At age 12, Raquel Guadarrama left the home of her poor, widowed mother to clean the houses of middle- and upper-class Mexican families.
For 34 years, she scrubbed floors, washed dishes, hung laundry and baby-sat toddlers -- all the while cowering as employers called her stupid and sexually harassed her.
When she was 14, Guadarrama was forced to fend off the advances of her 70-year-old employer, who exposed himself when his wife wasn’t looking and offered her expensive jewelry in exchange for sex.
“Many times, I had to leave my jobs because of the sexual harassment,” Guadarrama said. “I always had to eat after my employers did, on separate plates, as if I were their pet. In fact, I think pets have more privileges.”
Guadarrama, now 55, has little more than a bruised ego and tired bones to show for her more than three decades of backbreaking labor. She has no pension plan, no social security, no health insurance.
That’s because Mexico remains in the dark ages when it comes to the treatment of domestic workers -- despite repeated efforts by activists to reform antiquated labor laws and President Vicente Fox’s recent promises to improve conditions for female workers.
“Nothing has changed,” said Rosa Palma, 31, a women’s activist. “My mother spent 50 years of her life in domestic work and when it came time for me to do it as well, I suffered the same discrimination, the same exploitation.
“You’d think that things would be different in the 21st century, but they aren’t.”
Like Guadarrama, Palma spent much of her eight years as a maid swatting away the straying hands of male employers and dodging the insults of her female bosses.
“I used to be ashamed to say that I did this work because it is so under-appreciated,” she said.
And yet many Mexicans don’t know how to live without their maid. Take a look inside nearly any middle- or upper-class household -- and even occasionally a lower-class one -- and you will find a domestic worker.
The full-time, live-in maids -- many of them in their lower teens despite Mexico’s minimum employment age of 16 -- generally abandon poor, rural, Indian communities to work in city homes.
“They are working practically in slavery,” said Julia Chavez Carapia, coordinator of the women’s studies program at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. “They have to be on top of everything, from early in the morning until nighttime, and they are totally dependent on the families they work for. Sexual harassment and abuse is very common.”
Live-in maids working for upper-class families earn at least the federal minimum wage -- about $140 a month -- while also receiving free room and board. The average salary for employees in other professions in Mexico City is two or three times the minimum wage.
Women who have their own families to take care of but are forced by economic circumstances to provide a second income to their household often take maid jobs that aren’t live-in, earning about double what a live-in maid makes. Although they receive free room and board, live-in workers are generally poorer, less educated and less apt to fight for higher wages.
The domestic-worker field is divided nearly evenly between the two groups, but federal law addresses only live-in maids -- and only in vague terms.
That means salary, benefits, hours and personal treatment are determined arbitrarily by the employers. The women, who need the work, have little choice but to take what is offered.
The current law says live-in maids should have a decent place to live, good food to eat and adequate time to rest.
“For some employers, a decent place to live could mean a space under the staircase or in the washroom, good food could be beans, tortillas and coffee, and sufficient rest might be from four to six hours [a day] for a 45-hour workweek,” Guadarrama said.
There has been some progress. The Atabal Collective, a Mexico City-based group to which Guadarrama and Palma belong, was established in 1987 to raise awareness about the maids’ poor working conditions and help them fight for their rights. The group also holds yearly marches to recognize maids.
The Home for the Young, a program run by Catholic nun Josefina Estrada, provides shelter, education and domestic work for poor rural girls who arrive in Mexico City alone and destitute.
Both groups provide training courses to help maids do their jobs better.
But years of efforts to get maids legally recognized as part of the work force, with guaranteed hours, wages and benefits, have gone nowhere.
Activists say they are up against a slew of prejudices still embedded in Mexican society.
“Every form of discrimination comes together in the domestic workplace: toward women, Indians, the rural poor, the old,” said Celia Sanchez, an advocate at the Atabal Collective.
Fox recognized the discrimination toward women last year when he signed a pact with business owners to improve working conditions for female employees at foreign-owned factories along the Mexico-U.S. border.
“We cannot be on the cutting edge, as we aim to do, if women continue to be discriminated against, if they are not incorporated into the productive work force with all their rights and their skills,” he said.
Although change may be in the works for professional Mexican women, it will probably come more slowly for maids -- laborers who toil behind closed doors with scarce recognition or acknowledgment from the public.
“Because this is work that takes place in private, it loses value,” said Chavez, the women’s studies expert from Mexico’s National Autonomous University. “It is not seen as something useful” to society.
Victoria Cruz, 61, who worked for 50 years as a maid before she was fired for being too old, is indignant about society’s perception of the job as unworthy.
“An employee who works in the home is the same as an employee who works in a factory,” she said. “We should have the same rights, but we don’t. We have been completely forgotten.”