From the age of 3, Olivia grew up inside a gated community, sleeping next to her Mexican immigrant mother in the maid’s quarters of an affluent Westside home.
In the beginning, Olivia’s mother lived in fear that her little girl might break something belonging to her boss, a Hollywood agent. Later the agent and his family all but adopted Olivia as their own. She became a curiosity in that gated community, the only “Mexican” girl at many a neighborhood birthday party, and in games kids played on the street.
“It was like living in a glass bowl,” Olivia told me. “I was always conscious of class. I knew I was not one of them.”
Olivia is in her 40s now, and a successful professional. “Olivia,” in fact, is not her real name but rather a pseudonym she’s adopted in a just-released book about her experiences, “The Maid’s Daughter,” by Mary Romero, a professor at Arizona State University.
We all know that L.A. is a city filled with rich and poor people. But “The Maid’s Daughter” explores how social fault lines can exist within the confines of a home, rich and poor depending on each other.
There are no inherently good and evil characters in this story — just people trying to deal with the problems that come with having too much money, or not enough.
Olivia lived with her mother’s employers until she left for college in the early 1980s. It was there that she first met Romero, an academic who’s written extensively on the lives of domestics.
“She wanted to get it all out, make sense of it,” Romero told me.
The two women would eventually spend more than 20 years talking about Olivia’s experiences as a maid’s daughter. In the book that resulted from those conversations, all involved are protected by the cloak of anonymity and pseudonyms: Olivia’s mother, “Carmen,” works for a family called the “Smiths.”
The Smiths owned one of the smaller houses on a block of rich and influential families. But they lived well, with international travel, country club weekends and four kids in some of L.A.'s best private schools.
Carmen, a native of Mexico with family ties to El Paso, arrived circa 1966. She was a single mom with a lone child, Olivia. Over the years, a complicated relationship evolved among employer, employee and the five children in the home.
“For Carmen, the closer she got to her employer, the more they relied on her, the more power she had,” Romero said. At the same time, Carmen grew increasingly dependent on the Smiths, who gave her and Olivia free room and board.
Carmen worked from early in the morning to late at night. She was, by definition, subservient. But the white children she helped raise thought of her as a second mother.
“In some ways, they’re sort of Mexican,” Olivia told me of the four Smith children. “They never talked back to my mom. They had more respect for my mom than they did for their parents.”
But Olivia resented that her mother spent more time raising the boss’ children than with her.
And there were limits to Carmen’s authority. The Smith parents were more permissive than she was, and eventually Carmen became their children’s unwitting accomplice. If she found marijuana inside the pants of one of the Smiths’ teenage boys while doing the laundry, she’d simply put it in the shoe box where she knew the boy hid his stash.
When Olivia was 10, the Smiths’ oldest daughter moved away to college and Olivia moved into her room on the second floor. After years of sharing a bed with her mother, Olivia relished having her own room.
But Carmen felt betrayed, as if she were losing her daughter to her boss’ family. Although Carmen drank wine and shared gossip with Mrs. Smith, she told Olivia not to share any stories of their Mexican relatives with the Smiths.
The Smiths started making decisions about Olivia’s education, enrolling her at a private school and paying her tuition. They took her along on family outings while her mother stayed at the home, cooking and cleaning.
“They would try to pass me off as their own,” Olivia recalled of the Smiths. “There wasn’t anything I hated more.” Deep down she wished she could stay home with her mother and watch telenovelas.
As she grew older, Olivia bristled as the Smiths tried to incorporate her into their social circles, resisting invitations to Westside “cotillions.” In high school, she took to wearing buttons that loudly proclaimed her ethnic identity and rebellious attitude: one with the farmworkers’ eagle that Cesar Chavez made famous, and another that proclaimed: “Turn Down Harvard.”
The Smiths told Olivia she had the grades to go to Harvard or Stanford if she wanted to, but she chose UCLA instead and now owns a public relations firm: Like Mr. Smith, she talks and makes deals for a living.
With time, she has let go of much of her resentment and recognized what they did for her. But she also feels that no child should ever be placed in that position. Some years later, Mr. Smith grew ill. In her last conversations with him, he asked her about her career. He had followed it. And Olivia realized something about Mr. Smith and the family she’d always wanted to run away from.
“I really was his pride and joy,” Olivia told me. More than any of the other children in the Smith home, she’d followed in his footsteps. “It made me sad to think about it: I was the maid’s daughter, and yet I was the one who defined his success.”
After Mr. Smith’s death, the family fell on hard times. Today, in a twist of fate, Olivia has had more professional success than any of the four privileged children she grew up with, she says. Romero, the author, didn’t interview the Smiths. But Olivia told me that two of the siblings now own a small business cleaning offices, emptying trash cans and the like.
She believes they squandered most of the opportunities handed to them. The message to Olivia is clear:
“You can live the American dream, but at any point that can all go away,” she said. “L.A. isn’t like Connecticut, where you have five generations of old money. In L.A., you always have to fight to stay ahead.”