Brasilmagic\’s Weblog

Venting to the World

“Maid in Brazil”

maid

The Brazilian middle class, and most certainly the upper middle class, still have full time maids. It’s a modern day slavery, because although these maids are paid (usually minimum wage, which in Brazil is outrageously low), they are treated not as equals but as lower class citizens.

Many of them live with their employers. Apartments in Brazil usually feature the “maid’s bedroom”, a small cublicle, many times with no window, with a tiny bathroom nearby. This “maid’s room” looks more like a storage space, the broom closet, than a place to sleep. It is usually near the kithen and the laundry room, like during the slavery days.

Many people I talk to in Brazil defend having such maids by saying: “If I didn’t employ them, they would be in much worse situation”. I disagree.  Education is free in Brazil, from first grade to College. If you are a good student, you can actually graduate in Law or Medicine or anything you wish, without paying a penny. The minimum wage in Brazil has always been very low, and whenever there are attempts to increase the rate, there are cries that it will “break the economy”.

If  a middle class family cannot afford a maid, the maids will be forced to study and develop skills to compete in the job market. Instead, some of them work for the same family for years, always treated with condescendence, as if they were the family pet. Many don’t get married and don’t have their own families. The ones who do have to leave their employers’ house  at the end of the day (long hours, weekends) and try to tend to their families. I often questioned how these people would find the energy to clean their own houses, cook their own food after a day of doing the same for others.

What is most appalling is that there are still some Brazilian women who have full time maids and don’t work. They live a life of total laziness. When their kids get older, they don’t even have the excuse that they need to chauffeur their kids around. They live totally useless lives of vanity and lack of purpose. The “housewives” are almost in extinction, since most Brazilian girls nowadays want to have a career.

Slavery lasted in Brazil intil 1888, when Princess Isabel signed the document that freed all slaves. But the slave mentality has lasted for centuries. The Brazilian middle class, usually “white”, descending from the Portuguese colonizers, has always looked down on domestic workers or physical laborers. Physical labor is considered low class. You will never see the owner of a nice house in Brazil mowing his own lawn. Nor will you see him doing any repairs in his property. Labor is cheap, so why bother? Better to have your beer and watch the soccer game on TV.

A few years ago, I had this experience I speak a lot about: I was visiting my parents, who have had a long time gardener, a very humble man with lot’s of kids (another characteristic of the unpriviliged classes in Brazil). He was outside tending to the flowers and I had just arrived from the airport.  When I saw him, I went outside and stretched my hand to shake his hand, and asked him how he was doing. The man was in shock. The boss’ daughter, a “rich” woman in his mind, had treated him as a human being. He spoke about the event for a long time. How sad.

That is one thing about living in America that I like: you learn to see all human beings as equal. Your plumber is not beneath you (hey, he usually makes more money than you!). The cleaning woman who comes to your ofice after hours is like you too, and is entitled to go to the same restaurants and shops that you go, whatever race, color, size and shape she is.

There are some exceptions though. There are some families that treat their long time maids as one of the family. I remember seeing some maids who loved the people they worked for and were loved back.  These women were taken care of financially and emotionally by these families. And in the last decade, there are more and more successful professionals that pay their maids well and treat them with total respect.

Notwithstanding the good examples, Brazil still has a long way to go when it comes to eliminating the insidious class mentality.

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May 14, 2009 - Posted by | Difference between cultures, Society

14 Comments »

  1. Hi,

    I was just wondering where your parents live in Brazil.If I had to guess I would say North ?

    I am Brazilian born and raised. I first moved to the US when I was 16 as an exchange student and lived here for a year. I went back to Brazil for a couple of years, went to College both there and here and finally moved back here for good when I was 21. I was married to an American for 3 years and have had two other long term relationships with two Americans. I am now 33 years old and you could say I am more American than Brazilian. My entire family lives in Brazil and I came here because of many of the reasons you listed on your article ” Differences between cultures – Brazil and USA”. While I could not have agreed with more in respect to that article I’d like to add a few comments on the article on maids.

