In Brazil, changing times usher in ‘servant problem’

Neide Cardeal da Silva toiled in Sao Paulo, Brazil, as a live-in domestic worker for a family before she made a better life for herself selling acai, a fruit snack.
(Vincent Bevins / For The Times)
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SAO PAULO, Brazil — When she was 19, Neide Cardeal da Silva left her family, who barely scraped by living off the land, to move in with a family she’d never met.

For the next 10 years, she and two other young women worked for Miss Maria Cecilia, keeping the house and family in order. On her one day off a week, she used the apartment’s second door, which led directly to the servants’ quarters.

The worst part about her arrangement, she says, was feeling she was always being watched. Her 20s passed without her dating anyone.


“There were some guys I met here or there,” says Da Silva, 38. “But what was I going to do? A relationship just wasn’t going to work like that.”

Today, Da Silva works with friends selling acai, the Amazon fruit snack. She and a friend set their own hours, spend the day laughing and make about $450 a month, nearly $300 more than at her old job.

After work, they walk home to their apartment in a solidly middle-class neighborhood.

Nearly a century after the “Downton Abbey” set felt Britain’s social order shift beneath them, Brazil is undergoing its own transformation.

As the middle class surges on the back of the country’s recent economic boom, fewer Brazilian women are willing to be on call 144 hours a week cooking, cleaning, bathing children, waking up before the house’s owners and going to bed last.

“I heard that in other countries, kids have to clean their own rooms. We should do that here too!” Da Silva says. “Then they’d learn some skills and discipline too.”


Sitting in her small apartment in an upscale neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, young mother Clarice Philligret recalls a time from her childhood when many families had separate sets of plates, cups and silverware for themselves and the empregadas domesticas, or domestic employees.

Two sisters, Adenilde and Alda, lived in her family’s house and got one day off a week.

“Things have changed drastically,” a smiling and sun-kissed Philligret says as she relaxes on her couch. “The workers aren’t accepting what they used to, and we have to pay much, much more. It’s getting tougher and tougher, and I think, sooner or later, it will disappear.”


It’s not gone yet: As she speaks, Philligret’s full-time maid, cook and nanny, Gloria, is giving her son Bernardo a bath. But women are demanding more rights and more money, insisting on living in their own homes, or simply moving on to better jobs.

Among better-off Brazilians, this has led to a discourse strikingly similar to that in Britain more than a century ago — the “Servant Problem,” as one 1899 book was called. Good help is hard to find these days.

“The servants used to be more loyal to the ladies of the house. They used to be part of the family. Now it’s just like any other commercial relationship,” says Daniela Ricotta, a young advertiser who has had to pay her domestic employee more recently. Ricotta grew up with two live-in servants, but her nanny-maid now visits her house only on weekdays and doesn’t sleep there.

“The problem, in my opinion, is that what we get back is so much less. Their level of education is still very low, and without loyalty, it’s practically not worth it.”

Though it is still one of the world’s most unequal countries, Brazil has reduced the gap between rich and poor, and nearly 40 million people have risen out of poverty.

Now that unemployment is at record lows, women are opting for other jobs, says Professor Ricardo Antunes, a sociologist at the University of Campinas in Sao Paulo state who specializes in domestic labor.


“This job has often meant total servility, few rights and something very closely linked to our history of slavery,” Antunes says. “So these days women will move very quickly to a job in service or retail if there is an opportunity, sometimes even if it means they take a pay cut.”

Brazil was one of the last countries to outlaw slavery, and after abolition in 1888, freed slaves were prohibited from entering emerging industries, which were filled instead with white European immigrants.

Today, even though there are fewer of them than before, Brazil still has the world’s largest number of domestic workers, about 7.3 million.

“On the one hand, we are going through a similar process to the one Europe went through, but very, very late,” Antunes says. “And sooner or later most families here will adapt, like Europeans did, to how Americans live.

“But the dominant class here is still extremely elitist. Parts of the upper class will be extremely against giving up being served. There is still the idea among many that a domestic servant is kind of a slave.”

If “upstairs” and “downstairs” were shorthand for the two halves of the social equation in Britain, Brazil has “Casa Grande” and “Senzala” for the owners in the “big house” or the servants in their quarters.


In some “Casa Grande” circles, it’s common now to hear mutterings about the mafiazinha, or “little mafia,” of maids and nannies — the term preferred by rich mothers scandalized to hear that domestic servants get together to trade notes on salaries, so they can’t be tricked into earning less than market rates.

But the old attitudes of the elite are becoming less socially acceptable. Last year, one woman blogged about the delicate etiquette involved in bringing nannies on family vacations, complaining when they ask for soda on planes and giving tips on how to trick them out of coming along to nice restaurants. It went viral, and she was quickly howled off the Internet.

Philligret is more or less resigned to the new world. She now pays Gloria $500 a month.

“I admit to be jealous at times of what my mother had,” she says, preparing to go back to work putting on large-scale international cultural events. “But I suppose it’s a step forward for the country.”

As she, Gloria and Bernardo head out, they leave through the apartment’s only door. The other has been closed off.


Munching on sushi in Sao Paulo’s Japanese neighborhood, Da Silva said she’d never expected to be able to work her way up to a job outside someone else’s home.

“I figured I’d be an empregada, and that was it,” she says. “That’s how it’s always been.”

But at 30, in 2005, she left Miss Maria Cecilia’s house and soon found options where she didn’t have to live in. She moved on to be a full-time cleaner for an apartment building, notching up raises and more freedom along the way.


This gave her evenings off and she went back to night school — she had dropped out at 14 — at the local Catholic Church. She threw herself into her reading and writing skills, and especially relished being able to delve into Portuguese literature.

“It’s not a simple, straightforward language, like English,” she says. “It’s rich, complex and poetic, and it was amazing to get into it, even if it came late.”

After night school, she spent the rest of her free time beginning to sell acai. Slowly she got into the rhythm of it and realized she could make just as much money doing that as cleaning. She became fully “autonomous” a few months ago.

“Oh thank God, it is so much better,” she says. “I wasn’t exactly dying to get out of there, but now, I’m never going back inside.”

When asked what her social life is like now, Da Silva breaks into giggles.

“Well, I wouldn’t call him a boyfriend yet,” she says, smiling. “But let’s say I have a very good friend.”

Bevins is a special correspondent.