Posted Monday, January 26th, 2004
Work (a chapter from Historia, Historia: Two Years in the Cape Verde Islands)
Gustinha introduced herself to us the first night we arrived in the town of São Filipe, where we would be living. Dan and I were sitting in Café Magma drinking sodas when she found us, kissed us on both cheeks as though we already knew her. Her hair was tied back in a headscarf, and she smiled often, revealing crooked teeth with wide gaps. She pulled up a chair next to me, already explaining in quick Creole what she would need for us to buy: bleach, steel wool, a laundry basin. Oh, and some corn and rice and fish if we wanted her to cook for us, although of course tomorrow night we’d have to come have dinner at her house, so we could meet her family.
Gustinha had been working for the Peace Corps volunteers in São Filipe for the past eight years. She had pictures of all of them in her house: Jeremy, Ashley, Chad, Wendy. When we met her she was thirty and had four kids, three boys and a girl, the oldest of whom was fifteen. Her common-law husband was a furniture maker by trade, but he appeared to spend more time listening to soccer games on the radio and drinking beer with other men in the bar than he did with his hammer.
The word for maid in Creole is empregada. Literally translated, it means simply employed. There is no stigma attached to the job. Any employment is better than the alternative, and a respectable way to put food on the table. Many Cape Verdeans are day laborers, piecing together a living setting stones on a new road or putting up roofs or cleaning houses.
“What do you do?” Americans ask each other at parties, in bars, on the bus. A Cape Verdean would be baffled by this question as a means of introduction. I drive a truck, I clean houses, I work in the fields. But what does this tell you about me? Here the important questions are: Who is your father? Who is your mother? Where do you live? Where were your parents born? Work has nothing to do with one’s identity. Work is what we have to do to put rice in the pot.
If there is no shame in cleaning houses here, there is certainly none in holding a social position that allows you to hire someone to do so. Our Cape Verdean counterparts all had empregadas to cook their meals, wash their clothes and clean their houses. In fact, there is often an unspoken obligation for those with enough money to hire someone; not to do so is a mark of stinginess, of an unwillingness to return something to the community.
There are unspoken rules governing interactions between employer and employee, a code that leaves no confused uncomfortable silences. Such unease would be highly inconvenient, as there is no such thing as a professional relationship here; the empregada probably lives several doors down, is your second cousin or the mother of one of your students.
It is a sharp contrast to our American society, which is on the surface so aggressively egalitarian, and underneath so socially stratified. We are offended if someone addresses us with any formality, insist on being called by our first names. Our language allows few distinctions of rank; there is no formal second person. Once I went visiting in the countryside of Fogo with another Peace Corps volunteer, and was mortified to hear her address a toothless grandmother as bo, the informal, rather than the honorific nha. As Americans, we are either unaware of the subtleties of rank and deference, or else we consciously flout them, assuming that anyone would welcome the easy intimacy this implies. We like to pretend that everything in this country is democratic, fair and even. Our public officials emphasize their good ole boy backgrounds (regardless of how distant these backgrounds are). Corporate executives wear jeans and sneakers to work. No one wants to see herself as the type to have a maid; it brings out things about us that we would prefer not to acknowledge. We straighten up before the help arrives, or leave tasks undone rather than give orders. Could you please, if you don’t mind, if it isn’t too much trouble…. In upper class suburbs like the one where I grew up, public buses deposit dark skinned women in the morning and return them to their own neighborhoods before rush hour. Fewer complications this way; the occasional greeting exchanged in passing (one on the way in the door, the other on the way out); the list of chores to do or cleaning supplies to buy; the weekly check left on the counter.
Miriam, the other Peace Corps volunteer in our town, also hired Gustinha. She felt so uncomfortable telling her what to do that she would leave notes instead, then complain when the shelves remained undusted or the floor unmapped, not realizing that Gustinha was not ignoring her requests; the problem was, she couldn’t read.
My mother-in-law, who was born and raised in Brazil, does not understand Americans’ conflicted emotions surrounding household help, why women who work ten-hour days still feel guilty about hiring someone. Dan’s parents are both doctors, and when they immigrated to the U.S., they brought their nanny with them. The children called her Tia, Aunt. She lived with them, cooked, cleaned the house, raised Dan and his sisters so that she could send half her monthly check home to her nine brothers and sisters in São Paulo. There was no pretense of distance or anonymity; they saw each other in bathrobes and pajamas, they sat down to dinner with each other every night.
Gustinha came to our house on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I didn’t teach until twelve-thirty, and in the mornings I tried to write. I would sit in the bright pink room at the back of the apartment with the door closed, notebook balanced on my knees. Beneath the windows, the chickens gossiped loudly.
Gustinha sang as she swept and mopped. Licença, she called, excuse me, as she swung the door open with her hip, carrying a bucket of water in one hand and a rag in the other. Always so busy working, she said, as she began in one corner, moving backward across the room on her knees. Teaching is hard work, isn’t it? I don’t see how you do it. It makes your head tired. Much harder than cleaning houses.
