the week with Elvi

Elvi went back to her work in Buenos Aires last Sunday evening. She lives with a family in the northern suburb of Acasusso, cooking and cleaning in return for room, board, and 850 pesos/month (about $275 USD). A typical work week for a live-in housekeeper is from 9 am Monday through Saturday after lunch, with the remainder of Saturday and Sundays free. She stays with friends or family on her “free” nights. Now that she’s worked for that family for five years (since 2003, after she’d worked for us during Argentina 1), she also gets two or three weeks of “vacation” a year, and that was how she came to be at our house last week. 

We had some fascinating conversations, Elvi and I. She’s 32-years-old though could pass for 18, and stands about 4’10” (we didn’t actually measure heights, but all of my kids have surpassed her since we’d last been together). She’d left Peru in 2000, looking for better employment opportunities than the dishwashing she was doing in Quito, where she’d gone when she left her hometown of Trujillo at age 14. At least three of her sisters have also come to Argentina to do childcare, housekeeping, or other domestic work. All of them send money each month back to their parents and extended family in Peru, since even the few pesos they makes here far surpass what they’d be making there. One sister now even works for a family in Italy; positions in western Europe and the US are the most highly coveted and difficult to obtain.

[This spring I’ve been co-teaching with a colleague from the Government dept at Redlands, a course on political economy in which we’d been mapping remittance flows amongst Latin American countries and the US. I’m living in one of my maps right now.]

It isn’t so often that one spends 9 days with one’s ex-housekeeper, when they’re on vacation and NOT working, and I was NOT on vacation and was working. It wasn’t hard to learn a lot about her life. Elvi’s one of those people who wakes up talking and talks all day and then talks some more until it’s time to go to bed at night. She works hard, has no home of her own, has no chance to save anything, and has few expectations for being able to significantly improve her lot. She’d like to be married and would love to be having her own children. A common sentiment for single women in their 30s. During one of our food-shopping walks around town she mentioned that sometimes she dares even think about having a baby on her own, and in my well-intentioned-but-remarkably-insensitive way I started telling her about a friend of mine who’d been debating the same thing and how it really could be possible, and Elvi turned to look at me like I was insane. Oh, right. My friend is from the States, has a steady job with benefits, makes over $50,000/yr, and has an extensive support network of nearby family and friends who can help out. Yet another thing that I’ve failed to think about much during my bourgeois and pampered life – how complicated the choice of motherhood could be to someone whose sole and small source of income requires constant physical labor and presence. For a while after that we walked in silence, which was a change.

Highlights of the week included Elvi sticking to the velcro wall at the birthday party, Elvi learning how to play Bubble Breaker (on my PDA) and Pokemon on Eric’s gameboy, numerous giggling sessions with all the children, and her showing me Trujillo on Google Earth. What a wild world this is, to sit in Argentina and have Elvi navigate around Peru with me.

One response to “the week with Elvi

  1. >You should be a social scientist Diana. That was a really nice post, in the best soc sci sense.

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