LATINA NANNIES / ANGLO FAMILIES : The INTIMATE EXPERIMENT : What Happens When Two Cultures Meet at the Playpen and the Cradle?

<i> Mary Jo McConahay is an associate editor at Pacific News Service in San Francisco. </i>

ON A SHADY STREET IN Santa Monica, the trim white house, enclosed like a warm secret by a low-clipped hedge, is quiet. Inside, a 2 1/2-year-old boy lies in a darkened room on his Mickey Mouse sheets, his blond hair falling in wet strings across his forehead, his pillow still damp with the perspiration that comes with deep sleep in the afternoon.

His mother isn’t home. Instead, a Salvadoran woman hovers near the nursery door. “Hi, Michael. No sleeping?”

Marta Perez * sweeps in wearing a loose floral housedress. She has kicked off her shoes to accommodate feet that tend to swell slightly late in the day. “Up, hola! Feet down, please. Vaya, good!”

While Perez dresses the boy in overalls and a shirt printed with He-Man figures, they converse with all the spirit and creativity of a chatty woman new to the English language and a chatty toddler new to any language at all.


Even a first-time visitor to this house can read the silent details that spell out a modern family’s concern for its children. On the kitchen counter is a homemade cherry pie baked by the boy’s mother, Sally Cooper, before she left for work. Taped to the refrigerator, among the finger paintings, is a barbecue invitation from Cooper’s Lamaze group. In the den, next to a framed photo of the boy, are the videotapes: “Sesame Street” and pregnancy exercise routines.

When Cooper comes home at 5 p.m. she sinks her six-months-pregnant body down on the living-room couch and regards her son and Perez fondly as they march past on their way out to the yard. “He adores her,” she says simply.

An experiment is unfolding here. The Cooper house is a laboratory of sorts where Latino and Anglo worlds are touching in an extended, intimate, first meeting. In unprecedented numbers, all over Southern California, women like Sally Cooper are hiring women like Marta Perez to come into their homes and take care of their children. Such arrangements will surely affect the future of this region, where rapid demographic change means that the Anglo and Latino worlds soon are bound either to mesh or to clash on a grander scale.

SALLY COOPER WAS NOT born to a life of luxury in which servants were taken for granted. She and her husband, Don, a contractor, are on their way up. She is 33, an accountant and one of the booming number of older, first-time mothers. “I think I’m like a lot of women,” she says. “We’ve already worked for a long time, and when we’re pregnant we think, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be able to stay home all the time. I need someone to help.’ ”

Going back to work, however, is not so easy. “This little baby comes into your life and you can’t bear the thought of leaving him,” Cooper says. “I went through a lot of feeling guilty and weighing it out. Should I or shouldn’t I?

“When I grew up, our moms spent a lot of time with kids, not just at home but around events at school and church, and that’s the kind of environment, with Mom in the picture, that surrounded us. Now, to pursue our own needs, we’re subjecting our children to an experiment.”


Her eyes focus on something in the distance and show that she is wrestling with the imagined implications of what she has said. She blurts out the bottom line: “What choice do I have?” she says.

Knowing that she can count on Perez, hired as a housekeeper when Cooper was pregnant with Michael, helps quell Cooper’s fears. If putting the baby in outside day care were the only affordable option, Cooper says, the decision to go back to work would have been even harder.

Her face relaxes again. Through the floor-to-ceiling window, which is steaming up now as the air cools outside, Perez and Michael pose in gentle play among bright yard furniture. Perez offers a sweater that the boy rejects with wide shakes of his head. But a few moments later, he is snugly buttoned into his cardigan, standing on a bench, trying to braid Perez’s hair.

Cooper tilts her own blond head onto the back of the sofa, her full body and clear-cut features a languid American echo of the art on the wall above. There, a South Seas womanstares out of the frame, quiet but regal, mistress of the stretch of tropical sand where she kneels at rest.

