Monday, April 02, 2012

Death in the river, or how we came to have a Honduran cleaner

So, we have a woman who comes once a week to clean and do our laundry in the pila on the terrace. Pilas are a Honduran staple - a large concrete water tank with a corrugated shelf for scrubbing clothes and washing dishes. Ours isn’t filled. The upstairs tenants are worried, I expect rightly, about mosquitos.

I have never been comfortable with someone doing household chores. (Nor have I been great at doing them myself.) When I was a teen, a woman came to our house in suburban Toronto once a week to clean, except we were all required to make sure the house was spotless before she arrived. I played lacrosse against her large, not particularly skillful, son George. My strategy in stopping him was to allow myself to be trampled to the ground, and then try to tangle his legs as he ran over top of me. It was moderately effective.

In Gordon Head, Jody and I had a cleaner who suffered from light mental illness, which was unfortunate given the challenges placed in her way at our house.

She resigned one week when we were away after showing up and taking one look at the chaos. Jody’s son, housesitting for us, thought the place actually looked pretty good when she arrived.

Another time, she left a note that said only “Gone home. Scary ants.”

Which was quite true. For a year or two, large, horrible brown-winged ants would occasionally appear out of the walls and ceiling. One time we were having a family party and I watched in horrified fascination, willing the woman to move, as ants dropped from the ceiling onto the back of her dress. When the landlord finally had a new roof put on, the contractors swore they had never seen such a horrific infestation.

We don’t really need a cleaner here. Our place is small and we have little furniture and almost no clothes.

But we met Cecelia during our four-week home stay with Julia, part of our Spanish school. Or first we met Christina, her 15-year-old daughter. (I’ve changed all the names. The odds are remote that worlds will overlap, but it’s the information age and everyone deserves privacy.)

Christina lived in the home as a kind of house chica, cleaning and looking after the somewhat crabby 15-month-old son of Deanna, one of Julia’s daughters, who lived in the adjacent house. Christina had her own room, and seemed content enough. It wasn’t some Dickens thing.

Then we met Cecelia, her quiet mum, who also showed up sometimes to cook or clean, and Yeny, her dead charming nine-year-old daughter, brown-skin, dark hair, dark eyes, always smiling in a wise kind of way, happy to sit in a little chair and listen to Jody play accordion.

One day I was working on my Spanish on the slab roof, under the drying laundry, as Yeny sat on her little chair and grilled me. What did my shoes cost? How about my computer? How many children did I have? What did I think of Copan?

She said her father was dead. He drank beer, she said pointing to my Port Royal, and dove into the river and hit his head on a rock and died. (All later confirmed in other conversations, without the beer part.)

Which explained why Christina was at our place. Cecilia had three kids and almost no money, and little way of earning anything, so finding a way to have one less mouth to feed was pragmatic.

Yeny is charming, and direct. A week or so later, she and I had a conversation in the living room and she told me about a kid in her class who was getting hassled by the teacher because he didn’t have the required black shoes. They wear blue pants or skirts and white shirts and black shoes in the public schools. He’s too poor to buy shoes, she said.

That’s just wrong, I said. The teacher is out of line. Who cares what shoes he wears? Does that affect his school work?

We discussed the issue for a while, in my broken Spanish, as she patiently corrected me.

Then we drifted up to the roof, where Jody was playing accordion. Get this, I said, the teacher is grinding a kid in Yeny’s class because he’s poor and doesn’t have the right shoes. Outrageous.

But it turned out that my Spanish hadn’t been up to the conversation, and it was Yeny who didn’t have the shoes because she was poor. So she and Jody headed down the hill to the zapateria and bought shoes and a couple of pairs of tall white socks.

And once we were out of the home stay, we ended up with a cleaner, about $6 for two hours or so a week. Yeny comes sometimes. She brought me a fridge magnet, a little pink foam Volkswagen, her class made as a project for Father's Day. It says 'Dios te bendiga papa.'

Footnote: Minimum wage for rural workers in Honduras is about 95 cents an hour. For a mid-size enterprise, a mine or business or a hospital, it’s about $1.80. (The system is complex.) There are special lower rates for companies operating under the “Free Zones Act,” legislation which aimed - successfully - to attract foreign companies to set up maufacturing operations with no taxes, few regulations and low-cost labour.

But the minimum wage laws are not enforced and even getting paid is a challenge, the Honduras Weekly noted here.


Anonymous said...

And the Free Trade Zone being set up by Delta Port. Special rates there I'm sure also. The land is being bought up or ruined so he can be bought up in order to set up this zone. Also the TFN sold themselves out to the BC lying party, in order to faclitate this. imo anyway.

Corruption is deep in BC.

Anonymous said...

I have a lump in my throat, the shoe issue is one faced by Southern European family members 70years ago.

"The more things change the more they stay the same".

Anonymous said...

Amazing what difference you can make (paying much higher rates for something you don't really need) in order to inspire and empower the next generation. Thanks. Meanwhile, how to lobby for labour rights and social fairness? Does the school provide breakfast to those who need (I heard they did at some schools...or some teachers brought the kids food).