I nodded, pretending to write something, wishing I could melt into the floor, wishing I could just be alone and mop my own house, or not mop it at all if I didn’t want to.
I don’t remember now where Dan was those mornings while I was writing, if he walked down to the market or sat on the stoop with the neighbors, or if he was merely in the other room, talking to Gustinha while she scrubbed our clothes in the stone quintal and dusted the shelf in the living room.
I don’t know how to speak about Gustinha. To call her my housekeeper is misleading; to simply say she was my friend, though, glosses over many aspects of our relationship. She was only six years older than me, but her youth had been surrendered at fifteen when her first son was born. Her body acquiesced: her breasts sagged, her back ached, her teeth fell out. The fact that she was a mother put something greater than a few years between us. It gave her clout in our relationship, allowed her to mother me. She cooked for us, then watched as we tried her katchupa or kuskús with honey, scolding me to eat more. “Take off that shirt,” she would order as I was dressing for school. “Let me iron that.”
Sometimes she answered the telephone when I was out. “You mother called,” she reported. “I told her that everything is fine here, that I’m taking good care of you.” I’m not sure how she managed that, given her non-existent English, and my mother’s equally non-existent Creole, but sure enough, when my mother called back later, she told me that she had talked to Gustinha. “What did you two talk about?” I asked, imagining some mother tongue that transcended any earthly language, that I, still childless myself, I could not possibly comprehend.
Gustinha lived in a little stone house perched on the edge of the cliff. Sometimes I visited her in the evening; she would give her son Patriki several escudos and a cloth sack and send him down to Maria Agusta’s to buy a few rolls and gingerbread cookies, which came out of the oven everyday at six. We sat in her kitchen, a lean-to structure that lost light fast. Our conversations were repetitive as the motions of her hands chopping onions for katchupa. “How is your family?”
“And your father?”
“They’re all fine.”
“Ay, tcheu sodadi.” She shook her head. How you must miss them.
“Sodadi sim,” I would assent, then proceed to ask her about each member of her family, after which we would delve into the gossip of the day, variations on how incorrigible my students, her children, our husbands, and men in general were.
The habit of economy was etched into her palms. She kept used grease in a tin by the stove, lit one burner from the other rather than striking a new match. She waited until the last minute to light the kerosene lamp, until darkness had closed on us with the finality of a shut book.
Gustinha had stopped going to school in the fourth grade. For several months while I was there, she studied with the Mormons, who had a little night school in the basement of their church. She practiced her letters in a Mickey Mouse notebook. I think it embarrassed her to be at the same level as Patrícia, her five-year old, but I also saw a certain pride in how she left her notebook lying on the coffee table, so when I came to visit her it just happened to be there, open to a page of careful, curvy script.
But when spring came, Gustinha’s mother got sick, then there were a few weeks off for Easter. The old Mormons left and were replaced by new ones. Gustinha lost her momentum. Her cousin had come up with a new business proposition, selling cornmeal pastries in the prison down by the cliff. This meant long hours grinding flour, shredding fish, and frying the pasteis. The guard let them in at six, and Gustinha and her cousin walked up and down the rows of cells with their covered baskets, slipping pasteis between the bars, collecting five-escudo pieces. Her cousin seemed to take a disproportionate share of the money, though, and most of the rest went back into fish for the next day. It was a losing venture from the start.
Sometimes in retrospect I feel guilty, and think I should have made the effort to teach Gustinha how to read. I should have sat with her while she labored through her ditto sheets, encouraged her tentative letters. We could have ignored the embarrassment that would have hovered over both our shoulders.
Gustinha’s oldest, Soni, had stopped going to school a few years before. “I tried,” she shrugged. “I told him, Soni, you have to go to school, but he’s lazy and stubborn. He doesn’t have a mind for learning, anyway. Just like his mama.”
Since I’ve left, I try to keep in touch with her, but it’s not easy. We can’t write letters, and even if we could, they would have to be in Portuguese, a foreign language to us both. The telephone is expensive and unreliable. I dial the number of the public phone in the praça, but the lines are down. When I do get through, we have our same old conversation across the static of a thousand miles. There are no apologies for not calling sooner; we pick up right where we left off. The kids are still getting in trouble, her husband still too lazy to help out.
And what can I tell her about how I’m doing? About the classes I’m teaching, about how I’m moving to a different state to go to school there, or how, although my husband loves me and does more than his share of the chores, I sometimes feel so lonely in this marriage I could choke?
I don’t know how to say these things in Creole; even if I did, such a conversation wouldn’t translate. I’m fine, I say. My health is good. My family is doing well.
In my dream Gustinha invites me once again into her stone quintal, the enclosed square of sky where she hangs the laundry out to dry, where we gossip beneath the bright clean flags of no country. She is expecting again, her full-moon belly rising behind the ridged washboard. I can’t convey in Creole, a language with no future, why at twenty-five I have a husband and no child.
Inda sta sedu, she says in consolation. It’s still early, even as the dark slips in, as she touches the match to the kerosene lamp, its glass pregnant with light.
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