San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Maids Work to Escape Poverty and Help Children

MANY maids in Costa Rica live in other families’ homes, take care of other people’s children, and clean up after and feed other families while sending money to their own, often in another country.Severe unemployment and dismal economies in Nicaragua and other Central American countries have driven many unskilled laborers to Costa Rica. Among them are maids who may pick up the tricks of the trade from their friends or family members, or who may take cooking courses to round out their talents.Because many maids are foreigners disposed to living in other people’s homes, they divide their time and their earnings between their two lives. Odds are a maid is sending money to at least one child who is staying with her parents or some other relative in her home country.Some work here legally; others do not.ROSA Quirós, 45, is a Costa Rican maid who has seen Nicaraguans exploited by their employers. She bore the brunt of the habit some people have of paying low wages to foreigners.“They don’t offer much money because they’re used to paying Nicaraguans less,” she said. “They want to pay me less, but I say no, because I know what the basic food basket is worth.”The basic food basket is an assortment of foods people generally need to get by in Costa Rica; its price is used to calculate the poverty line and minimum wage.Quirós has worked as a maid intermittently since she was 14. Her work has helped her children study and embark on promising careers – one is an accountant, another manages a cleaning crew and the third is a ceramic artist.“They have it a little easier,” she said. “I’m not ashamed to say I’ve worked my whole life as a maid because I’ve been able to help my kids move forward.”TWO undocumented Nicaraguan maids spoke with The Tico Times – neither divulged their names, but both spoke candidly about their outlaw lifestyles cleaning the homes of Costa Rican families.One said she came here two years ago to escape the memories she had of an ex-boyfriend in her town in the department of León, Nicaragua.The 28-year-old earns just over $200 per month plus room and board, and occasionally receives gifts of new clothes from her employer family. It’s a better wage than that she could earn in her country, she said. Every month she sends home $80-100, a little under half her salary, to her daughter, who lives with her mother in Nicaragua. Once a year she returns to visit.Her chores around the house are the usual: she cooks (and loves doing it, she said), cleans the house, cares for the family’s baby and bathes both the family’s children. She doesn’t go out much, preferring to stay in the family’s home and save money, but sometimes her boss, the woman of the family, takes her out, she said.SHE will miss the family when she has to leave, she admitted.“It’s beautiful, but at the same time it’s difficult,” she said. “I worry. It’s upsetting because all the time I think about when my time here will end. I’ve been spending a lot of time with the baby. I’m going to be very sad to leave when I decide to go back.”When she came here for the first time, leaving her daughter behind, she said she was so upset she “didn’t eat for a week.”“The only thing that kept me going was the thought that I would save money to give her a better life,” she said. She calls her daughter sometimes, and they write each other once a month. She also sends her toys and clothes. Someday, she said, she would like to open a party decoration and handicrafts store in Nicaragua.“I know that if I learn it (making decorations), I’ll try to do it perfectly,” she said.ANOTHER maid, also from Nicaragua and working here without papers, is 26, and sends money to two children in her home country while caring for a third here. She does not live with her employer family, and pays for day care for her child while she is on the job.She is married to a Nicaraguan, a carpenter and chair maker who came here to earn more at his trade. She said most Nicaraguan maids here are undocumented, and most send money back to their families. She sends her family about $100 per month.“I miss them. It’s hard to leave your kids,” she said. But she does it so “they will have a better future.”In school, she took career-oriented courses to prepare her for a job as a secretary, but never found work in that field in her country.“There were no jobs available, and if you found something, it paid little,” she said. “More than anything the difference here is that people earn more – but you are not with your family.”HER comments about adjusting to life in Costa Rica are similar to those of foreign residents from English speaking countries.“You have to adapt yourself to another culture and different people,” she said. “The language here is distinct from that in Nicaragua. It’s hard to understand them on the phone. They speak quickly – if you ask them for directions, they speak quickly and you have to ask them, ‘perdón?’”Then, she has to contend with discrimination against Nicaraguans.“I’ve often seen in the newspaper that when something happens that involves Nicaraguans… the people here don’t like us,” she said. “They exploit us – they don’t pay insurance. If we try to collect, they take us to immigration. You hear things in the street; people call you ‘Nica,’ and they don’t like you.”Her job takes her away from her family, she said, and admitted, “I’d like to take care of my own kids, but I can’t.” On the job, however, she takes care of her boss’s kids as if they were her own, she said.NOT all maids work here illegally. Virginia Alfaro runs a maid agency that places only legally documented women with families looking for help. Her home is easily recognized in her neighborhood as the one with the group of women waiting on the porch.The word has spread that she finds jobs for maids, and there are more people available for work than there are houses to send them to. She interviews them when positions are available and sends away those who cannot work legally in the country. Sometimes they bring their children for the wait, and Alfaro gives them snacks.“It’s a beautiful job – I’m helping people and I’m blessing myself as well with the little that I earn,” she said.MARTA Lourdes is one of the women waiting for employment through Alfaro’s agency. She came here from Honduras seven years ago, and sends money to her three children back home. She has worked in large, luxurious homes, she said, cooking, cleaning and doing other chores.Tomasa Reyes came from Nicaragua to work here 10 years ago. She has a child here and another in Nicaragua. She enrolled herself in a cooking course to enhance her resume, and can drop the name of the son of ex-President Miguel Ángel Rodríguez as one of her former employers.What Reyes and the others share is a sense of gratitude and generosity – gratitude for the work they have, and generosity in handing over their time and money to improve the lives of their children. They clean the kinds of places they would like their children to live in someday.

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