Rebel Maids

The Brazilian cartoon series Irmão do Jorel offers a cosy-satirical picture of family life, not unlike The Simpsons. Strikingly, however, there is a character with no homologue in the US series: the family’s maid, represented as a purple octopus – amorphous, voiceless, nameless, with eight arms ready to carry out any task requested of her (for a representative episode, see here). The Brazilian entertainment industry has many such images. From blackface turns on TV comedy shows to the maids who form a girl band in the hit telenovela Cheias de Charme, representations of domestic workers pervade the country’s cultural imagination.

Beyond the culture industry, paid domestic work is a daily reality for nearly 6 million Brazilian women, as well as for the millions of households that employ them. It is an occupation strongly marked by the sexual and racial division of labour: 92% of those employed in this category are female, and two-thirds of the latter are black. Restricted to the private sphere, the actual experience of this work has been atomized and largely invisible.

Despite the prevailing silence in Brazil’s public sphere about the realities of domestic work, domestics played a leading role in the 100,000-strong March of Black Women against racism and violence in November 2015. In 2016, a rapper and former maid, Preta-Rara, shared some memories of her time in domestic service on Facebook and was flooded with responses from other domestic workers. The page she set up for them soon garnered thousands of personal stories, from multiple viewpoints – giving voice to the experiences of Brazilian domestic workers in a way that cold official statistics could never do.

In 2019 Preta-Rara – real name, Joyce Fernandes; preta rara translates as rare or precious black girl – produced a compilation of these social media accounts in a book, Eu, Empregada Doméstica (I, Domestic Servant) with the subtitle: ‘The Maid’s Room is the Modern Slave Quarters’. It opens with the story of her grandmother, Noêmia, who began work as a maid at the age of fourteen. Preta-Rara’s mother, Maria Helena, followed the same path, and tells her daughter of the lasting trauma left by never having been taught to read or write. (Preta-Rara herself later made it to college and has taught high-school history, in addition to her music – her first album, Audácia, appeared in 2015 – and establishing a major social-media presence.)

Though some of the stories collected in Eu, Empregada Doméstica recall humane employers, the structural situation of the work means that exploitation is standard. Many depict psychological humiliations: accusations of theft, sexual harassment, moral harassment, effective imprisonment, occupational diseases and chronic exhaustion. Women recall being sent off in their early teens to work in strangers’ houses. Younger children, accompanying their mother to work when there is no one to watch them at home, get mistreated by employers or bullied by their children. Domestic workers often make huge sacrifices to help their children, especially their daughters, avoid going through the same experience. Access to education is frequently seen as the key to change – sometimes provoking mockery and disbelief from their employers. Escape from exploitation and subordination requires enormous individual effort and resources.

Preta-Rara herself recalls the indignity of being forced to use the ‘service’ lift in an apartment block, and to climb eight flights of stairs when it was out of order, because maids were not allowed to use the ‘social’ elevator. A common response emerges, when domestic workers are pushed to their limit: ‘Never going back to that place again.’ It is a phrase that occurs over and over in the contributions, a series of one-woman strikes against an intolerable situation, now brought together by Preta-Rara in collective form.

Nancy Fraser has analysed the heightened contradictions of ‘capital and care’ under today’s form of financialized capitalism, as neoliberal pressures put a squeeze on essential forms of material and affective reproductive labour – birthing and raising children, maintaining households, sustaining personal and community relationships. She argues that every form of capitalist society harbours a deep-seated crisis tendency, as capital’s drive to unlimited accumulation – free-riding on the life world, as she puts it – tends to destabilize the reproductive processes that are indispensable to the perpetuation of society itself, without which there can be ‘no culture, no economy, no political organization’.

For Fraser, these contradictions take different forms in the core and on the peripheries of world capitalism, as also across successive eras or ‘regimes of accumulation’: 19th-century liberal imperialism and colonial extraction; mid-20th century welfare-state Fordism and third-world developmentalism; 21st-century neoliberal globalization. Each, she has argued, produced its own asymmetrical fix for staving off the contradictions of capital and care: the ‘separate spheres’ gendering 19th-century bourgeois life, the expanded welfare provision and male breadwinner of Fordism, the two-earner families of neoliberal emancipation. Each fix in turn entered into crisis. The latest manifestation of this tendency in the US is the ‘crisis of care’ – time poverty, family-work balance – already attracting attention even before the reproductive catastrophe of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Yet the Brazilian experience – and perhaps, more broadly, that of Latin America – alters this picture. The stories collected by Preta-Rara speak not of epochal ruptures in forms of reproductive labour, but of intergenerational continuities. ‘Almost all women in my family started their lives as domestic servants’, one woman wrote. ‘My grandmother was enslaved – because that’s the right word – from childhood. My mother started to work as a family’s nanny when she was a teenager. My aunt has asthma attacks brought on by excessive work with chemical-cleaning products’.

‘Breaking the cycle of misery to which we were subjected is an arduous task’, wrote another. ‘It means fighting against everything and everyone. My grandmother worked all her lifetime in the fields, my mother was a maid, and I followed in her footsteps. Going against all of this leaves scars, physical and on the soul.’ At stake here are historical continuities traceable back to slavery – the connection Preta-Rara underscores with her subtitle, identifying the maid’s room as the slave quarters. Some of the social media narrators use the colonial term sinhá – ‘madam’ – to refer to their employers. Another makes the same link: ‘I’m always thinking that, if the memory [of paid domestic work] hurts me, I can imagine it must have hurt my mother and my grandmother much more, because, even allegorically, they had to bear the “lash” so that we could eat bread.’

