Paid to Care: Domestic Workers in Contemporary Latin American Culture by Rachel Randall

Q&A with Paid to Care author Rachel Randall on Domestic Workers in Latin American Culture

Paid to Care provides insight into the struggles of paid domestic workers in Latin America through an exploration of films, texts, and digital media produced since the 1980s in collaboration with them or inspired by their experiences. The cultural texts and legal histories of domestic work that Rachel Randall analyzes in her book provide insight into public debates about paid domestic work, and demonstrate how the legacy of colonialism and slavery shapes the profession even today.

In this Q&A, Rachel Randall offers a window into her findings and research process, and shares how her work wrestles with complex ethical issues relating to consent, mediation, and appropriation. Paid to Care is available now wherever you buy books! Check out more titles in Latin American film and media from UT Press here and more books on labor issues here.

Your book explores the representation of domestic workers in personal and coproduced cultural works. What questions of authorship, consent, mediation, and appropriation did you engage with through your study of these representations?

Questions of authorship, consent, and mediation permeate all the works I look at in the book. In the first chapter, I focus on testimonios (literary testimonies), which are a bit like autobiographies, except that in these cases the domestic workers whose life stories they tell have either spoken about their experiences to an academic or scribe, who has recorded and transcribed their words, or they have written down their story but have been supported in editing and publishing it by someone with cultural connections, including, in one of the cases, the worker’s employer. Although these books invoke the testimonios’ “authenticity” as a key selling point, in truth their form and content are strongly shaped by the relationships between the workers and the scribes who helped to publish them. In chapters 2 and 3, I look at fiction and documentary films that are all inspired by—or directly reflect on—the emotional ties and tensions that both unite and divide domestic workers and the families that employ them. As a result, although some of the fiction films attempt to evoke domestic workers’ viewpoints, they are still mediated by middle-class directorial perspectives—in other words, by the perspective of those whose families have historically employed live-in domestic workers. The documentaries that I look at use experimental techniques to address the ethical concerns that arise when employers (or their children) make visual representations of their domestic employees, even provoking the question of whether it is possible to establish the employees’ true willingness to participate in these documentary projects given the unequal nature of the domestic labor relationships that they explore. Finally, in chapter 4, I explore depictions of domestic workers online. These works raise some of the same questions relating to consent and mediation that I have already mentioned, except these issues are compounded by the reliance of these works on social media platforms, namely Facebook. The site’s business model is predicated on the imperative to share personal details, which has created a culture in which individuals post information about, or images of, not only themselves but also others—often without their consent, which enables third parties connecting to the site to monetize users’ data.

How do the depictions of live-in domestic workers in the Latin American fiction films you studied contribute to our understanding of the complexities of this profession?

I think all the films I look at in the book that depict live-in domestic work are exploring a profession that has been shaped by the legacy of slavery in Latin America. The fiction films I analyze all deploy the trope of the “maid’s room”—an architectural phenomenon that dates back to living arrangements established during the colonial period—to evoke the intimacy but also the distance and the distrust that can characterize the relationship between live-in domestic employees and their employer families. In films like The Second Mother, for instance, the domestic worker protagonist, Val, is largely confined to the service areas of her employers’ house (the kitchen, her small bedroom), which are diminutive in size when compared to the modernist family areas of her employer’s abode. When her daughter Jéssica arrives and stays in a guest bedroom; eats with the family in their dining room; and eventually enters their swimming pool, her actions send shockwaves through the household. Films like The Second Mother (Muylaert, 2015) explore the realities that have been faced for years by live-in domestic workers whose home is also their workplace, but who are not free to enjoy the facilities that the home has to offer—an argument that was made by domestic worker organizer Lenira Carvalho, whose testimonio (“Only those who live it can understand,” 1982) I look at in chapter 1. The ways in which a live-in domestic worker’s ability to establish or maintain an autonomous romantic or family life can be compromised by their employment are also explored in the fiction films that I look at, including Roma (Cuarón, 2018) and The Maid (Silva, 2009). In The Maid, the domestic worker protagonist Raquel has worked as a live-in employee for the same family for over twenty years, and her status and treatment within the household culminates in a sense that she has been degraded, dehumanized, and left in a state of arrested development, which is symbolized by the migraines and blackouts that she suffers as well as, on one occasion, her use of an ape mask. Ultimately, the ambivalent nature of the relationship between live-in domestic workers and their employer families is encapsulated by the form and content of these fiction films, which were all inspired by their directors’ close personal relationships to domestic workers, particularly to those who helped to raise them as children. I argue, therefore, that the films all function as attempts to address a sense of emotional indebtedness to these workers, whose labor, although it was remunerated, cannot be fully recompensed. This is a consequence not only of the personal sacrifices these employees made in their own lives due to the live-in nature of their employment, but also because traditional economic models do not properly account for the contributions made through forms of reproductive and domestic labor (whether these are paid or unpaid). In fact, the perception that financial exchanges corrupt intimate or loving relationships is common. Consequently, in The Second Mother and The Maid, gift-related symbolism is deployed to acknowledge that the contributions and sacrifices the domestic worker protagonists have made have been consistently undervalued.

