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Servants, Slaves and Unintentional Seduction in Brazil

inequality children brazil wealth poverty

The wealthy in a poor country tend to be far richer than the wealthy in a rich country. There may not be quite as many zeros in their bank accounts but what they do have can buy a hell of a lot more at local prices. The disparity of wealth in a poor country also tends to be far more extreme with a very slim middle class. You have the rich hiding behind their gated communities and the poor scrambling for a buck in the slums.

Brazil is particularly garish in this respect. The houses of the rich are often sprawling complexes with swimming pools, drinks salons, guest bedrooms with en suite bathrooms and discreet, tucked away quarters for the servants. Each member of the family has a car and the kids grow up to be doctors, lawyers, architects or business administrators. They marry within the same class and the money sticks closely together.

I found myself sick in the North East of Brazil and I was invited to stay in the family house of some doctors while I had some blood tests done. In my fragile condition I could not have hoped for kinder, more supportive hosts who took me in out of the blue and did all they could for me. They drove me around the city and brought me cups of ice cream at night. The mother of the house worked around 70 hours a week at her clinic, not having the heart to go home when patients were still coming in.

Yet at home they treated their servants like shit.

The hired help in Brazil comes of course from the poor neighbourhoods. In the North East these are often quite stunted and brown; attending the tables of their healthy, white-skinned employers, you might wonder how much has changed since the days of independence and slavery.

It’s common practice through most of Latin America for any house that can afford it to have domestic help – if only to clean and do the laundry. The maid/nanny/servant need the income and they can ease the strain of raising a family and maintaining a household.

However, it’s without doubt a buyer’s market and so the employees have to put up with every and any kind of treatment if they want to be able to buy their beans and rice at the end of the week. The employers feel vaguely philanthropic for maintaining a salary for so many years and often feel that the servant is rather indebted to them. The latter meanwhile may have no other real identity other than to meet the needs of the house, day in, day out. And if there’s one thing that breeds contempt, it’s familiarity.

“Honestly, I’ve told them so many times how to set the table and they still get it wrong – One loses patience in the end.” I heard one evening at the dinner table. One simply can’t get the help these days. Coming from a European background, it was disconcerting for me to watch someone laying the table and then clearing it away without so much as a thank you.

In these kinds of houses no one fantasises about a futuristic robot who will do everything for them. They already have servants.

“Joseph, pass me my lighter. And turn the light on. Joseph, ashtray. Bring some fruit, Joseph – and buy some cigarettes.”

My aversion to domestic service is probably mostly a cultural reaction. But I think a line is crossed when you employ someone to do everyday things that you could do yourself with no effort at all. Like turning on a light switch.

The servants themselves admittedly weren’t geniuses; full of superstition, home-spun wisdom and limited horizons they were the product of an uneducated social background. They came from overcrowded families where everyone watches the moronic TV programs at blaring volume, no one ever reads a book and where there’s not always enough to eat. Beans and rice twice a day, football on the neighbour’s fuzzy TV, cluck over the local gossip and, if they needed any more answers, there’s always the church.

“Every day I pray to God that He will help me. To give me a chance.” Joseph told me one night, his dish towel draped over his arm. For him to work in a house as spacious and opulent as this was like being asked to polish the pearly gates of Heaven. A visitor’s permit badge on his lapel.

The kind, compassionate, hard-working doctor had just gone upstairs, dropping a 50 Real note on the floor for Joseph to go and buy supplies. He picked it up, shaking his head.

“She has no education.” He turned to me. “Do you see?”

I shrugged sadly.

“I can’t say anything. I’m just a guest here. But yes, I saw and it’s something I can’t understand.”

I looked him straight in the eyes to show my moral support and made to shake his hand before I went upstairs. No sooner had my hand met his, though, he grabbed it tight and tickled my palm with the rough stub of his index finger. It seemed that Joseph hoped that this strange, white guy from across the ocean might be his Chance sent from God.

I broke away and went upstairs to work on the computer, wondering how my intended show of solidarity had been perceived as a come-on. I could only imagine that it’s so rare in Brazil for a richer person to take an interest in the feelings of someone lower down the food chain, that he imagined there must be ulterior motives involved.

When I finished typing up my article I rose to go to bed and Joseph was already waiting on the stairs.

“Turn off the light up there.” I hit the switch and everything went dark. I turned it back on in a moment. No way was I passing him on the stairs in pitch blackness. I walked past him without a word and headed to bed where I lamented that the house couldn’t have had a buxom young maid from Bahia working for them.