CHICUREO, Chile -- Felicita Pinto arrived early at the gates of the luxurious community where she labors as a maid, but the minibus to her employer's home was late. So she decided to walk six blocks to work, on streets lined with broad lawns and imposing homes.
Security guards quickly chased her down and forced the 57-year-old widow back to the gate. Pinto's employer protested, as he had before, against the community bylaws that forbid servants to move at will.
Pinto's simple stroll helped set off national soul-searching over discrimination and mistreatment of domestic workers across Chile, where leaders ache to be accepted as representing an enlightened, developed nation. Local news media heard of the case and outrage followed when another homeowner in the El Algarrobal II development sought to justify the restrictions.
"Can you imagine what it would be like here if all the maids were walking outside, all the workers walking in the street and their children on bicycles?" neighbor Ines Perez told a local television channel.
Her comments prompted such a wave of insults and threats that Perez was forced to close her Facebook page.
Discrimination toward domestic workers is among the more entrenched social ills in Latin America and beyond. In luxury complexes just south of Peru's capital, maids can't swim in the ocean until their employers have left the water. In Mexico City, some luxury restaurants prohibit maids from sitting down to eat and some high-rises force workers to take the service elevators.
In today's Chile, however, human rights activists are challenging low pay, long hours and discrimination that afflict domestic workers. And so Pinto's decision to skip the bus has lit debate on social networks and has filled newspaper pages and radio and TV broadcasts with commentary. Thousands signed on to an Internet campaign against the subdivision's protocols, and about 20 people demonstrated in front of the gates on Saturday, some dressed as zombies in maid uniforms.
Pinto said the rules are humiliating.
"I feel just as if was a prisoner, a delinquent, a thief," Pinto told the Associated Press, describing several encounters with the guards.
Other workers are complaining as well.
Shortly before Pinto's rebellion became public, a nanny who works nearby in the Brisas de Chicureo Golf Club wasn't allowed to enter a pool with the 3-year-old girl she watches because she wasn't wearing the traditional maid's apron that all domestic workers are required to wear on the property. Chile's domestic workers union sued, and an appellate court on Jan. 5 granted an injunction suspending the uniform rule.
Edith Alonso, a maid in a nearby gated community, was among those protesting Saturday. She said she has got a good position now, but with a previous employer, "I suffered hunger, they counted every piece of fruit and bread, they made special food for themselves and forgot about the maid."
The administration of El Algarrobal II did not respond to requests from the AP for comment, but in an email to Pinto's employer, British shipping executive Bruce Taylor, it argued that maids, nannies, waiters, gardeners, construction workers and pool cleaners must ride the minibus to keep them from "committing robberies or providing information relevant to the privacy of other neighbors on their way to the house where they say they work."
There are more than 250 luxury homes in the complex, one of many gated communities in Chicureo, which 15 years ago was a bucolic rural town just north of the capital. Now, Chicureo has expensive private schools, a private health clinic and a walled-off toll highway that links it to other wealthy suburbs without exits to surrounding poor- and middle-class neighborhoods.
It's not easy to reach the town using public transportation, so the gated communities provide a refuge of sorts from the turmoil, traffic and crime that Chileans in other parts of the sprawling capital suffer. Still, as many as 700 workers a day enter El Algarrobal II. And until this month, each paid the equivalent of 60 cents each way for the minibus ride.
News about Pinto's complaints prompted the administration to suspend the fees.
Pinto's latest act of civil disobedience in December wasn't her first. Taylor said that several months earlier, she and his gardener, Claudio Marquez, refused to wait for the minibus and began to walk, "but the guards shoved her into a security vehicle, and kicked Claudio, who decided to quit" rather than submit, Taylor told the AP. Before that, still another gardener had been beaten by the guards and forced into a vehicle, he said in court papers.
Taylor has sued to overturn the bylaw against letting servants walk in the community, but judges have turned him down, saying the administrators have not acted illegally or arbitrarily, and that the rules were supported by a majority of the residents.
"The justice system didn't want to rule on the heart of the matter, the discrimination, and so other home owners here feel like they can do whatever they want," Taylor said.
And so Taylor has committed his own act of civil disobedience: He went to a notary and ceded part of his property to his maid – it's a lovely corner surrounded with fruit trees where he's building a lake for swans – to support his argument that Pinto should be allowed to walk freely in the streets.
While Taylor has lost in court, guards in recent weeks have allowed Pinto to walk to work, though others remain forbidden and she fears her exception will disappear once attention dies down.
The Chilean labor rights group Justa Causa – "Just Cause" – has now joined Pinto's cause. The group's lawyer, Nicolas Pavez, said Saturday that its last appeal has been turned down in the courts. Now it plans to accuse Chile before the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights of violating anti-discrimination treaties.
Meanwhile, other maids are coming forward, and Justa Causa is preparing lawsuits for them as well, Pavez said.
Marta Lagos, who directs the international Latinobarometro survey, said "Chile is an extremely tolerant country in terms of diversity. But having solidarity with your equals is one thing, and another is tolerance toward people who are different. This country is segmented, segregated: there are workers, the poor, and the rich, and each one of these segments is seen as bad by the other."