    I have to say my parents have always taught me to see everyone equally – which certainly saved me a whole deal of headache when I moved to this country by myself in a such a young age. If anything I find that Americans are the ones who label everyone and everything. Some of the first sentences you learn when you first take English classes are … “where are you from” and “what do you do for living”. I am very well traveled and I must say I have never encountered anyone else in the world so concerned about where I am from and how I make money. I find it to be extremely annoying and to my relief m y American boyfriend of 5 years does just as much if not more than me. We travel a lot overseas and whenever we meet Americans the two sentences come up – they’re mandatory and normally on the very beginning of your interaction with people. On my last trip to Greece I told an American I was from Mars ! I look and sound American if you will – light skin, blonde hair, tall ( well I am thin so I guess that does not count LOL) but maybe I will get fake boobs soon so that everything balances out … but we digressed … I feel the reason most Americans tend to ask those two annoying questions is due to the fact they want to put you on a specific drawer, categorize you if you will. That in my book is not seen as looking at others as equals. You immediately put someone above or below you … it’s like profiling.

    I come from an upper middle class/ intellectual family in Brazil and we always had help. My parents had high level jobs with the Federal Government which is very prestigious there now and even more so as I was growing up. We always had maids, gardners, handy men working for us. I guess you could say I lived a very privileged life only to be compared to the rich and famous in the US – I make a good living here and I would not be able to afford the same luxuries here in terms of help due to the much higher cost of it in comparison to the old country. We always treated everyone as equals back home that is my immediate family. The less privileged workers we employed are still very loyal to my elderly mother. You must remember the labor laws in Brazil are much better than the ones you have here … for instance maids are guaranteed a month’s paid vacation every year. I know plenty of people in this country who would not mind having room and board provided to them so we can’t make a general rule to say they have such a horrible life. I will say all the maids that worked for us had a much better life than a lot of people I know in this country.

    My nanny was studying to be a Medical Doctor while she was taking care of me and she would have never been able to do so if it wasn’t for my parents. She ended up marrying one of my mother’s co-workers and living across the street from us.

    I find that in North Brazil people tend to be more concerned about class differences. I remember when I was a child and we had just moved to Fortaleza from Brasilia and we had immigrants from the interior part of the State coming to the capital they would knock on our doors and offer to cut the grass for a plate of food. Yes, they were taken advantage of by many. I also remember some of the neighbors had a talk with my parents to advise we were over paying the help because we were used to the wages in Brasilia where help was scarce in comparison to hungry Ceara at the time. Did my parents lower our maids wages ? NO they did not … they almost started a revolution … everyone in the neighborhood wanted to work for us!

    So yes, I can see your point, workers such as the ones migrating to Fortaleza willing to work for food looked up to us as the rich. They called us “barao” as a matter of fact and that was very telling of their frame of mind. I am glad we responded to them the way we did. I remember enjoying spending time with their children more than the ones from my “class” if you will. I remember thinking they were more genuine and found more pleasure in little things while the “rich” kids always had to have the newest and the greatest toys but not them – they were happy playing with toys made out of soda cans. I appreciated that even more – I would say that is so unique you make your own toys, you’re so creative !

    I am so very grateful my parents allowed and encouraged me to interact with everyone no matter what they were labeled … where they were from or what their parents did for living …. to us they were people like ourselves and we shared good and bad times together. In the end that is what makes you truly rich.

    Comment by Raquel | January 15, 2010 | Reply

    • Raquel,

      Those 2 basic questions happen on any English speaking countries, not only USA. Even on the most non-materialistic ones, like New Zealand, from my experience. I don’t bother those questions, is not a big deal.

