The Maid’s Daughter: Living Inside and Outside the American Dream

  • Mary Romero
  • New York University Press
  • 288 pp.

A fascinating sociological look at the upstairs-downstairs life of a Mexican immigrant and her daughter, in the gated world of Los Angeles.

Reviewed by Robin Talbert

Readers who found the popular novel The Help annoyingly glib and superficial may find The Maid’s Daughter, an oral history and sociological study, astonishingly complex and often raw with emotion. Mary Romero, a professor at Arizona State University, spent over two decades interviewing, recording and analyzing Olivia Salazar (a pseudonym). Olivia is the only child of a Mexican immigrant who raised her daughter in the confines of the gated Los Angeles community where she worked in the 1960s and ’70s. As she relates her experiences to Romero, Olivia struggles to sort out who she is and how to juggle the influence of her mother’s middle-class employers with her growing awareness of the social injustice experienced by Latino immigrants.

Romero provides context for the story in an initial chapter that summarizes her extensive research on domestic workers. The case study that follows illustrates the ambivalence of a child who receives gifts and opportunities from her mother’s employers while realizing that those same benefactors undervalue and underpay for her mother’s work. Initially living with her mother in the maid’s small quarters, Olivia is soon moved upstairs into a bedroom of her own, sent to private schools and afforded some, but not all, of the privileges the Smith family provided to their four children. The Smiths view Olivia as their “project,” helping her avoid what they perceive to be a “less than” lifestyle of the immigrants they employ. Olivia instead sees a world of racism, materialism, selfishness and control. Her reactions to the Smiths are sometimes those common to teenagers resisting adult control, and sometimes intended to point out her disdain for what she sees as their hypocritical treatment of her as an exception to the broader immigrant community. Where they expect gratitude, she flips them off.

In a particularly troubling account, Olivia describes being included in Sunday evening dinners while her mother, Carmen, works elsewhere to earn some additional income. She describes the untenable situation her mother’s employer creates by expecting Olivia to “join” them as part of the family, while continuing to treat Carmen as a servant. Olivia is outraged that not only is she deprived of spending Sunday evenings with her own mother and expected to engage in dinner conversation with the Smiths, but that they in turn expect that Carmen will do the dishes when she returns from her other job. “They wanted me to sit there at the dinner table and bullshit with them, entertain them and listen to their stupid-ass stories. In high school, I started getting up from the table, clearing the table and then doing the dishes. I knew that made them uncomfortable. Mr. Smith would tell me, ‘No, no, just leave them there.’ ”

Olivia’s self-awareness and perspective on her childhood and young adulthood evolve as she grows up. Aware from a young age of the cultural and economic differences of the two worlds she traverses, Olivia finds that the divide causes significant turmoil in adolescence and beyond. Eventually, she blends her Chicana identity with her understanding of upper-middle-class social capital to become an effective and successful advocate on behalf of Mexican Americans and immigrants. She rejects assimilation and instead leverages her bilingual and bicultural skills and experiences, using personal connections from both worlds successfully in her personal and professional life. The author succeeds in elucidating this transformation over time by sharing verbatim transcriptions of Olivia’s accounts of her childhood based on conversations between the author and Olivia beginning in her early 20s and extending to her mid-40s.

For the most part I devoured this story as I would any good biographical account with engaging characters. I struggled, however, with an absence of navigational references to age and time. At times it was hard to connect Olivia’s descriptions to her age or life stage. And not infrequently, I found the author’s sociological interpretation of Olivia’s experiences either unnecessary or overblown. In one description of a particularly and obviously humiliating experience, for instance, Romero then tells us that Olivia felt humiliated.

All in all, this is a book worth reading and provides a unique voice in the ongoing conversation about race, class, gender and income inequality historically and today. Olivia’s own words and the author’s academic and political analysis bring to light many myths of upward mobility and assimilation. Readers who have ever employed domestic workers, however well paid, may find themselves uncomfortably rethinking the unspoken power dynamic in such relationships. I certainly did.

Robin Talbert grew up in a cotton mill town in the foothills of North Carolina. Her career has focused on economic and social justice, consumer rights and gender equity.

comments powered by Disqus