The Help

November 12, 2013

Before coming to Ecuador, I had heard how common it was to have hired help around the house. I started to think my parents were non-participators in this culture until one day I came home from school and Papa Miguel introduced me to “La Tere”. It took me a while to figure out that they were saying “Tere” as in “Teresa”.

Teresa is a darling old woman who has been working for the family for decades. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday when I walk in the door she greets me with a smile and shows me where my dinner and clean clothes are. She calls me usted (respectful ‘you’ form) and asks me how my day went or my plans for the weekend. She is absolutely delightful to talk to, and converses in the most gentle way possible, somehow managing to always put the spotlight on me, even though I’m terribly curious about HER life.

The one unsettling thing about La Tere is that she seems to be obsessed with telling me all the horror stories of the host girls before me, who were robbed right in our neighborhood in broad daylight or got sick from food poisoning.

Typically, after the terrible tale has been told with this awfully concerned expression on her face, the wrinkles relax and she finishes with a “but don’t worry…as long as you’re careful, you’ll be fine.”

But as I asked before, what does being careful consist of!?!?!

MOVING ON THOUGH…

Back to the Tere that I love so dearly – my family seems to adore her equally. But every now and then, her name will slip into the conversation in a way that surprises me. The following story requires a bit of background. My family has mentioned to me several times that Tere is from “el sur” – the not-so-nice side of town. My host father once explained to me that loads of poor people decided to plant themselves there, and while the government tried hard to kick them off, there were too many of them to shoo away. So they eventually gave up and let them be. But the construction of the neighborhoods there is extremely convoluted and disorganized, obviously, because people decided to set up shop on that land in a spur-of-the-moment/’we just need some goddamn shelter and NOW” kind of manner.

Papa Miguel also mentioned to me HOW many of the houses are constructed one day as we drove by hundreds of unfinished shacks up on the hill. Supposedly people just put up as many walls/ceiling as they can afford to put up at once, and if the house if missing a wall or too, they’ll just go without it until they’ve made enough plata to complete the rest. Sometimes shacks will go on missing walls for years – this is the level of poverty that the majority of Ecuadorians live in, unfortunately. In fact I almost had the opportunity to work for an organization that works with children of parents who sift through trash, searching for things to sell and food to eat. How tragic is that?

Anyways, put Tere in this kind of context, and also know that her brother is dying of brain cancer, and it turns out she’s probably one of the most incredible women I’ve met. Because never have I walked in the door and seen a Tere without a smile on her face. Sometimes she seems tired, or quieter than usual, but she’s always interested in me and how I’m doing – no matter what’s going on her life. And that’s just about the most admirable thing anyone could do. It gives my life a whole lot of perspective.

On a similar note, one thing that surprised me the other day….I have to pre-empt this with the following – I never saw my parents as types to put a barrier between themselves and their maid (they’re extremely casual people). However, when we were cleaning up after dinner the other night, Mama Evelyn was about to throw something away, and Papa Miguel said, “you know what, why don’t we give it to La Tere – I’m sure she would take it.” This didn’t strike me so strongly until Mama Evelyn said, “Ya…pobre Tere, es una basurera,” meaning “Poor Tere, she’s a garbage woman.” !!!!

Now keep in mind she said it in the most empathetic way possible, but to me, it still came off strong. And for the first time, I started to think maybe my family wasn’t as informal and low-key as I had thought.

But the point is, “basurera” or not, I love my Tere. And I will try my best to show her as much love as she shows me every day. Because if she can show that much happiness, hell, anyone can. 

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