AT ANOTHER TIME, PEREZ is standing stiffly before the same couch, resisting all entreaties to sit down. She has been talking as she cleaned house and minded the boy about her native El Salvador, about her brother who was killed there two years ago “by gunshots from unknown men in civilian clothes,” a sort of code phrase for murder by death squad. She has changed into a clean white dress for the two-hour bus trip back to her home in East Los Angeles. Michael is playing quietly on the carpet with a toy car, Cooper is late coming home and Perez is too anxious to sit. A wet stain appears at her breasts, then spreads quickly over the front of her dress. She has her own baby at home, a 12-week-old boy she last nursed when it was still dark this morning.

Perez, 33, remarried when she came to Los Angeles. She and her husband, another Salvadoran refugee, have another little boy, Roger, now 6. Like Cooper, Perez wrestles with questions about separation from her children, including three she left behind in El Salvador. She worries especially about the oldest, now 17, who must leave the protection of relatives and look for work.

“I’m sad because she is there, but how can I send for her?” she says. “It’s difficult to come the way I came--the way she would have to come--walking for hours, without shoes because the kind of shoes we bring break early in the trip. Night marches. Men who abuse the young girls on the way. It makes me too afraid to think about it.”

One afternoon, Perez’s sister, Lineth, who works as a part-time housekeeper in several Anglo homes, surprises Perez by dropping by to pick her up. Perez is excited because the ride home means that she will save enough time to see Roger while it is still light outside. Except on weekends, she usually only sees him by the light of a lamp.

The sisters consider their lives success stories. They have made their way out of a caldron of war and dead ends at home. They work steadily for people they like, making three to four times the weekly salaries they earned when they first arrived in this country, and they are safer from la migra --the Immigration and Naturalization Service--than they might be in a factory or picking crops. Their coveted jobs do come with a price, however, paid by the heart.

“I get home at night and Roger is sleepy,” Perez says. “Then I get up early again and have to leave. I look in at him quietly before I go, but sometimes that wakes him up and he says, ‘Don’t go to work.’ I tell him, ‘Look, little papa, we are lucky I have the job.’ But it’s hard for him to understand.”

GO TO ANY WESTSIDE PARK, to toddler story times at the Santa Monica public libraries or to infant exercise classes in Pacific Palisades, and you’ll see them: Spanish-speaking women wheeling their Anglo charges. Wealthy Americans have long enjoyed live-in or daily help raising their children. What’s new today--and especially visible in certain areas of Los Angeles--is how widespread the custom is becoming among families who don’t consider themselves rich.

Now more than half of U.S. women with children under age 3 work outside the home. For most, in-home child care is preferable but unaffordable. For those who can afford it, it may be more available in Southern California than anywhere else in the country--the demand here has coincided with the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees and immigrants from Central America. Like Marta Perez, the women among them will do domestic work for wages a Sally Cooper can afford--$150 will buy a 24-hour-a-day live-in baby sitter and housekeeper for a six-day week in the L.A. area, although women with excellent English, work documents and a driver’s license might command as much as $300.

No hard data is available on the new child-care workers and their employers, and without it, academics, government agencies, even labor organizers won’t venture estimates of their numbers. Ruth E. Zambrana of the UCLA School of Social Welfare, an expert on immigrant women and health, offered a thumbnail sketch of the bigger picture, citing “impressions and observations, not empirical evidence.”

The use of of Latina nannies is increasing with the increase in working mothers, Zambrana observes. Once, Latina baby sitters in Southern California were typically from Mexico, but a shift began in the early 1980s. “Right now in Los Angeles,” Zambrana says, “we have a dramatically changed scene--the women are coming from El Salvador and Guatemala too.” They fall into two groups: single women leaving war-ravaged countries for better opportunities and a “significant,” perhaps higher, number of married women desperate to make enough money to send home to their own children. Employers are generally families in which both husband and wife have careers. The low wages have also made nannies available to a broad group of single-income families--not just the very well-to-do.

