Friday, December 9, 2011

Friends of HKS: Guest Blogger Series

Lindsey is Toronto native, brought to the beautiful city of Rio of Janeiro by love, at least initially. She has been living there for the past 2 years and blogs about everything that living in a foreign culture can offer.  From language difficulty, to trying to make friends, to 'where will we start our family' she tries to find happiness 
(while complaining as little as possible!)

 So, this weekend, I finally got around to watching this movie called The Help.  If you live anywhere other than Brazil, you're probably pretty familiar with it.  On the other hand, residents of Brazil heard about it by word of mouth because, for some reason, it didn't make it to Brazil.

After watching I think I may know the reason.

Because it IS Brazil!  Present day Brazil, I might add!  And surely, by showing a movie whose main point is to emphasize the crazy ridiculousness of racism in 1960's Southern USA, people will start to scratch their heads and reflect on their own Brazilian culture and think 'Waaaaait a minute....' or 'Hey, isn't that my life?!  That doesn't seem right!'

Or worse, and more likely still, they won't do anything at all.

Brazil has this weird idea that there is no racism here.  It goes way back into the roots, when the Portuguese came to Brazil to colonize, bringing slaves from Africa with them.  Obviously (!) someone wanted to get frisky (hint: it probably wasn't a slave) and the next thing you know, Brazil is a mixed culture of African and Portuguese, and more recently German, Japanese and Italian. 

My point here is that although yes, Brazil is a mix of the above cultures, there is a whoooooooole lot of racism. 

First of all, most people call their housekeepers 'Maids'.  The word for Maid in Portuguese is empregada which actually technically means The Employed.  ('The Help' anyone?)  Second, you don't even have to guess what the background of your 'Empregada' will be before meeting her (always 'her').  She will 100% be of Afro Brazilian heritage.  I would bet money on that.

Without going into a ton of detail, I'll just make it very clear that the poorest of people in Brazil are generally black and are definitely put into categories of lower class citizens.  The Portuguese word for black person is Negro while Caucasians are of course called 'white'.  Plus, I have personally heard on several occasions, citizens of the Upper Class call citizens of the Low Class "pessoas feias" (ugly people).  It's a head shaker.

The whole point of writing this was to explain why I've had such a difficult time accepting this culture of having Houskeepers.  Probably about 90% of Brazilians have a housekeeper.  Hell, the housekeepers probably have housekeepers.  It's just the way of the culture.  But after 2 years of trying to push away from that, I have finally given in.  I've finally thrown in the towel and asked for help (because I really need it!)

But now comes the new challenge of how to appropriately interact with my empregada.  There are certain rules, certain expectations, and they go both ways.  Generally you are expected to cook for your empregada, but ironically I don't think she eats with the employer...?  I feel super uncomfortable with this.
Also, you need to have a list ready for the empregada to do (ie laundry, ironing, cooking/prepping vegetables, cleaning).  These ladies do it all.

Also, how much do I pay her?  More than she asks out of compassion?  The average is between R$60 and R$100 Reais* per day ie. NOTHING.  I'm so new at this! 

The problem is there is a real fine line between the Employer and the Employed - and some people take it really far.  Some people insist that their maid call them senhora (ma'am) at all times.  Some demand very particular care to their delicate clothing items.  Some have a menu ready for their maids to cook up.  I feel guilty just knowing that some people are like that!

Me?  I just want a clean house!  I work a lot and so does my husband and I just want a little help keeping my place tidy.  I'm not honestly sure if I'll ever be comfortable with the idea of someone working in my house, cleaning up my mess.  Argh social conflict.  

Am I alone?  Does anyone else have the same opinion about having someone come to help out in the house?  I have a feeling it's a North-American condition,that we feel a strong responsibility to take care of ourselves, without help from others.  Maybe I'm the one with the problem.  Maybe I need to let go of my predispositions!  

So tomorrow is the big day... Our new empregada will come and I'll be exposed to another element of cultural difference in Brazil (there are so so many...)  What seems like such a simple moment is really testing my Canadian character! 

Wish me luck and stay tuned for the finale..... 

*(equal to about $30-$50 CAD and consider that the cost of living here is MUCH higher)

All the best!


You can read more about Lindsay and her life in Brazil over on her Blog. 


