The Essay: The Sorcerers' Apprentice ; as a Child Growing Up in Mexico City, Novelist Jennifer Clement Fell under the Spell of the Country's Indigenous Lore and Magic, Learnt at the Knee of Her Family's Succession of Beguiling but Enigmatic Indian Servants
Clement, Jennifer, The Independent (London, England)
In Mexico, over 1.7 million women work as servants. Many are Indians from poverty-stricken rural areas who migrate to cities in search of a better life. In the past few years several organisations, such as the Colectivo Abatal and the Grupo Esperanza have been formed to protect the rights of these women by ensuring that they receive social security and by providing a procedure to report mistreatment and sexual abuse. However, most of these women are illiterate, live in fear of their employers, and don't even know that they have rights.
Growing up in the 1960s in Mexico City, I learnt that the world of servants was a world of sorcery, since many Mexican servants came from Indian communities outside of Mexico City and continued to practise their traditions. Often they still spoke Indian dialects. In the wealthy neighbourhoods of Mexico City it was not uncommon to see these women watering and sweeping the pavement in the mornings. Their hair was tied up in bright coloured ribbons and their beautiful huipiles (Indian dresses) had been replaced by starched white, blue, or pink cotton dresses covered in a white apron. The women would call out to each other in a mixture of broken Spanish and an Indian language as they covered the cobblestone streets with gallons of water. It was as if they thought they could bring forth grass and trees from stone. In these servants the modern and ancient worlds of Mexico clashed or, rather, fused together, creating a duality of ancient pagan customs mixed with Catholicism, or the "conquered" and "conquering" struggling to be one. This double existence is the very condition of Mexico's peoples. In The Labyrinth of Solitude Octavio Paz discusses this and states that, "Slaves, servants and submerged races always wear a mask, whether smiling or sullen." As a child, young enough to face the world without a mask, my family's servants allowed me to enter their world. And, because of this, in ways that I probably will never fully understand, I am also the daughter of servants.
When one reads Life in Mexico (1869) by Frances Calderon de la Barca, also known as Frances Erskine Inglis (1804-1882), it seems that few things in Mexico have changed since her time. De la Barca was a Scot who came to Mexico in the mid-1800s. She is considered just as important a travel writer to this country as Baron von Humbolt (1769-1859) is to the regions of the Orinoco and the Amazon rivers or as Richard Francis Burton (1821- 1890) is to Africa. Through a series of letters to her Scottish family, Life in Mexico, a massive tome, she describes all aspects of Mexican life. In one letter on the subject of servants she wrote the following:
"There was a decent old woman, who came to the house to wash shortly after our arrival in this country, and left us at the end of the month, para descansar (to rest). Soon after, she used to come with her six children, they and herself all in rags, and beg the gardener to give her any odds and ends of vegetables he could spare. My maid asked her, why, being so poor, she had left a good place, where she got $12 a month. `Jesus!' said she, `if you only knew the pleasure of doing nothing.'
"I wished to bring up a little girl as a servant, having her taught to read, sew, etc. A child of 12 years old, one of a large family, who subsisted upon charity, was procured for me; and I promised her mother that she should be taught to read, taken regularly to church, and instructed in all kinds of work. She was rather pretty, and very intelligent, though extremely indolent; and though she had no stockings, would consent to wear nothing but dirty white satin shoes, too short for her foot. Once a week, her mother, a tall, slatternly woman, with long tangled hair, and a cigar in her mouth, used to come to visit her, accompanied by a friend, a friend's friend, and a train of girls, her daughters. The housekeeper would give them some dinner, after which they would all light their cigars, and, together with the little Josefita, sit, and howl, and bemoan themselves, crying and lamenting her sad fate in being obliged to go out to service. …