For all their visibility, however, these arrangements are part of an officially invisible underground economy. Although the Anglos interviewed for this story are the kind of people unlikely to even run a red light, they know or suspect that their employees, for the most part, are here illegally.

Under the 2-year-old Immigration Reform and Control Act, anyone who knowingly hires an immigrant without proper papers could be fined up to $10,000 and even go to jail for up to six months. Although a Texas couple was fined $350 in a rare case involving a housekeeper, no such cases have been brought in the L.A. area, says John Belluardo, a spokesman for the INS Western Region. “Enforcement focuses primarily on corporate employers,” he says, adding, “That is not to send a signal to individuals that they are free to hire illegal aliens.”

It is a picture that demolishes the Mary Poppins image. The nannies have no safety net, no benefits or Social Security. There is enormous turnover among all day-care workers, probably because the economic incentive to stay isn’t there, and Latina nannies are no exception. Madeline Stoner, an assistant professor of social welfare at USC and an expert on the history of child care, says, “This is not a position our society values by making it well paid.”

Church and community workers sometimes play matchmaker between new immigrants and families. Some agencies in Los Angeles specialize in placing such care givers. They require a document such as a green card to prove a job applicant is here legally, but, as one agency owner admitted ruefully, she has no way of proving that the documents are authentic. At any rate, it is not the agencies that are answering the demand. Much more typical are informal matches. When Marta Perez arrived, for instance, she paid a Guatemalan woman in her neighborhood $50 to find her a first job; by now, Perez figures that she herself has placed seven Guatemalans and Salvadorans, at no charge.

Donna Kramer, another Anglo mother, who lives in Pacific Palisades, describes the underground network: “No one I know has to look more than two weeks (for help). You just put the word out and it’s there.”

IN KRAMER’S NEIGHBORHOOD, homes look so much like the American dream that owners rent them out for TV commercials. Donna Kramer, who is married to an attorney and doesn’t work outside the home, is kept as busy managing her household as the mistress of a medieval manor might have been. Last year she hired Esperanza Flores, who is Salvadoran, to clean house and take care of Marissa, 5, and Garr, 8. In some ways it was a match made in heaven, even if neither Kramer nor Flores might have predicted it a few years ago.

Kramer says when she and her best friend, Vera, used to talk about having someone in the home, they decided “it just didn’t sound like it would be a comfortable situation. I remember we’d say, ‘I just can’t imagine somebody else doing all the little things. It would be like losing a kind of freedom in your own house.’ We sort of both laugh now because Vera has someone living in and so do I.”

Like most of the Latin American women who care for children in Los Angeles homes, Flores is expected to do housework too. Kramer is not the kind of employer who compulsively cleans a room before the housekeeper gets to it, nor does she speak in terms of guilt. “I never feel like I am neglecting my children,” she says. “I just need to be out, and I have a live-in because I want to leave them with someone I trust. Also, I don’t get any great pleasure out of cleaning my house.”

Flores, meanwhile, says she is finally earning enough to send $150 “every 20 days” to her children in San Salvador. As she sits at the mahogany dinette off the spotless kitchen, Marissa’s arms slung around her neck, it’s hard to picture Flores at home on the southeast edge of that capital. That neighborhood has unpaved streets and no bus service, and after a good rain it is common to hear that a house has slipped down the sides of the huge ravine. Because an army garrison is nearby, Flores says, she and her neighbors lived in fear, “from one minute to the next,” that their teen-age sons might be forced into conscription. At night, inevitably, silence is torn by bursts of automatic weapons fire.

In San Salvador, Flores--whose husband deserted her--ran a small store out of her house and supported her boys and a daughter, now 14, “over a period of 16 years when I wasn’t apart from my children even one night.” The war hung on and sharpened. Finally, when the place was robbed, she couldn’t get help from authorities, who blamed guerrillas. “It was a lie,” she says, but to contradict the police was to bring suspicion on her own head. Flores doesn’t entertain the question of whether she is an economic, war or political refugee. “I am here to earn enough to feed the children at home, to help my girl out of there and to pay for my boys to study and prepare themselves,” she says. “How long will it take? I don’t know. But this is the way I can do it.”