      Comment by Mauricio | March 21, 2010 | Reply

  2. Hi Raquel!
    I am married to an American and live in Ohio. I am from Fortaleza and my family does have maids, however, they pay their maids more than the minimum wage since they help them by providing school material and clothes for their kids, even Christmas gifts. My mom has a maid and she gets to go out with my family to dinner and is treated equally. So… not all people are the same in Fortaleza and perhaps things may have changed a lot since you lived there.
    I do agree with you regarding Americans always asking where we come from and what we do for a living. That is due to the fact that Americans are more worried about money than anything else. My dear, in Brazil we care more about spending time with our family memebers, friends, we socialize, we have more fun… Because we are more realistic in terms of thinking that one day you will all die and no matter how much money you made, you do not take it with you in your coffin! LoL!
    Something I want to mention is that Americans have no knowledge whatsoever about other cultures, even other languages. They are so very limited… You cannot imagine how much my husband’s parents and sisters judge me, how much they descriminate me for treating people friendly, for kissing my brazilian girlfriernds on the cheek, for showing affection towards my husband around them etc. One day, my husband and I were playing aroung in our kitchen, he hugged me (nothing big, believe me…) his dad entered the kitchen and said,”get a room”! That was so rude! I am a volunteer at a catholic church here, I tutor ESL for hyspanic people who cannot afford a language school. One day, I happened to meet one on my students in a Mexican restaurant where he works as a waiter and my in laws were with me. Just because I was nice to the Mexican waiter, they said I was flirting with him!!! My in laws do not even understand Spanish! My God!!! Raquel, I come from a decent family. My dad, just like yours, worked for the government, I studied abroad, we are very religious and… I do love my husband… I would not be dishonest with him. His father and one sister of his even said it is wierd how nice I treat my Brazilian friends… Thank God my husband knows me, trusts me, he knows my family and he does know that even though we are married and in love, we come from different cultures… He loves Brazil and is learning Portuguese…Americans do not know how to live with “differences”!

    Comment by W. Black | February 3, 2010 | Reply

  3. Raquel, your account is very interesting and I can relate to many aspect of it. Being raised upper middle class in Brazil generally means you are a spoiled woman who expects to be served and taken care of, as well incompetent in terms of practical things, such as checking the oil in your car.
    When we come to America, we either sink or swim. Some cannot tolerate the lacck of domestic help and find life too hard, working hours too long, as well as social isolation from old friends and family.
    Take the example of Bruna Bianchi Carneiro, the Rio woman who dumped her husband out of the blue and ran to Rio with her parents: she was visibly unhappy with her non-spoiled lifestyle and failed to communicate that to her husband, someone she should have trusted. Instead, she used her mother as confidante to her problems, and together they planned her “escape”, which we all know ended very badly for her. If she had loved her husband and was that unhappy, she could maybe convince to also move to Rio, where they both could have a better life in her eyes. There are many Americans in Brazil who have adapted. Or, she could have been stronger and tried to make the best of her life here, instead of depending on her husband for fame and fortune.

    As for maids, your family seems to be made of good people who respect others. Unfortunately, some are not so nice. But I agree that things have gotten a lot better for domestic workers over the years, and the almost-slavery situation is hardly found anymore. Even though they have a 13th salary and some benefits, their overall income is very low, even the ones who have room and board. And the ones who have room and board sometimes sacrifice having a family of their own just to keep surviving. Life has always been very hard for the poor in Brazil.

    Anyhow, I agree with you about the Public Displays of Affection. I really like the way we Brazilians are about hugging and kissing. Sometimes it bothers other people because they don’t have that in their lives. Maybe your BF’s Dad would like his wife to do that but they have settled into a non-physical relationship. Anyhow, continue fighting the prejudices. And for the fake boobs, remember that every 15 years or so you will have to go through another surgery and tremendous pain to get a new pair. Also remember all the beautiful women who do not have breast implants, and the ones who look gross with them (Pamela Anderson, etc).

    Comment by Brasilmagic | February 3, 2010 | Reply

  4. We were wondering if there were any brazilians that would be willing to live with us free room and board to clean at around $5 an hour. Food will be provided along with a place to stay.

    Comment by Fran | February 13, 2010 | Reply

    • Of course. Not only Brazilians but many people would take your ‘all inclusive’ offer. That means about $1000 savings every month. How many low pay, low skilled workers can have $1000 a month in discretionary income?

      Comment by brazilian | December 2, 2011 | Reply

  5. I agree with your article and also know Brazilians are very touchy about any criticism. I am always observing things and (God forbid) comparing, but am always confronted with cliches but no real argument to my observations. The cheap maids are because Brazilian society is still rooted in Slavocracy. Not doing anything all day and having someone else do it all is still considered a sign of wealth. Poor people do live off this “deficiency” but most employers could very well pay more. Paying more, however, implies giving more freedom, which is not what they want. I have a babysitter and she tells me shocking stories of past experiences and the experiences of her family members. Women living in massive homes ordering them about, treating them literally like low-wage slaves. But these women do not feel they have the right to complain. The “rich” are admired and considered superior, and they act that way, all over the world, and holders of rights they do not have. The truth is that the gap between poor and B and A classes is a massive gaping hole that no cliche of “we see people equally” and “we love to hug one another” can fill. It´s there and it won´t go away unless Brazilians stop getting defensive every time it´s pointed out, and truly do something about it, but paying more and treating their workers as equals, for one.