  1. Hey Lindsay,

    Great post! Its an interesting predicament you find yourself in. Sometimes I have these same moral dilemmas. I would also LOVE to have a cleaning lady but aside from the fact we definitely can't afford it, I too might feel weird about it. Which is kinda crazy because I worked as a cleaning lady while in University and College and it was the best and easiest way to make cash.

    Maybe you can change up this whole empregada/employer relationship that exists in Brazil. Offer some perks like payed vacation, better wage, eat together etc etc. Or maybe just offer to sit down and have tea together in between tasks. Obviously, I'm 100% unfamiliar with the way things are done in Brazil but speaking from experience, simple gestures when cleaning for someone make you feel appreciated and respected and I think that might just transcend across all cultures.

    Thanks for the great post and Happy Holidays from the HKS!


  2. So interesting. I'm googling....need to know more. great post.

  3. We've had a cleaning lady for about a year now and I'm totally ashamed to admit it...but, I also hate the idea of her not coming every other week.
    It is a HUGE help to have someone do all the tasks that i despise. A major plus is that all the little arguments that Eric and I used to have over who was the last person to clean the bathroom, wash the floors, etc. are now gone.
    She set her price, we supply the cleaning agents and the dirty house. I think it's quite the intimate relationship. she knows our messes better than anyone, knows how we live and can totally judge us.

  4. Thanks everyone for your nice comments and interest - I will write a follow up because our housekeeper came and I actually thought it was a great experience.

    @Naive Homesteader - I think what you said was spot on "We've had a cleaning lady for about a year now and I'm totally ashamed to admit it...but, I also hate the idea of her not coming every other week." Why do we such such guilt and shame and at the same time so much appreciation??

    I totally admitted to Alda (housekeeper) that it was my first time and that I appreciated having her here to help. I offered her coffee and breakfast, asked her what she'd like for lunch and told her to help herself to things in the fridge, but she was very discrete and didn't accept anything I offered her.

    I don't know if that's just the way she rolls, or if I was crossing into unknown territory...

    Overall, it was a good experience.

    Thanks HKS for the chance to guest blog!

  5. Hi Lindsey :) I think you've articulated the way of us North Americans feel about having housekeepers. I will tell you that I invited the housekeeper we hired in our old town to eat lunch with us. My grandma always taught me that if someone's in your house at lunch time, you cook for them! I was oblivious to this "maids can't sit at the table with you" nonsense. After the maid left, my husband was totally shocked but also very happy that I'd done that. He said he wouldn't have even thought to do it but that it was a nice gesture. So if you eat lunch at home on the day she's there, you can do the same! She may insist on not doing it, but at least you've done your part.

    I also never made a list; she did the same things every week, and if there was going to be something out of the ordinary, I'd just ask her in the morning when she got there.

  6. Great post! I haven't yet had an empregada myself, but virtually every other working woman I know does.

    R$60-R$100 a day does seem low, but actually a maid who works 20 days a month will make R$1200 - R$2000. The upper end of that is more than I make as an English teacher! (maybe I should change careers?)

    Compared with the minimum wage (currently R$545) it's quite good. It puts them into the middle class (see this graphic)

  7. alright here goes....I WISH I had the extra funds to get meself a cleaning person! I think I would love it.. and have more time to spend outside farming, or inside crafting or with my kids. I think it would be great because SOMETIMES you just cannot do everything... I am learning this everyday!


  8. Great post! As I was reading the book I found the similarities so interesting. I have "help" in Sao Paulo and absolutely adore Rose. I don't however feel guilty giving her a recipe to make, she will cook anyways even if I don't ask her too so I might as well try new things? I do however feel guilty in general with the whole concept. I love having a clean house and not having to worry about the bathrooms and the hard to reach places but at the same time I am home a lot so who am I to say I shouldn't have to clean my own bathroom? its a constant dilemma and we try and make up for it by treating her to the best we know!

  9. @ Danielle - I know you've had the same moral confusions about housekeepers but I tried to follow your advice on that one. All you can do is treat everyone who walks into your house as a guest!

    @ Laura - that's the other thing. In N America, housekeepers are so much more expensive they're often seen as a luxury.

    Here, some of my students ask me with bewilderment, "how did you do things in Canada without a housekeeper?? You did it yourself??"



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