Even the most apparently symbiotic relationship has trouble spots. It rattles Kramer that her desire to treat Flores as a member of the family clashes agonizingly with her need to tell her what to do--a typical problem of women who are employing servants for the first time. Kramer is especially distressed today because the weekend is approaching. Flores has Sundays off and has taken to asking on Saturday afternoons whether she might leave early to go to the room she rents near Hoover and Vermont. Replacing her for an evening with a local baby sitter is not an option. “The teen-agers up here don’t need to work,” Kramer laments.

Whether or not Flores will feel bad about staying Saturday night, and whether Kramer will feel bad insisting that she does, goes to the heart of the relationship between the two women. They depend on each other and do not want to offend each other. Flores is part of the household, but she is not part of the family. She insists that she has her own family that “I never forget about for a moment.” Kramer, meanwhile, wants Flores to feel “at home,” which she isn’t, and is embarrassed to admit that, with a busy life but no outside job and a live-in maid / baby sitter, she feels “decadent.”

Sometimes young Garr seems to reflect his mother’s confusion. One night Flores is playing a favorite game with the children. As she chases them with a mop, they jump out of her way or hide, giggling when she pretends she can’t reach them. Playing hard, Garr smashes his fingers in a door and screams in pain to his mother upstairs. Flores is devastated, yet through his tears Garr wants before all else to defend her..

“It wasn’t her fault,” he sobs.

“Tell her,” encourages Kramer.

“I will in a minute,” he agrees, his cries mellowing to a whimper. “Right now my finger hurts.”

But the next morning, Garr lashes out in anger because Kramer is leaving. Flores tries to comfort him and divert his attention. Garr looks at her and screams, “I don’t want you,” and other things that Kramer won’t repeat.

“I’ve never heard him talk to anyone like that before,” Kramer says. “Maybe he thought it was OK because she can’t understand English.”

AT NIGHT IN HER ROOM DOWNSTAIRS, Flores studies two books Kramer bought for her. One is a Dr. Seuss dictionary in Spanish and English, with bold color pictures of objects such as “hen” and “boat.” The other is “Home Maid Spanish.” It was written in the 1960s, which dates it for its new market; the holidays section, for instance, lists only Mexican national days. It contains multiple-choice phrases such as “Please furnish / I will furnish your uniforms,” which employers like Sally Cooper and Kramer, who wouldn’t think of demanding uniforms, find quaint. The bilingual commands are listed by job, such as “Living room: Wax and polish the piano, but do not wax the keys.”

“Me want juice,” is the way Garr talks to Flores, and louder than necessary. Why? “I have to talk patchy or she won’t understand.” His words have the faintest, almost imperceptible, tone of resentment.

Women like Kramer say they would like to talk more deeply to the women who work for them but they can’t. “Most of my friends, like me, hired through word of mouth. We depend on the recommendations of each other’s housekeepers who always have friends or sisters looking for work,” she says. “Then, like I’m doing with Esperanza, we trust our own intuitions day by day. You don’t have much choice, really, if you don’t speak their language.”

Kramer concedes that she doesn’t know much about what Flores does on her off hours. “I don’t know what values she taught her own children, although I assume that because she is a nice person she lives by the same values we do.”

Talking it over one afternoon, the question of what impact Flores will have on the values and outlook of Marissa and Garr seems to concern her deeply. But finally, Kramer insists that the question doesn’t matter. It is from the family, she says, that the children will learn the important principles of life. In this view--and it is the dominant one--the care giver falls into the same category as a costly board game or good book. “The nanny is there to enhance the environment of the child while the parent is gone, that’s all,” Kramer concludes.