    Comment by Brenda | September 12, 2010 | Reply

    • Thank you Brenda, couldn’t have it said better…
      I agree that with brazilians being defensive on criticism. For the rich it’s good the way it is, but the lower classes are lately moving too. I meet many 25y olds who have enough about the whole class system, etc.

      “They live totally useless lives of vanity and lack of purpose.”
      very true, but somehow i cannot understand this since specially the upper class likes to “live” the european (sometimes the american) way of living.
      I would love to point out a story that happend to me; After my brazil vacation i went back to studies and to a part time job in a shop (tanned from the beaches).
      One late afternoon, a couple enters the store, the guy was totally nice but his wife was being a total b!tch to me. She, a very blonde brazilian, he an older swiss guy.
      Well after talking a bit he told me what he wanted to buy for his wife and then she asks me when she’s gonna get it. So i tell her right now, they can take it a long with them (a computer).
      That woman looked as if i had spit to her face, the shock… the horror to carry it… she gives a “in brazil you don’t do that…”. Well i told her that she wasn’t in Brazil right now and that they could order it online but her husband bought it, and just laughed about the matter. He took it with him but his wife walked silent out the store.
      Pretty crazy!

      Comment by Nefertari | March 4, 2012 | Reply

      • Yes, that does not only happen abroad. I have seen Brazilian women with gringoes in Bahia, for example, women who had nothing before meeting their boyfriend/husband, treating other Brazilians like dirt in their own country and being of the same nationality. I think some people think that if they want to be better than the average Brazilian, they have to treat them that way. It´s very common, unfortunately. More common than not, actually. I am still trying to figure than phenomenon out. Then there is the case of Brazilians who leave Brazil and come back saying they don´t speak Portuguese or with a foreign accent that is obviously fake. It´s really odd. Thanks for your comment. Keep them coming!

        Comment by Cipriana | March 5, 2012

  6. I am a single man, never married and no kids. I have plenty of money and can afford a few maids. I wonder if anyone can tell me where I can get some of them in Brazil. Is there a maid “agency” of some sort there for U.S. men who are tired of women “impressing” everyone on what they can do in the career world with an economy this is just full of “opportunity”? Let’s be real, a lot of american women have trouble cooking and cleaning. And no one is really impressed with their important administrative professions. A good house maid in Brazil that is not spoiled could afford herself some real opportunity in the U.S.

    Comment by Peter | September 17, 2010 | Reply

  7. There is definately a great deal to know about this issue.
    I really like all of the points you made.
    pinterest.com/pin/523825000378301161/

    Comment by lehrer | December 18, 2012 | Reply

  8. Your article suggests that ALL people who have maids treat them badly, as you say maids live in “a small cublicle, many times with no window, with a tiny bathroom nearby” (cubicle is the correct spelling by the way).
    You also say: “Many people I talk to in Brazil defend having such maids by saying: “If I didn’t employ them, they would be in much worse situation. I disagree. ” Why do you disagree? They are being paid to work, it is not ideal yet they probably have to support their families. They are not being forced. You suggest in your article that all Brazilians treat their maids badly. My family has a maid in Fortaleza who gets weekends off to take a train (that we pay for) to her city so that she can see her family. She has her own room, the same size as all of the others, overlooking all of the city of Fortaleza. I would encourage you to show evidence of maids living in a storage closet as you say. My aunts house consists of 6 bedrooms, plus 1 for each of her 3 maids. The size of the maids rooms are identically sized to everyone else’s except for the master.
    Respectfully yours,
    John

    Comment by John Smith | January 2, 2014 | Reply

    • Sweetie, can’t you see the difference between a typo and incorrect spelling? You think a person who has a blog cannot spell cubicle? So take your condescending little attitude and shove it. You have probably never seen the “maids’ quarters” in countless apartments in Brazil. The fact your house has a big room for her is rare. By the way, why do you even need a maid in this day and age? No wonder Brazilians are many times lazy, impractical and don’t know how to do do basic things: raised with maids.

      Comment by Brasilmagic | January 3, 2014 | Reply

    • She gets weekends off! How amazing!!

      Comment by Brasilmagic | January 3, 2014 | Reply


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