Throughout your research, what shifts did you encounter in the representation of domestic workers across media, geography, and time?

In terms of shifts across time, I think one of the most striking changes is the recent adoption, since 2000, of domestic workers as protagonists in Latin American films. Prior to this, domestic workers tended to feature in Latin American film and TV as minor characters or as stereotypes. The trope of the “randy maid,” for example, reached a peak in Brazil during the 1970s in sexual comedies such as Como é boa nossa empregada (Porto and di Mello 1973; How good our maid is). There has not necessarily been a completely even or linear development in this trend; although recent films and documentaries have attempted to portray domestic workers as more complex, multifaceted characters, the fiction films that I look at still occasionally recur to stereotypes that sexualize female domestic workers or portray them as self-sacrificing “second mother” figures.

At the level of geography, I think that one of the most visible differences is the ways that domestic employer-employee relationships are shaped by race and ethnicity. In Brazil, which received over half of the 12 million African captives who were transported to the Americas between 1492 and the 1860s, the legacy of African slavery specifically weighs extremely heavily on contemporary works that explore paid domestic work. In the Mexican, Peruvian, and Chilean works that I look at, many of the employees depicted are racially discriminated against by their employers as a result of their indigeneity.

In terms of differences across media, I found it interesting that testimonios have been used as a tool in domestic workers’ struggles from the 1980s right up until today; however, where literary testimonios were being deployed by domestic worker organizers and unions in the 1980s as part of campaigns for equal rights reform, digital testimonio projects have more recently used the genre to clamor for a change in cultural attitudes toward domestic work and for workers’ newly won rights to be respected, including within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. A good example of this is Brazilian rapper, activist, and social media influencer Preta-Rara’s “Eu, Empregada Doméstica” Facebook page, which has also been published as a book. This change is a result of the fact that so many Latin American countries (including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay, among others) have now implemented equal rights reform for paid domestic workers and have signed up to the International Labour Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention (ILO 189).

Finally, in my analysis of the representation of domestic workers in Latin American cinema, I found that the formal experimentation that characterizes the documentaries I analyze in chapter 3 (such as Gabriel Mascaro’s Doméstica [2012], João Moreira Salles’ Santiago [2007], and Consuelo Lins Babás [2010]) tends to enable these films to reflect more openly, when compared with the fiction films I look at in chapter 2, on the ethical concerns that arise when depicting paid domestic workers.

What further changes need to occur to continue to improve the lives and conditions of paid domestic workers? What efforts are ongoing in pursuit of these goals in their communities or on a broader scale?

This question would be better answered by domestic workers’ unions and associations in Latin America, but based on what I have learned while working on this book, my sense is that the increasing casualization of paid domestic work in the region is a major challenge. It is now common for domestic workers to offer specific services or to labor in the homes of different employers for just a few hours each week, and these kinds of arrangements can make it very difficult to ensure that their labor rights are respected. In Brazil, for example, a report published by the ILO on the initial effects of equal rights reform (or the constitutional amendment on domestic work) found that these reforms had had the most noticeable impact on monthly paid employees; however, for the high proportion of informal, hourly paid workers, their impact had been negligible. Legally, employers in Brazil have no obligations toward paid domestic workers who labor for fewer than three days in a single household. Furthermore, the enforcement of domestic workers’ labor rights continues to be difficult to monitor because these involve a labor relationship that develops within the private space of the home. Ultimately, a radical change in cultural attitudes toward paid domestic workers is necessary so that employers will willingly respect these employees’ rights when they are laboring in the employers’ homes.

A final challenge within the current scenario is that domestic workers often have to undertake long, challenging, and even dangerous commutes from their own homes to the houses of various different employers, but public transport networks in many Latin American cities are not fit for this purpose. The Invisible Commutes project is investigating the way this issue impacts domestic workers across Latin America.

Rachel Randall is a senior lecturer in Latin American cultural studies at the University of Bristol. She is the author of Children on the Threshold in Contemporary Latin American Cinema and a coeditor of New Visions of Adolescence in Contemporary Latin American Cinema.