One morning when Kramer is gone, Flores sits at the dinette while Marissa orbits her like a little moon.

“She speaks English fine,” offers Marissa, anxious to join the conversation, which is going on in Spanish.

Que galan ,” says Flores. How nice that would be. They laugh together.

At the refrigerator Flores offers fruit juice, which Marissa rejects. (“You know your mother doesn’t want you to have the Fudgsicles until after lunch.”) Flores sits again. Her head is framed by the white eyelet curtains on the window behind her, which gives onto the front walk, mauve and pink roses beyond the beveled glass.

“Sometimes I see the war here on television,” she says. “It makes you want to be there now.” Then she smiles at what she said. “As if you could protect your children anyway.”

If they could talk to each other, as both say they want to, Kramer and Flores might find that they have much in common--from their trust in intuition to their worries about their children. They might also be able to come up with a plan to, well, handle Marissa, who is now removing a Fudgsicle from the freezer compartment herself. Brazenly, she sits at the table, slurping at the chocolate. Kramer has a frustrated mother’s description of her daughter: “Affectionate, obstinate, belligerent and intimidating.”

“Some days it feels I just yell at her all day long,” Kramer says. “I worry Esperanza might wonder, ‘Why is this mother yelling?’ And I have no way of saying to her, ‘She drives me crazy.’ Do you think she understands that?”

Marissa has hit Flores to get her attention, but Flores won’t report it; she is afraid of getting fired. While Kramer is crying out in her mind for someone to sympathize with her, to understand that Marissa is willful, Flores of all people knows it best, but keeps it a secret.

“Not every parent understands that if one complains it doesn’t mean one doesn’t like her child,” she says. In fact, she has seen that kind of misunderstanding arise and watched jobs evaporate for her friends. “Besides, when you do complain, the child can begin to think of you as the enemy.” She tenderly dabs with a napkin at the chocolate tracks on Marissa’s face as the girl climbs into her lap. There, lulled by the cadence of Flores’ foreign speech, the child falls asleep.

BY THE TIME MARISSA, Garr and little Michael Cooper are parents, the face of this region will look different than it does today. According to a 1988 Census Bureau report, since 1980 the Latino population of the United States has increased five times faster than that of any other group, reaching an estimated 19.4 million. California counts the highest per-state Latino population--6.6 million. One projection, by David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Chicano Studies Center at UCLA--assuming an influx of immigrants from a troubled southern hemisphere and continued high fertility rates among the Latin population--suggests that Latinos could make up as much as 45% of the state’s population by 2030, outstripping Anglos, Asians and blacks. Already, in Los Angeles, Anglos make up less than half the population. About 60% of the half-million children in the city’s public schools are Latino.

Parents like the Coopers and the Kramers not only are aware of this picture, but also say they want to help their children prepare for the new realities. They say they like having a Spanish-speaking care giver precisely because she might help their children become bilingual. “Learning Spanish at home would be so much easier for him than at school,” Cooper says. “At this age the children’s minds are sponges.”

Like other elements in this experiment, however, the hoped-for process of cultural exchange may have results that are neither uniform nor predictable.

Even Anglo children who are surrounded by Latinos may develop strong ideas early about what language belongs to whom. Take Joshua, the 3 1/2-year-old son of Chris Delaney, an editor, and his art-director wife, Carol. Josh goes to a bilingual preschool, then comes home to his infant sister and an obviously beloved Guatemalan woman named Raquel--Josh calls her Raki. One night Chris, who is teaching himself Spanish, sits on the bed with Josh for their bedtime reading. “Uno, dos, tres,” Chris offers, counting apples on a page. Josh draws himself up sharply. “Don’t talk that way,” the boy says. “That Raki talk.”

Sally Cooper says she does not think Michael will grow up “thinking of Spanish as a second language, but meaning second class,” even though the only person speaking Spanish to him works for Mom and Dad. “I hope not,” she says. At the nursery school she has chosen, Michael won’t hear Spanish or see Latino children. “Maybe a few Asian, but that’s about it. It’s pretty much kids like himself.”

