Domestic drama

Times Staff Writer

Ingrid Solis sits in the Mark Taper Forum and watches her life unfold. Her eyes well with tears, her lower lip quivers. Her friend leans over and tenderly pats her on the leg, holds her hand. Solis doesn't want to sink into sadness, but it's too late. The moment is too real.

On stage, the character Ana Hernandez is on her cell phone, long-distance to her 11-year-old son. Ana, a smart, proud, Salvadoran nanny, hasn't seen Tomas since she left him eight years before to find work in the United States. She desperately tries to keep the conversation light. Did he like the Tommy Hilfiger shirt she sent him? Is he eating well? Doing fine in school?

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Ana: "Do you miss me? I miss you up to the sky! You're going to come real soon, mijo. No, no, not for vacation -- you're going to come here to live! No, not with abuela. Your great-grandmother don't want to come, mijo. She says she's too old. I know it's hard to leave her. But don't you want to be with mami?"

(Pause.)

"Oye, did you get the pictures I sent you from the beach? With the rides? Te gustan? That's me and my sister-in-law and her friend."

(Long pause.)

"No, mijo ... I'm the one in the middle."

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For Solis, two rows from the stage, the scene is gut-wrenching. Guilt and emptiness weigh on her. She too has a child left behind in the care of his grandmother. The story of Ana in Lisa Loomer's "Living Out," a play about the lives of immigrant Latina nannies and their affluent bosses, pierces her heart. For the past seven years, Solis, 35, has cared for two young boys in Pacific Palisades.

She hasn't seen her son, Jose Guillermo, 12, in Guatemala for almost nine years. And once, he didn't recognize her in a photo either. "He asked, 'Which one is you? Which one is my mom?' "

Solis immigrated to the U.S. from her impoverished homeland because she needed a better-paying job than what she had at a medical center. Now she sends her son clothes, tennis shoes and video games -- and wires money -- replacements for the love and tenderness she can't physically give him.

"That's me on the stage," Solis says, joining three other women to discuss the play and their experience after having seen it. "That's my life."

The Times asked two nannies and two mothers who have hired nannies to watch the play and then discuss its issues of motherhood, child care, and the complex relationship between boss and nanny. Settling in at an office near the Taper, the women gather around a polished wood table to explore how the play reflects their lives.

Zoila Collis, the other nanny in the group, was also moved by the play. "I cried the entire time," she says. Twenty-five years ago, she left El Salvador for the U.S. to get a job and landed nanny work while raising her own five kids, all born here. Three are now adults and on their own; the other two, ages 17 and 12, live with Collis and her second husband in South Pasadena. When her kids were young, she enrolled them in child-care centers while she went out to care for other people's children.

Ivy Greene, 40, owns a children's clothing store in Pacific Palisades and, like her neighbor Karen Jeffers, 40, has hired nannies. Greene's current nanny has been with the family two years and helps raise Greene's toddler daughter and 7-year-old son.

Jeffers has two sons, 10 and almost 9. She quit her job as a television producer four years ago to become a full-time mom. But when the boys were babies, she relied on nannies.

Like other theatergoers who saw the matinee performance on this particular Sunday, the women stayed to listen to the audience's post-play discussion. Much of it centered on the principal characters, especially Ana's lie to her boss, Nancy, about not having any children in the U.S. when, in fact, she has a 6-year-old son. Ana felt compelled to lie because in other interviews employers didn't want to hire her once they knew she had a child. Much was also made about Nancy and Ana's hesitant friendship, and Nancy and her husband's responsibility as employers to help their nanny with her legal, financial and personal well-being.

Solis and Collis won't reveal their salaries and have nothing negative to say about their bosses. They are grateful to work for people who treat them like members of the family. Still, they know other nannies who get little vacation, are abused and paid much less than the average $400 a week. Most nannies work about 10 hours a day, some longer. (Laws requires that domestic workers receive at least minimum wage and that employers pay into Social Security, pay unemployment insurance tax and withhold income tax.)

Similarly, Greene and Jeffers prefer not to talk about salaries they have paid. They agree a nanny's job is difficult.

Two years ago, Greene learned just how difficult it can be for nannies when hers quit. "My son, who is very verbal and not the best behaved child, had pushed her to the point where she slapped him -- and she was a very gentle person. But she was so upset that she could hurt a child that she put him in the car, brought him to me at work and walked out, saying, 'I can't. I can't do this anymore.' "

Jeffers says the reverse can be true as well. "I've had nannies that have asked too much from me," she says. "I would give them days off with pay and they take advantage of it." She says she is particularly stunned by nannies who leave their children in a foreign land to come here. "It's very hard for Americans to understand that. I think, 'Oh, there's no way that I could ever do that,' " Jeffers says with a measure of disapproval.

