I was sitting on my bed in my dark, dungeon-esque room in the casa payesa that I was working as an au pair at, reading Rigoberta Menchu’s Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia (Unfamiliar? Read a summary here).
I was on the chapter “Sirvienta en la capital.” Going through the pages, I started to feel very angry. I was so frustrated. I hated everything that Menchu’s abusive “master” (it’s an appropriate word for the situation she was in) did and said to her.
I read the following line and for a second couldn’t breathe:
Y la senora todos los dias andaba vigilandome y me maltrataba mucho. Me trataba como que si fuera no se que, ni como un perro, pues al perro lo trataba bien. Al perro lo abrazaba. Entonces yo decia, “Pero ni siquiera me compara con el perro.
(And the woman every day went around watching me and mistreated me a lot. She treated me as if I was I don’t no, not a dog, because they treated the dog well. They hugged the dog. So I said, “But they don’t even compare me to the dog.)
After reading that line, I stood motionless with eyes wide open. I couldn’t move. I then started to realize why it hit me so hard. The feeling that she expressed, the feeling of being thrown around and dehumanized was one that I had felt as an au pair.
Don’t freak out. I am in no way trying to compare my experience as a white, socioeconomically stable, nanny-with-a-fancy-word situation to that of an indigenous woman in Guatemala being systematically abused for centuries.
I am, however, cognizant of the fact that for the first time in my life, I have been in a situation of slight vulnerability and being taken advantage of. And I hated it. The feeling that is created after feeling as if you were being taken advantage of is one of the most unpleasant I have ever felt. Rage, frustration, and silence.
I will repeat again, that my situation is very dissimilar from the abuses that have happened throughout centuries to the marginalized. My situation was not Nohemi’s, for example, a young girl who was taken from her home and abused as a domestic worker for a rich family in Colombia for years.
My situation was, however, a toned down, micro-example of how easy it is to take advantage of others. How easily you can slip into situations (being a foreigner, not having a place to sleep, needing money, not having many contacts, not having family) and how dangerous and toxic they can become. And most importantly, my situation was an example of sickeningly well the ones who had power were able to manipulate those that didn’t.
There are two important points to note in regards to my feelings towards domestic workers and au pairing in general. The first, is how I got into this situation in the first place (my need to please, my self-denial, my passivity), and the second, how being an au pair is an excellent highlight of white privilege.
POINT 1: How did this happen to me
Let’s discuss the first point: why I was in an uncomfortable situation for months and didn’t do anything about it. The señora pulled the wool over my eyes from the start. A woman that is charming, funny, and social, she captivates you and makes you believe she is just a humble woman with a massive house, properties all of Spain, a handful of expensive cars and a boat. One of the first things she told me was, “I live a simple life.” And I somehow believed her.
As the time passed, I soon started to realize that she is a woman who lives a comfortable and relaxed life, because she has people picking up her messes and figuring out her problems. It’s an attitude of superiority that I have never seen before. It’s almost as if the seven dwarfs were working in her house and she was completely oblivious (behind her repeated speech of how she’s rich but “everyone is equal” and “we all mix together”) to all of the work they were doing for me.
About the time I wrote about why you shouldn’t au pair, I was checked out. Yet, I stayed in the house. I let her manipulative guilt trips guide my decisions. I didn’t put up a fight when she refused to pay me and I found excuses for why I should be doing extra work. As if any of her problems warranted that I work for free.
Her attitude is not unique, however. It’s one that I’ve heard repeated over and over again. It’s a personality flaw, but it also stems from a systematic air of authority solely by being from the upper echelons.
POINT 2: When I realized that, despite my frustrations, this is what privilege looks like
Being an au pair, or “domestic worker,” nanny or kanguro, whatever you want to call it, I was associated for the first time with a sector of society that I had never been associated with before (I am very aware of the problematic nature of my situation and my interpretation of the situation). No one I met when I was with the family (unless they asked or were close friends) knew that I had a university degree, for example. No one knew that I have won awards or wrote a thesis or have traveled. Or the fact that my expensive university degree from the United States was paid for by my parents.
Refreshing to not have a reputation, it was also a curious sensation to be grouped into a sector that was completely foreign to me. And mind you this is coming from a girl who believed she was left-wing, has studied human rights and social movements and spent time in the “developing world.”
