My grandmother made a living washing and ironing for others. When she died, in her mid-eighties, she only knew how to write the three letters of her name: Ana. For her whole life, she worked as a maid for a family, even after 1959 when official propaganda boasted of having emancipated all servants. Instead, many women like her continued to work in domestic service but without any legal security. For my sister and me, Ana spent part of her days in "the house on Ayestarán Street," and we never said out loud that she was paid to clean the floors, wash the dishes and prepare the food there. I never saw her complain, nor did I hear of her being mistreated.
A couple of days ago I heard a conversation that contrasted with the story of my grandmother. A plump lady dressed in expensive clothes was telling her friend -- between glasses of white wine -- how she behaved with her young domestic. I transcribe here -- without adding even a word -- a dialog that left me feeling a mixture of revulsion and sadness:
- From what you tell me, you're lucky.
- Yes, I really can't complain. Suzy started with us when she was 17 and she just turned 21.
- Now we'll see if she gets pregnant and you have to throw her out.
- No, she's very clear on that. I told her that if she gets pregnant she'll lose her job.
- Yes, but you know, "the fox always returns to its den." So maybe she'll run after some man from the village where she was born.
- No way! She won't even go to that "den" on vacation. Imagine you didn't have any electricity, the floor of her parents' house is dirt, and the latrine is shared by four families. It's like the heavens opened up for her since she's been with us. All she has to do is what I tell her, that's all I ask.
- That's how they start, but later they start thinking things and ask for more.
- So far we're doing fine. She has Sunday afternoons off to do what she wants, but she has to come home by midnight. Most of the time she doesn't even go out because she doesn't know anyone in Havana. It's better that way, because I don't like the bad influences.
- Yes, it's really bad out there. These country girls do better not to even go out because if they do they learn a few things.
- They learn more than a few things. Because of that I even monitor her phone calls. I don't want her to learn what she doesn't need to know.
- And that boyfriend you told me she had?
- No, that didn't continue. We made it clear that we didn't want men visiting our house. And she, really, has no time to be falling in love, my children take a lot of time. Taking them to the park, their homework after school, they like to paint before going to bed, she has to read them a story, they don't like to watch movies alone. Poor thing, when it's time to fall into bed she must be dead on her feet.
- Woooow... you're sitting in the catbird seat. I haven't had any luck. Every time I hire one, they don't last even a month.
- If you like I can introduce you to Susy's younger sister, she seems very serious.
- How old is she?
- Fifteen, so you can train her like you want.
- Yes, give her my phone number and have her call me. Oh, and make it clear, I'll buy everything: clothes, shoes. But if she leaves one day, she's not taking even a pin from my house. Make that clear! Because they get a big head and it's hard as hell to deflate it!
The two women continue talking as the wine bottle passes the half-way mark. I overhear a rant about her husband's more than 60 pairs of shoes. They laugh and I feel my stomach knotting up in a familiar way, with the accumulated anger abusers provoke in me. I go outside for a little air and see the "matron's" car. It has green Army-issue license plates that stands out against the shiny metallic gray body. It's the new aristocracy class, the olive-green royalty, lacking scruples and modesty. I spit on the windshield, for Susy, for Ana, for me.
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