she had a curse. I realized this because her next boyfriend was a rotten gringo. First, he got her pregnant. After the baby was born, the bastard reported her to the INS so he could keep the baby for himself. Eventually, she returned to our country and I had to look for another girl.”
Magda is well off and has many friends with connections. Getting another cleaning girl wasn’t a problem. The next one was Claudia, a hard worker from Montevideo. Magda continued her story.
“Claudia came to the States with her husband, their three kids and a temporary visa. They arrived on September 11, the day that the country lost the Twin Towers. At first, everything was going well. Her husband found a job as a waiter in the city. One day, when he was driving in the afternoon, he took a wrong turn down a one-way street. A police officer saw him and pulled him over. When he noticed his foreign accent and his lack of drivers license, the officer reported him to the INS. He spent three months in jail while he tried to clarify his immigration status. When it became clear that he was illegal, he was sent back to Uruguay. Claudia decided to stay with her kids. Her kids had no problem getting into school, and she found a job in an Arab restaurant. Do you realize, Enriqueta, how brave some Latinas are?”
“It’s not easy for a mother to support her kids without her husband,” I told her. “Even with her a husband, the frustrations of living with so many vulnerabilities, so many uncertainties every day, and who knows what other problems…”
“I agree, Queta. Keep in mind that the immigration laws change according to the convenience of the country. When the government needs cheap labor, the doors open with a fake smile. The next minute, the doors are closed. Not only that; when the economy is bad, it’s the immigrants that get the blame. For lots of people—who don’t understand the bigger issues, the immigrants are the lazy ones, or the ones living on welfare. It’s amazing they don’t blame us for September 11th.”
Without pausing, Magda continued the story.
“With time, Claudia started a relationship with a guy from here. Some months later, she lost her job at the Arab restaurant after an anti-immigrant sweep that targeted illegal immigrants and those who hired them. The INS invaded factories, offices, malls, stores…”
“Don’t you think it seems like a hunt?” I asked, puzzled.
“It really was. The INS raided buses, trains, supermarkets–any place that Hispanics went was paid a visit. The Arab restaurant fired Claudia, just to avoid any problems. At the time, everyone was suspicious of Arabs and thought they were terrorists anyway. They wanted to keep her, but the risks were too great.”
Magda remembered Claudia as one of her favorites–sweet and as hard working as they come. They say that a woman who knows how to work shows it with a personal zeal, as if working brought her peace.
Magda was someone who helped her workers keep their identity and encouraged them to overcome their language barrier. For gringo employers, on the other hand, it’s a business relationship. They keep their distance.
Since most Latinas like to talk, Magda quickly learned Claudia’s story.
In Uruguay, Claudia lived with her mother in law. During this time, she made Claudia’s life intolerable. She was the house maid, she humiliated her, she kicked her out of the house when Claudia’s husband wasn’t around. It was hell living there. This was the reason she decided to come to the States.
“Why did she put up with all that?”
“She didn’t have anywhere else to live”, Magda replied. “She was an orphan. She asked her boyfriend to try to make a life in the States. If they could find work, they would stay.
“Of course, they had no intention of returning to Montevideo. They had nothing there—here, at least they had jobs.”
Magda continued the story:
“She used to clean the house twice a week. I would pick her up at bus stop. There was no way she could get a drivers license, since she was illegal. It was an annoying routine, but I wanted a clean house—and I wanted to help her. Another annoyance was that I had to pay her in cash. You can’t open a bank account without a social security number or drivers license.
“Claudia stayed with the guy. Eventually, she got pregnant. But she was happy, and she got the idea that the baby would give her a way to legalize her status, especially if she married the gringo. But the gringo had other ideas. He wanted nothing to do with marriage, even though he agreed to keep and support their baby.
“Things got worse for Claudia. Some of her friends were caught by the INS. She grew afraid to get on the bus. I did everything I could for her—I gave her contact information for organizations that helped illegals, for other groups that helped the poor, phone numbers for legal counseling.
“Finally, Claudia stopped coming,” Magda said. She said that she looked for her in the list of deported people. She wondered if she had been kidnapped, and she wanted to go to the police. She started to think she had been sent back to Uruguay, under another name.
Once more, Magda had to go back to her friends for another cleaning girl. The next one was Marisol, a nice Cuban girl. From her, she learned how to cook Caribbean dishes with funny names like “moros y cristianos,” and “ropa vieja.” These dishes sounded less like food and more like movie titles.
“Marisol wasn’t a typical Cuban,” Magda said brightly. “When I met her, she had been here for three years already. Her only daughter was still in Cuba, and she was trying to find a way to bring her to the States. Since she was from Cuba, Marisol wasn’t an illegal—she was an exile. She received help from the government so she could get on her feet. Before leaving Cuba, Marisol had worked for a Russian airline. Like the other girls, she was always willing to work hard, and she never complained.
“Marisol’s daughter was twenty, and Fidel’s government refused to let her leave. Her husband also couldn’t leave, but he was a “balsero”—he escaped by boat—and he left their daughter behind. When Marisol and he were reunited, she was furious with him—and wound up leaving him. In any case, he was a drinker and lazy.
“When I met her”, Magda said, “she was sharing an apartment with a Cuban guy, just to share basic expenses. It was such a relief that she owned her own car and that I could pay her with a check. Several months later, she was able to bring her daughter.