In neighborhoods that have a broad mix of residents, public schools can become places where children of many backgrounds are thrown together and prejudices can break down early. But youngsters from homes like the ones in this story (arguably the kind of homes likely to produce a significant proportion of tomorrow’s decision makers) are liable to be isolated from the realities of demographic change because they don’t go to public schools.

Kramer and her neighbor, Lori Tyler, who employs a Mexican nanny, both say they want their children to learn Spanish to be able to better understand the new California. Yet they send their children to private schools because they feel that “standards” have suffered at the local public school because it makes special efforts to accommodate bused-in Latino students with language and other programs.

And no matter how close the children become to the women who take care of them, two-way sharing of values may be limited because the nannies are obviously servants. The children learn this lesson young. Michael Cooper observes day after day that his mother might sit down when Perez is in the room, but Perez doesn’t sit down in front of his mother. He sees Perez take home old newspapers once a week and, with permission, other items the family would discard. One day, he claimed the dollars in play from his mother’s pocket, then, 30 inches tall, marched over importantly to pay Perez her wages.

John, Tyler’s generally sweet and respectful 12-year-old, recently looked at his mother in frustration and disbelief when she told him to pick up his messy room. “Why?” he said. “We have a housekeeper.”

“Nobody’s here to pick up after you,” Tyler quickly told him, but in fact Latin women have been doing just that since he was a toddler.

USC’s Stoner speculates that the cultural meeting between Latina nannies and Anglo families may not generate deep mutual understanding. “There is no empirical evidence anywhere in history that any kind of cultural transmission in fact takes place in these situations.” The nannies and their charges, Stoner says, probably will not come to share values just because they spend time together. “Think about Scarlett O’Hara,” she muses. “She never lost her racism despite the love she had for her mammy.”

THE EMPLOYERS TEND TO call the women they hire “nannies” or “housekeepers,” even when their main task is child care. Often the women who do the work sound less grand when they refer to themselves: Baby sitter is the word they routinely use, spoken in English in the midst of a Spanish conversation--there is no precise Spanish equivalent. The other common word they use is muchacha , which means “girl” but connotes “servant.”

Lori Tyler would never call Dolores Garcia a “servant.” This week she is urging her to get a driver’s license. “I seem to have to be in three places at the same time all the time, which is really why I desperately need somebody who can drive,” says Tyler, who recently gave up grammar school teaching to pursue a career in acting and producing. But it is also out of fear for Garcia. Tyler’s worst nightmare: “Dolores is picked up by immigration police at a bus stop.”

The Tyler house is noisy today. In front of an oak vanity with an oval mirror, Garcia is singing “It’s a Small World” in a heavy accent as she braids 8-year-old Alexandra’s honey-colored hair. Workmen shout, laying flagstones for a new patio, while others are digging a pool. John runs out the door with a friend. If it were a weekday, his mother would be chauffeuring him to one of his scheduled activities: soccer, tennis lessons, religious school, piano lessons.

“I hope they realize that not everyone is as privileged as they are,” Tyler says, sitting before glass doors overlooking a canyon. “It bothers me that they are surrounded by a lot of kids whose families are much more wealthy than we are. What they are seeing in their everyday lives is just not the real world.”

Tyler wants her children to be bilingual and tells Garcia to speak to them in Spanish so they’ll learn. But Garcia has her own agenda. “Someday I will go home and work in an artesania shop for tourists,” she says. She will get the job, she hopes, on the strength of the English she learns here. “The children teach me.”

