Wage labor and labors of love

Mother-daughter story illuminates class and immigration in US

By Mary Romero
Published by New York University Press, $27.95

Mary Romero’s book The Maid’s Daughter is a rich and detailed sociological account of the lives of a live-in maid, Carmen, and her daughter, Olivia. The book is centrally concerned with the mother-daughter and employer-employee relationships in domestic service. The chief tension of the book is about how domestic service employment, engaged by many immigrants, is a launching pad for upward mobility yet is laden with expectation, obligation and fear -- the mother’s fear that she might lose her daughter to the employers and the daughter’s fear that she might lose her mother to the employers.

Romero conducted interviews with Olivia over two decades. She presents passages so that we hear Olivia’s reflections on her struggles, followed by Romero’s analysis of those same events. This back-and-forth technique preserves Olivia’s voice while allowing Romero to use her skill as a sociologist to place Olivia’s experiences within a broader framework of social and economic relationships.

Desire for socioeconomic advancement prompted Carmen’s migration from Mexico. As an immigrant living in the household of her employers (the Smiths) in a gated community, class structures not only the employee-employer relationship but the mother-daughter relationship as well.

The recurrent theme of space and spatial segregation illustrates this well. Carmen and Olivia live together for years in the maid’s quarters next to the kitchen, their shared space and proximity to Carmen’s primary workspace signifying their working class status. When one of the Smith children leaves home for college, Olivia moves into that spare bedroom, although this spatial separation strains the mother-daughter relationship when read as symbolizing a widening gap between working-class immigrant mother and upwardly mobile daughter.

An international perspective shows that while disadvantaged in comparison to the Smith family, Carmen is the financial breadwinner in her extended family, sending remittances and buying rental property in Mexico, garnering her deference in that context. (“Whatever Carmen says” became a common refrain.)

Living in the employer’s home shrinks Carmen and Olivia’s personal space and renders Carmen “on call” virtually all the time, despite her official work schedule. The Smiths’ strategy of outsourcing care work means more emotional and physical care for their children and less for Olivia: “Comments from the employers’ children, such as ‘she was like a mother to me,’ were not endearing to Olivia but a reminder that she did not receive the same attention and that their demands on her mother’s time and energy resulted in less time for her.”

These blurred work/home boundaries are cause for Olivia’s teenage resentment against both her mother (who was too tired after work to stay awake during a movie) and the Smiths, whom she accused of exploiting her mother. Carmen formally worked for room and board, plus Olivia’s private elementary school tuition, in exchange for one day of work. Yet the personalism embedded in the mistress-maid relationship “confounded labors of love with wage labor,” confusing favors done as a friend with unpaid labor performed as an employee.

Olivia’s resistance to the blurred boundaries between home and work underscored her allegiance to her mother. While her mother performed day work at another home, Olivia sat alongside the Smiths at dinner, “passing” or being understood as a member of the class-privileged family. Yet, she “symbolically crossed over to acknowledge being the maid’s daughter” by clearing the table and doing the dishes. This move undermined the Smiths’ claim on Olivia, making them uncomfortable by drawing the class line in the sand, marking their privilege, and marring the conceit of Olivia’s upward mobility for which the Smiths claimed responsibility. Romero cuts through the illusion of a fair and uncomplicated arrangement by showing how Mr. and Mrs. Smith highlighted their own “benevolent paternalism” rather than acknowledging Carmen’s sacrifices and labor hours that provided her daughter with housing and education.

Olivia was in a unique position to be a working-class Chicana who was privileged by her association with her mother’s upper-class, non-Hispanic, white employers. Advantages included learning upper-class modes of conduct and having access to private school, whereas disadvantages included struggling to maintain pride in her ethnic identity and bilingualism.

While Spanish was not valued in the Smith home, Olivia’s informal work as a translator for the immigrant domestic workers in the wealthy neighborhood developed her class consciousness. She was “not a neutral negotiator,” instead helping Mexican immigrant women achieve favorable job conditions. Straddling upper- and working-class worlds, Olivia resisted absorption into the upper-class environment by pointing out class and race hierarchies through acts such as speaking Spanish to the servers in the country club. Committed to both ethnic identity and success, during and after college Olivia used her upper-class skills to work for social justice causes. This creative use of her skill set runs contrary to the assimilationist notion that loss of ethnic identity is the prescription for success.

Since this is a book about one family, we may ask how applicable to other groups of people the findings may be. Romero heads off this concern by weaving in data from other maids’ children in the first chapter and arguing in the epilogue that Olivia’s life story represents “a microcosm of social relations that reproduce both social inequality and forms of resistance.” While other researchers can pursue comparisons and contrasts with other groups, we can learn a lot from this book, especially if we stay attentive to how Romero examines micro-level situations as a way to explicate larger processes. Principally, she argues that Olivia, Carmen and the Smiths exemplify the globalization of child care, wherein families from wealthy nations buy the care-work labor from women in poorer nations. Using a class analysis, Romero asserts that “the costs of globalized care work are experienced by workers’ children and ... remain invisible to families who purchase private care.”

Thus, we are not just immersed in one family for 267 pages but are provided great insights into how race/ethnicity, immigration, gender and class status shape privilege and disadvantage, and how tensions arise in the attempt to gain a financial foothold in the U.S. This book will be an enjoyable and instructive read for anyone interested in Mexican migration, American society, class and race inequality, and family relationships.

[Jessica M. Vasquez is assistant professor in sociology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She is the author of Mexican Americans Across Generations: Immigrant Families, Racial Realities.]

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