I was born in Brazil in the early 1970s to a middle class family. For all the years I lived with my parents we had a maid working for us. The women were usually black and would live in a small bedroom in the working area of our flat. This was common for all my friends, as it had been for our parents. During those years chores were never part of my routine or something I had to worry about. The house worked like a hotel where rooms were cleaned, clothes washed and meals appeared as if by magic. It was not until later in life that I understood the impact this situation had on the way my social class perceived life. Brazilian white middle and upper classes have always had, ingrained within them, a desire for this extreme level of comfort and convenience. Even now, according to a recent census, around 8 million women in the country work as maids.
The relationship that develops between the maid and her employer is one of the most intimate and complex relationships between the rich and the poor in Brazil. The maids, many of whom still live in their employers’ properties, have an insight into a world to which they don’t belong, to goods that they desire but cannot buy. At the same time, because Brazilians are very open people, the maids and family members often share intimate conversations and secrets. In some cases, after a while, the maid will be considered “part of the family”. These homes wouldn’t function without the maid; she becomes an essential part of the structure of the family life. This relationship is charged with a mix of employer-employee problems and familial affection.
The origin of this relationship can be traced back to the relationship between the master and the slaves who worked in the farmhouses as domestics in colonial Brazil. The end of slavery in 1888 didn’t come with any plan to integrate the black ex-slaves into a capitalist society based on paid work. While the paid jobs were offered to the Europeans that emigrated to Brazil after that time, for many of the poor and uneducated black women the only possibility was to continue working as maids. This structure, present in Brazil for centuries, is now being challenged by the recent economic development and the creation of other possibilities of work for the poor classes. Suddenly it has become harder for the upper classes to find a “good” maid, or even any maid at all and this “problem” has become subject to debate in national magazines, TV news and game shows. Other subjects also present in the media are: the appreciation for the maids’ work and their importance to society and the need to professionalise the relationship between maid and employer. This debate says a lot about the complexities of Brazilian society, its inequality and the kind of questions the country faces at present.
“Brazilian Maids” will be next exhibited in São Paulo in January 2013 as part of the 4th Mostra Sao Paulo de Fotografia.
André Penteado is a Brazilian artist based in London. His work brings autobiographic elements coming from two main roots: the first covers psychological states that emerged from the losses and big changes that every human being faces throughout their lives (such as the death of his father or the migration to Europe); the second root concerns to social and political issues in Brazil (such as the projects on the maids and corruption).