Yet not of the above had as much impact as putting myself in the situation. People were nice. People were friendly. And especially in Ibiza there a freedom of thought and expression that to my knowledge is unheard of in many other parts. But still, I was not Allison who did this, this and won this. I was the silent au pair who was too stupid to know our language (I do speak Spanish, but they didn’t let me around the girl) and didn’t have any wherewithal to contribute to a conversation.
That feeling hit me hard.
But what hit me even harder (and even harder than reading Rigoberta Menchu) was when I realized that as much as I believed I was suffering, it was nothing compared to my domestic worker peers (and of course, the millions of people who suffer all sorts of abuses on a daily basis).
Because the difference between my peers and I, even though the feelings we might have or the treatment might be the same, is that I have privilege, and they don’t.
I spent time with many Filipino immigrants, as they are common domestic workers. I even heard many people at the private school discussing how, “they were looking for a Filipino because they are silent hard workers and never stop.” I threw up a bit.
The difference between them and I, is that they take care of children, they are nannies. I take care of children, I’m an “au pair.” Even though I was in an uncomfortable situation, I could have left. I have a family who can afford a flight or friends who could lend me money. I have linguistic privilege and many job opportunities solely for being a white American who is a native English speaker.
The main difference, I was horrified to find, is that by the time I realized I was being taken advantage of and wanted out, it was not the same experience for my peers. A few friends who spoke to their domestic worker peers also had similar experiences. The peers didn’t think twice about the treatment they were receiving, or about working 12 hours a day for 500 euros a month, or for being watched constantly to see what they did wrong.
And then it hit me again (man, I just keep getting hit!). It’s easy for me, who has access to resources, possibilities beyond au pairing, a university education, and an overall way out to point out all of the problems with their jobs. It’s easy for me to complain, because I can.
They are not in a situation to do so, however. They are sending money home to their families. They are paying for schooling for the extended family members. They have people and mouths who need their work. Whether it is in good conditions or not. They can’t afford to not have an income, even if it’s a lousy one. This is not my life. My life was not destined to be a domestic worker. I have resources and options. And this sickens me. It’s hard to me to swallow.
And the cycle continues. This is how abuses happen, and this is also how they continue (oversimplified? Yes.But there is some truth to it).
Why Do Shitty Experiences Matter?
I’m still trying to digest my experience this past year and what I want to do with it. How I want to go about transforming the working conditions and attitudes, and dreaming big, world power imbalances.
The one thing I have realized for sure, is that I am so grateful to have been put in an uncomfortable situation. Pablo Picasso said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” I’m not certain that I’ve fully learned, but the next time I find myself in similar circumstances, I will handle it better.
I am also eternally grateful for the opportunity to feel for the first time, a sense of real solidarity with someone different from me. I have sympathy. I’ve always had sympathy. I believe in a universal system of human rights and a standard of treatment for all human beings.
But it has never meant more to me than it does now. Although my situation was clearly not comparable to the abuses most domestic workers suffer, I feel empathy for the first time. There is a switch that only comes from having experienced first hand. It holds a different weight. It hits closer (yet again, the hitting!) to home and creates more rage and frustration (but I’m trying to handle that rage and frustration in a constructive way, while still seeing the power abusers as human. It’s a task.)
A few weeks after reading Menchu’s testimony, I watch the documentary Que Rico Ser Pobre. The documentary centers around a man who has decided to abandon his previous life and opt for one of living day-to-day in precarious living situations. In the end, he feels that this life is freer and more fulfilling in this way.
The thing that stuck we me the most after watching the documentary, is that the man explains why he loves to live this life. He explains that via living like most of the world actually lives, he feels closer to the universe. He feels a sense of unity with others that can only be achieved through putting yourself, literally, in their situation (not just imagining it).
For me, this is the most beautiful about any situation, positive or negative. The more experiences I live, the most I can relate to others, and the closer I feel to the people of the world. Shared experiences unite us, and I feel very fortunate to have felt the negative feelings this past year, because for once, I feel connected with a sector that was previously far from my reach.
What is the point of living, if not to create circumstances that will unite us?