Last Sunday we watched the movie “The Second Mother” (original title “Que horas ela volta?”, directed by Anna Muylaert) and we were surprised by the attention the movie got outside of Brazil. I live here for more than four years now, and I guess, I must have gotten used to this kind of reality.
There really is not much that shocks me now when talking about the extreme differences we face every day in Brazilian society. But, when I was new in town, I wondered about these points:
- Everybody seemed to have a cleaner at home for at least once a week. When I started living in São Paulo, cleaners only charged R$ 70 per day. By then, that was about 30 Euro per day. (The Brazilian Real R$ was in a much better position than today). That has changed over the years. Less people have a cleaner now. There are basically two reasons: 1. services got more expensive (our cleaner charges R$ 150 a day) and 2. people have less job security. Some have even lost their jobs and live from their savings. It is also very common for the middle middle, upper middle class (people with education and relatively well-paid jobs), to have bought their own apartment and owe one car per adult. That looks good at first but these things are usually paid over years and cause many people to stay inflexible, when it comes to career decisions.
- I also saw that in some wealthier places, people have three or more people contracted in their houses and apartments. One would be a cleaner, another the cook, another maybe the nanny or a housekeeper, some others might even have a driver, a woman that only irons clothes and so on. When I observed these things in the local society, they really looked very archaic to me, because there was actually not that much need for all those employees. As Europeans being born in the second half of the last century, we have learned to do things by ourselves, be it cleaning, washing, raising kids, painting walls or any other tasks. Services in Europe got expensive, so only the elderly, companies and people who make good money, can keep staff in the house. The Brazilian families contracting all the staff were often of the same size or even smaller (mommy, daddy, one or two kids). But what I actually wanted to mention is, that sometimes there were so many people working in the household, that the owner’s kids wouldn’t even know all their names. And the worst in my eyes, it didn’t even bother them not knowing the names of the staff.
- Another thing I was wondering about, is the extreme obedience of the staff. I think that is something the movie shows pretty well. People who have worked in other’s houses ever since they were young, have learned some strange rules, like when they say in the movie: “This is our ice-cream and that one is theirs”. In the movie one or two women live permanently with their employers. They have places where they are allowed to sit down and where they shouldn’t even try. Of course, having someone working at your place is a difficult thing for the employer, too. You need to choose well and learn to trust that person. But there are just some absurd rules. Our second last cleaner did not want to eat at my table. I told her over and over again: “Please, sit down in the living room while you eat. It really doesn’t bother me.” But you can’t correct something like that easily.
- Living at your employer’s house is another topic. It is far less common nowadays because of the economic situation. But it still happens and many houses or apartments in Sao Paulo have a smaller room, called ” quarto da empregada” (the employee’s room). When services in Sao Paulo got too expensive, some families “imported” their nanny (usually it is the nanny) from the north-east, a much poorer region of the country, and they pay her less than average and don’t really care much about her free time or future education. After all, they still believe that they are doing a good thing, because that 16-year- old wouldn’t have earned that much, if she had stayed, where she was.
- Over controlling people, who are working for you, is another issue. There are all those “bad nanny” videos in the news, where the nanny (which is actually not a nanny but carries the title of “babá”, a name that dates back to times of slavery) hits the child. But do people ask themselves, why this is happening? How did that nanny grow up? Where did she acquire her didactic skills? Are we maybe paying too few? Does she have enough time for herself and her own life? Does she see her own family and friends on a regular basis? Does she have any objectives, maybe evening school, in order to do something else later on? The employing family panics and puts those cameras everywhere. Our cleaner told me that in a very well known local family, they even had installed cameras in the employees’ toilets and the women working there only had found out about that occasionally. That is sick! I have no other words for now.
As I said, while time passes, it is less common for Brazilians to have people working at their homes, but those who still have someone at their home, often have “displaced” ideas about the whole thing. Just like in the movie, the money the house staff makes, helps their next generation to have more chances and choices in life, but still, changes in this society don’t happen that fast, since early pregnancies are still widely spread among the poorer people. All that can be traced back to Brazil’s complicated colonization history and it will take some generations to get the “ideas of differences among them” out of their heads.