Newcomers from Mexico take jobs in child care, but because they have been coming to work in the United States for at least 40 years, their networks are better established than those of the Central Americans, and they often can find better-paying work. Garcia would not suffer as some other immigrants might if she went home to Mexico, because she comes from a stable, lower-middle-class background. It is only by leaving, however, that she has been able to push the family ahead. At home she made about $60 a month as a grammar school teacher. Today, alone at 24, she is putting two younger brothers through school; she also “modernized” her parents’ house. Yet Garcia doesn’t dare tell her mother and father exactly how she makes her money. “Once I mentioned it to one of my sisters. I made her swear to keep it a secret that I was cleaning houses and taking care of children. ‘Oh no!’ she said.”

In Oaxaca, the southern state that Garcia is from, poor young Indian girls are sent from their villages to work in homes in the richer provincial capitals or Mexico City, and the racial and social stigma attached to the job there is real and deep. But Garcia has converted the same job here into a kind of finishing school that will set her apart from--above--her neighbors back home. “I’m doing all this on my own,” she says, in a tone that speaks adventure. “I’m learning what it is to control my own life and go forward. I haven’t made any big mistakes yet.”

Tyler hired Garcia last year “on intuition” for a $500 fee through a broker who advertises in a local newspaper, to replace a Nicaraguan woman who worked for the Tylers for four years, and a Salvadoran who worked two years before that. The presence of women from a vastly different world, Tyler hopes, is an object lesson for John and Alexandra.

“It’s definitely positive for my children to see how someone like Dolores has to leave her family to help them and send home her money instead of spending it on what she wants,” she says.

Tyler would like John and Alexandra to grow up with compassion for the women who once changed their diapers and now care for them in other ways. She admits that the children don’t know other Latinos socially and that neither does she, except for her own childhood nanny from Guadalajara, a woman she still affectionately calls her “second mother.” Yet she also appears horrified at the thought of her children coming to identify Latinos as a servant class.

She tries to fight the image, but her only weapons are words, and they do not seem enough. “When we’ve returned back from our trips to Spain or Mexico, I tell the children those countries are just like the United States, in that you have very rich people and very poor people and a middle class. I tell them there are all kinds of people there, just like there are all kinds of Americans. A lot of people in those countries have housekeepers, too.”

IF THE RELATIONSHIPS described here are marked by warmth, dependence and, sometimes, strain, they are also marked by change, which would become clear in subsequent weeks. In autumn, Sally Cooper was all smiles about Marta Perez, but by late fall, she seems impatient. Perez has been acting “strangely,” she says, missing housecleaning jobs that Cooper set up with friends because Perez wanted the extra money. Perez doesn’t call to cancel, which puts Cooper in a tough spot, and she seems distracted. “I think she came back to work too soon after her baby,” Cooper says, sounding sympathetic and annoyed at the same time.

In recent weeks, Dolores Garcia, who now has a boyfriend here and wants to extend her stay, has managed to qualify for legal papers by passing as a farmhand under the immigration law. “She paid someone $500 and has to go work in the fields near Santa Maria for 90 days,” Lori Tyler says. “I don’t know what we’ll do without her, but she said she’ll be back, and she’ll be safer then.”

Donna Kramer leaves town for two days with her husband, visiting some property they own. While they are gone, Flores says she is in charge. What she doesn’t know is that by January, Kramer will have demoted her to a visiting housekeeper and hired a Danish au pair, declaring that the language barrier frustrated and finally overwhelmed her. It was a fragile marriage, after all.

One morning over the holidays, however, Marissa was clinging to Flores’ legs affectionately, making it awkward for either one of them to walk, but neither seemed to care. Flores looked tired.

“Last night I dreamed I went back to El Salvador and my children wouldn’t pay any attention to me,” she confides. “I woke up crying and went to sleep again just when it was getting light. Then I dreamed they died and no one could find me to tell me about it.”

From inside the TV room, hung with thick shades to shut out the light for daytime viewing, Garr calls out for “somebody!” to join him. He is watching a video in which a family, bundled in bright wool and watch caps, ski across the screen together, skimming snow so smooth and trackless it looks as if no one has ever been there before.

* All of the names of the family members and domestic workers in this story have been changed.