"We have to survive and take care of our family," Solis fires back, "and sometimes we have to abandon our countries and our children in order to give them economic stability." She was a single mother living with her parents until her father died. "That's when I had to do something to support us," Solis says.

Fortunately, she's in a good place. Her employers have helped her secure a studio apartment in the Palisades and provide her with a car to transport the kids and handle errands.

Collis says her mother "was struggling to raise all of us. That's why I came." She paid a smuggler $1,500 to endure an eight-day journey across the border.

"Where did you get that kind of money?" Jeffers asks.

"If you really want to come to the United States, everyone in your family puts in a little money. And then you risk your life," says Collis.

Being a nanny is all Collis has ever done. The job, she says, is "being a second mother because those children seem like your own."

Nannies, the women say, have to be flexible or risk losing their jobs. "It's hard when you miss your own child's open house at school or you go home too late and miss dinner with your own family," Collis says. But it's even harder to say, " 'I can't stay late' to your boss because you're thinking, 'I'm putting my job in jeopardy.' "

*

Ana (into phone): Bobby? Listen, the senora asked me to work late

(Angry because she's in such a bind)

Porque she got no one else! Please. Tell him I'll take him to play soccer on the weekend, I don't got to work all weekend!

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Mostly, the nannies experience disappointment -- not resentment -- when they must alter plans with their children to work longer hours, Collis says. "The children say, 'Mommy, why didn't you come to my school?' And the next day they say, 'Mommy, don't go to work' and it's heartbreaking because you know you are leaving your child to take care of another's."

Yes, but says Greene, "I have a daughter who cries when I leave. She cries when the nanny leaves too."

"But I think that's a very different situation," Collis says. "The mommy is going to work as a lawyer or a secretary, not to be with children and look after them, not to be a mother for the day" to someone else.

Greene, a soft-spoken woman, says she found herself relating to the nannies in the play because she too is away from her kids while she works. That's why she has allowed her nannies to bring their children to her home while they work.

Jeffers says she'd like to know more about her nannies' lives because "they're always in my world. I've always wondered how you guys look at us." She pauses. "Do you look at us as Americanos living in the big house, as the ones with the money?"

Says Collis: "As nannies, we see the real life of people in Los Angeles when we go to the interviews. How they look at you. How they make you sit in a different chair because maybe you were sitting in a very expensive chair after you arrived."

Solis agrees. "Some of the mothers who interview us treat us like a human being," she says. "But others, they just think of you as a nanny, not like a human. Like ... I don't know how to put it."

"Like second class," Jeffers offers.

Solis had to quit once when a family she worked for as a live-in paid her only sporadically. "I would say to my boss, 'I came here to work for you and you have to pay me because I need the money.' And she got mad at me. When I left she was paying me $160 a week and she owed me four weeks. She gave me half."

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Ana: One day we should all stay home!

Sandra: Everybody! The waiters, the parking peoples, the cleaners.

Zoila: Los Americanos be driving around in their dirty clothes -- starving. Can't go to a restaurant -- there's nobody to park the car! You get home, the house is a mess.

Ana: The plants is all dead.

Sandra: Nobody to deliver you pizza.

Zoila: And then you got to take care of your own kids!

*

Around the table, the women seem to have been absorbed by the play.

Solis: "I came to this country not for fun. I came to work."

Collis: "Yes, it's important to give the nannies a good salary. We also want to live in a great neighborhood."

Jeffers: "But it's hard for the employer as well. The more money you make, the more your standard of living goes up. I mean, you can make $200,000 a year and you are still struggling to pay your bills every month."

Collis: "Yes, but the comments I hear from nannies is, 'How come these people don't pay us enough money and yet they go to those fancy stores and buy a $300 dress?' "

Greene: "It's all about having respect. And respect can't be one-sided."

On that, all the women agree. Respect and love for the children, here and those left behind, like Jose Guillermo.

Solis' love for her son is so powerful that she has vowed to never fall in love. That could lead to marriage and having more children -- and she just can't deal with the guilt of being a mother again knowing her son in Guatemala can't be with her. So, she hopes, dreams, for the day they will be reunited.

And tomorrow, just like she did the day before, she will be the loving nanny to the boys she cares for.

"They are a part of my life," Solis says. "They are the boys who fill my heart, the empty space that I have for my own son."

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Child-care panel

What: Program and panel discussion, "Making Childcare Work"

Where: Mark Taper Forum; 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: Today, 5:20-6:20 p.m.

Price: Child-care forum is free.

Contact: (213) 628-2772

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