As noted by the Brazilian social scientist and activist Lélia Gonzalez, to understand the place of black women in Brazilian society today, we need to examine their role under slavery. Gonzalez – herself the daughter of a black maid – summarized the historical role of the black mucama: ‘It was her task to keep the master’s house running at all levels: washing, ironing, cooking, spinning, weaving, sewing, and nursing the children born from the “free” wombs of the little senhoras… And after the heavy work at the master’s house, she was also responsible for taking care of her own children, as well as helping her friends who had come from the plantations, etc., who were starving and exhausted.’ The Argentine anthropologist Rita Segato has emphasised the longue durée nature of this ‘transferred motherhood’ in Latin America, dating from the onset of colonialism. It has been naturalized over the centuries by serial cultural forms, predecessors of the purple octopus in Irmão do Jorel.

The developmentalist era in Brazil brought many changes, but – pace Fraser – the underlying role of black women in social reproduction continued throughout. If anything, young girls were dispatched from the interior in greater numbers to work as maids in the booming cities. The social media stories illustrate this process well: ‘My mother comes from a tiny hinterland village and was sent to the capital to work at the age of thirteen’ is a typical beginning. This ‘national care chain’ – the internal migratory flow of girls and women from the Brazilian backlands to the cities, which peaked at the height of the ‘rural exodus’ of the 1960s-80s – has its equivalent in the ‘global care chain’ of which Fraser and others also write: the pull of globalized financialized capitalism inducing the emigration of racialized women from poor countries to undertake social-reproductive work in rich countries where, with the onset of the long downturn and collapse of the ‘male breadwinner model’,  women were heading into waged white-collar work.

Brazil is certainly part of the migratory flow of the global care chain, in keeping with its middle-ranking position in the world economy. Immigrant domestic workers are, for example, Bolivian, Haitian, Venezuelan and Filipina women, whose migratory condition intersects with racial, class and gender rankings. Brazilian women, on the other hand, mainly emigrate to the Global North, especially the United States and Western Europe.

How to explain the continuities in Brazil’s social-reproductive order, compared to the successive regimes that Fraser analyses? Here it may be helpful to draw upon the notion of colonialidad developed by the Peruvian world-systems theorist Aníbal Quijano, who pointed out that ruling classes in early 19th-century Latin America battled to prevent the decolonization of their societies even as they fought for independent states. Through this dynamic, the ‘coloniality of power’ was incorporated into the state-formation process itself. The sexual and racial division of paid domestic labour, and its historical continuity with practices dating from the colonial and slavery periods, underlines the relationship between social-reproductive relations in Latin America and this foundational hierarchy. In this context, the ‘care gap’ is not a recent process. It is a dynamic inscribed in the very ‘coloniality of power’.

Thus, paid domestic work is both an expression of the structural inequities within Brazilian society and the perpetuation of them. Its availability at a low cost for Brazilian middle and upper classes lessens the potential pressure for welfare-state measures aimed at supporting socio-reproduction activities – day-care centres, full-time education, community restaurants, community laundries and care centres for the elderly. As Rita Segato puts it in Crítica da Colonialidade em Oito Ensaios (2021), the continuity of women’s invisible low-paid work allows an ‘evasion of social-sector investment’.

It also dissipates tensions within middle and upper-class families, where women’s ‘double shift’ of domestic labour is alleviated, as well as the demand that their partners and other family members do their share. As the American sociologist Patricia Hill Collins argued in Black Feminist Thought (1990), historically many white families in the US similarly maintained their class position because they used black maids as cheap labour. At the same time, the delegation of domestic work tends to intensify racial and class inequities, accentuating the polarization between women, especially between domestic workers and their female employers.

Brazilian domestic workers have been particularly hard hit during the Covid pandemic, given their fragile or non-existent social protection. They were torn between continuing to work at high risk of infection or stopping work and losing their income. Nor were they given priority-worker status for the vaccine.

The aggravation of precarious social conditions suggests to some that we are moving forward towards the past. In Critique of Black Reason (2013), Achille Mbembe argued that the world is becoming nègre, as capitalism accentuates the exclusion, alienation and degradation of workers in general. From another perspective, the question of care provides a route to the future. For the Madrid collective Precarias a la Deriva, care should be a guiding principle in all political-economic considerations. Fraser argues that struggles over social-reproduction – encompassing housing, healthcare, food security, migrants’ and workers’ rights, day care, elder care, paid parental leave – are ‘tantamount to the demand for a massive reorganization of the relations between production and reproduction’.

Care and social reproduction are also central to movements such as Quilombismo and Bien Vivir, which focus on social practices based on cooperation, solidarity and equality. Production and reproduction go hand in hand in these radically democratic projects. Everyday resistance takes place in multiple ways, even if it is just to say, ‘Never going back to that place again.’ Certainly, Brazilian society will never be emancipated unless domestic workers are emancipated too.

Read on: Guilherme Boulos, ‘Struggles of the Roofless’, NLR 130.