“Good things don’t last forever,” Magda said. After her daughter arrived, Marisol began to miss work or arrived late. I thought that she was having a hard time at home, but I carefully let her know that I wasn’t happy with her work. I even asked her if she didn’t like this job. But she always had an excuse, and unfortunately there were more incidents.
“Once I went on a trip by myself for a few days and she didn’t show up for two days. My husband let me know. When I confronted her about it, she acted like it wasn’t important.
“Another day when my husband was working on the computer, she entered his study to clean up and showed him her breast, telling him that it might have a cyst. My husband was taken aback, but assumed she was just asking for medical advice and told her to see her primary-care doctor. Marisol went along with it. Then I entered the room and pointed out that my husband had given her good advice: ‘Marisol,’ I said, ‘my husband says that you should see your own doctor. In this country, that’s the only person who can give you medical advice.’
“When she realized that I witnessed the whole incident \her face turned red and she was speechless. You know how this works, Queta. She responded that in Cuba, she could approach any doctor and get free advice. I told her that in Mexico it’s pretty much the same, but we are not in Cuba or Mexico and the customs here are different.
“After this incident, I knew I had to fire her.
“For the tenth time, I was without a cleaning girl and had to call on my friends. This time, they found a Dominican girl named Yeserlin. Her mother had married a Puerto Rican and moved there with her kids. With time, Yeserlin moved in with a Puerto Rican man and had three kids. Like many Puerto Ricans, she came here looking for opportunities. It doesn’t matter where you’re from—if you don’t know the language, things can go wrong.
“Yeserlin was a Caribbean beauty: small waist, beautiful round hips, cinnamon skin and curly long hair. She ran off with her boyfriend.
“With stories like these, one needs to hear the details, Queta,” Magda said mischievously.
She asked Yeserlin about the kidnapping: “What inspired your boyfriend to do something so crazy?” Magda asked her a few days after her arrival.
Some answers you never see coming.
“I was the one who gave him the idea, doña Magda,” she confessed.
“Are you satisfied with your relationship after thirteen years?” Magda asked, wondering if it was worth it to ask. The answer was a bouquet of doubts.
“For a while I was happy. Now, I think it was a huge mistake. The truth is, he kidnapped my youth—but I’ll give you more details next time since Jovan is waiting outside for me. See you next week!” She left running.
“She left me with a lot of questions,” Magda said. “Of all the girls I’ve hired, Yeserlin was the one with more character, pride and rebelliousness and with more will to succeed at anything she did, despite her lack of education. She tried to convince me to give her a raise, promising me that if I wasn’t satisfied with her work, I could cancel the raise. Actually, she deserved the raise but I didn’t give it to her. You know how things are, Queta.
“She won my trust with her loyalty and efficiency. After a while, she started to tell me about her boyfriend’s unfaithfulness. But this only made her want revenge. She got it with men she met on the Internet.
“One day after she finished cleaning up, I asked her: ‘Yeserlin, are you still in love with your boyfriend?’
‘Yes, señora Magda, but I don’t have pleasure with him anymore.’
‘Does he know how you feel about this?’
‘No, you know how Latin men are. I’m sure he’ll be humiliated and will throw it back in my face and accuse me of having a lover.’
Her situation worried me so much that I felt I had to intervene:
“Yeserlin, if you want to stay with him, I think you should tell him how you feel, and maybe even find professional help. If he agrees, I can tell you where to look.”
“Why don’t you tell me right now?” she said.
“At that moment, Jovan arrived and we left it for another day, like soap opera episodies.
“After a few weeks, they both agreed they needed professional help and went to a counselor.
“One day during lunch, Yeserlin gave me some sad news:
“Doña Magda, Jovan doesn’t like to talk about our relationship problems and he doesn’t want to go to the therapist. Perhaps it’s all because I want to get married and he doesn’t. He insists that we’re fine the way we are. I think if we don’t get married we’ll lose the money we invested in Santo Domingo. Since we arrived here we’ve been sending money to build a house there, but I think that Jovan’s family wants it for themselves. The family thinks that we’re doing fine here.
“I offered her advice about her marital status, food stamps, rent discounts, and other social benefits; and I told her to try to convince Jovan to tie the knot”.
Then she changed the subject to let me know that she met a girl who used to work for me.
It was Claudia. It was hard to believe, but she was cleaning toilets at the mall. There, you make minimum wage and need a Social Security number. I assumed she got a fake one.
According to her, she stopped working for me because she thought it was unfair when the few times I drove her from her home, I asked her to pay for gas.
“Magda,” I interrupted her, “don’t you think it’s wrong charge her for the gas? She is cleaning your home, why charge her for that?”
“Queta, this is what you do in this country; I didn’t make the rules…”
“You take advantage of people?”
For a second I thought our friendship was going to end there, but it didn’t. I decided to avoid getting into discussions over customs.
“Okay, go on.”
“Yiserlin made sure that Claudia understood these customs you don’t approve of; she was greatful to know this.”
After our conversation, Magda visited me less often at home. Eventually, she stopped coming altogether. It didn’t surprise me, and I don’t miss her.
Today, I still think about the dreams that are left on the opposite side of the desert.
I can hear my neighbor’s radio very loud. It’s the Mexican group “Los Tigres del Norte.” “America was born free and divided by man. They carved a border that I must jump over….