“Take a Walk in Their Shoes”
A Review of
The Maid’s Daughter:
Living Inside and Outside the American Dream
by Mary Romero
Review by Leslie Starasta.
The opening scene of the movie version of The Help asks what it feels like to raise white children when your own children are being raised by someone else. The Maid’s Daughter: Living Inside and Outside the American Dream examines this question and many others from the viewpoint of the child of domestic workers depicting how one woman of Latina descent traverses the cultural divide between Mexican culture and a privileged white upper class while truly belonging to neither. Mary Romero, sociology professor at Arizona State University, transforms twenty years of recorded interviews with a woman referred to as “Olivia Sanchez” into a highly readable book which juxtaposes Olivia’s story, as told to Romero, with sociological commentary, research and selected interviews with other children of domestic workers. This thought provoking study raises many questions to wrestle with on both individual and societal levels
Olivia Maria Gomez Salazar is the daughter of Carmen, a Mexican woman and single parent employed as a live-in maid in L.A. Olivia’s story begins prior to her birth describing her mother’s journey from Mexico to work in El Paso and then Los Angeles as a domestic. From the beginning, the tension experienced as Carmen works for a family while Olivia is cared for by someone else and calls her caregiver “mama” is evident. Soon her mother finds a position as a live-in maid thus relieving the concerns of commuting to work and finding child care. However, these concerns are replaced by other, perhaps more troubling, issues. Stating Carmen and Olivia are “like family,” the Smith’ initially provide a sub-standard income and housing. As the years pass, the Smiths choose to pay for Olivia to attend private school along with the three Smith children rather than pay Olivia’s mother a decent, livable wage. This decision places Olivia in the awkward position of being the only Mexican, working-class student at the posh schools and creating a feeling of indebtedness toward the Smiths who assume a parental role by having the primary contact with the school. As the years go by, Olivia continues to be caught in the middle as her mother requires her to behave better than her employer’s children, but the Smiths expect her to follow their desires and expectations even though their own children did not. As “the help’s” daughter, she is called up on babysit neighbor’s children while her white classmates are not expected to as “they are too busy.”
Entering college and later her career, Olivia again finds herself in the simultaneously unique and awkward position of being Latina yet having the social skills, mindset, and experiences of a well-to-do white person. Depending on the context, some individuals who knew her were perplexed that she did not possess experiences and knowledge common to individuals of Hispanic descent while other individuals could not fathom how she had learned the social skills common to wealthy white socialites. This unique mix of skills allowed her to serve in a variety of student government positions and later in a variety of public relations positions where she could champion causes important to Hispanic individuals.
Romero’s insights and commentaries provide helpful background and will raise questions for the reader. Readers will find themselves questioning their views and attitudes towards individuals employed in a variety of service professions regardless of race and ethnicity as well as their own interactions with individuals perceived as less well off. The questions which naturally arise from reading the book make it a prime candidate for book groups. Open-minded readers may find their views transformed after reading this engaging narrative.
Leslie Starasta resides in central Illinois just off I-55 with her husband, two children, and a menagerie of pets.