Las Nanas

by Diego Salvatierra

Growing up in Chile, I never complained about my chores. I didn’t have any, and neither did any of my friends. We had nanas instead.

These household workers or maids––always women––are part housecleaners, part babysitters, and part cooks. Unlike other countries where having such maids is a luxury available only to the elite, many middle-class Chilean families, and even couples, have one. This situation, the result of a cheap female workforce in a highly unequal country, has rarely been questioned. But in the wake of recent discrimination scandals, films, and documentaries on their situation, nanas are in the spotlight. As conservative Chilean society shakes from student and environmentalist movements, some nanas are staging their own marches, in their frilly uniforms, calling for their job to be treated just like any other.

One of their biggest demands is for a regular workday, since being a nana is not a 9-to-5 job. About a third of nanas actually live in their employers’ homes, in small “service rooms” next to the kitchen. Even nanas who live in their own homes often have twelve hour workdays. Nanas answer to every need (and whim) of the family, from making afternoon sandwiches for the kids to cleaning toilets. Chilean domestic life, at least for the richest third, would be unthinkable without their constant presence. In many Chilean homes nanas become “like family.”

For my own family, at least, this was certainly true. My parents hired our first maid right after their wedding, a year before I was born. “Pepa,” as we called her, lived for more than ten years in our suburban Santiago home. She cleaned the house and helped take care of my sisters and me. Like all live-in nanas, Pepa slept in our service room. I dimly remember visiting Pepa’s own house once, where her husband and children lived, but I never thought much about her spending only one night a week with them. When we went to the beach for the summer, Pepa would come with us. When we went to Disneyworld in 1999, she flew with us. And when we moved to the US in 2000, she came to help us move in.

Pepa’s story, of maids’ lives trailing those of their employers, is not uncommon. Miriam Gonzalez is another such nana. In her late 50s, slightly chubby and with graying hair, Miriam wears the characteristic nana uniform: a dark blue maid’s dress with small frills. Miriam was a single mother without a high school degree when she left her home in southern Chile in search of better wages in Santiago. She was hired by Francisco and Beatriz Mualim just months after their wedding in 1982, when she was 27, and has lived with them since.

“From the start, we had good chemistry,” she said. “I never thought of moving back to Osorno.”

Miriam would take the eight-hour bus ride south to visit her son Roberto, who was raised by his grandparents. But when the Mualims moved to the Netherlands in the early ‘90s, Miriam went with them, and rarely saw her son. In a sense, Miriam raised the Mualim children more than she did her own. “It’s like seeing your own children grow up,” she told me. “You see their steps in life, their successes, birthdays, years––and it fulfills you,” she continued, noting that she even went to their weddings. But this close bond disrupted her own family life. “When I visited Roberto, I would often call him ‘Felipe’ or ‘Francisco’ [the names of the Mualim children] by mistake,” she said.

After decades living with the Mualims, Miriam comes and goes “as if it were home,” she said. Beatriz Mualim agrees, explaining “she is like a sister, or maybe like a cousin,” and that they have long talks over coffee. But Mrs. Mualim noted that Miriam is quick to move to the kitchen when a guest comes over for tea or dinner. “She is very proper––of course she knows better than to sit with our guests!” These subtle differentiations highlight a characteristic of the job. Nanas can be “like” family, or live “as if” they were part of the home, but they never fully are.

A similar story to Miriam’s became the subject of one of Chile’s biggest blockbusters, La Nana, a 2009 dark comedy that won accolades at Sundance. Like Miriam, the protagonist Raquel had lived with her employers, the Valdeses, for decades. She is there as their children grow up and believes herself to be part of the family. When a new maid is brought in to help her, she performs a series of semi-comical pranks to get the newcomer fired. But the new nana goes jogging and has her own social life, eventually inspiring Raquel to do things for herself. As audiences laughed at Raquel’s antics, many began to see nanas in a new light. The personal toll on nanas––as women who rarely see their own children, who do not live in their own homes, and who sacrifice large portions of their personal lives––was laid bare. The system that most Chileans had tacitly accepted was now talked about and criticized. This set the stage for bigger changes.

Late in 2011, a local resident reported to a Santiago newspaper that his gated community in Chicureo, a well-off suburb, prevented nanas from walking freely on the streets. The administration required maids to wear “proper identifying uniforms” and the local golf club prohibited nanas from swimming in the pool when accompanying employers’ children. Readers and columnists denounced this as class-based discrimination. The attention on nanas continued with a documentary by Canal 13, a leading TV station. It featured an “experiment” to prove discrimination by having an actress dressed in a nana’s uniform request admission for her children at elite Santiago schools. Although it was not well received (“I would never matriculate my children in my uniform!” said my current live-out maid, Luzvenia Mendez), the documentary fueled the growing national debate.

In tandem with this public discussion, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera moved in May to regularize domestic worker contracts and work hours. His law would reduce the workday for live-in maids from 15 hours to 12, and from 12 to eight for live-out ones, the standard for Chilean workers. Homes as workplaces are hard to monitor, which makes this difficult to enforce. “There are maids who do not denounce excess hours,” argued Ruth Olate, president of the Domestic Workers’ Union (SINTRACAP), the oldest and largest of the three main nana unions, which helped draft the law. Still, she sees the law as an important step forward.

The law is not without detractors. Katrina Garib, mother of three in an upper middle class apartment, has employed several nanas over the years. “I find the new law absurd,” she said. “Yes, they may wake up at 7 a.m. and cook dinner at 7 p.m., but they spend a lot of time in between doing nothing.” Garib believes the law is misplaced: “I paid my nanas above the minimum wage, which is very common; they’re better off than others, and shouldn’t complain so much.” Live-in maids do not pay rent and get free food, she added.

For Emilia Solis, on the other hand, Piñera’s law did not go far enough. Solis is the founder of the newer Unitary Union of Domestic Workers (SINDUTCAP). Although the two unions cooperated in drafting the new law, Solis fell out at the last minute after refusing to compromise on an eight-hour workday for all maids, not just live-out ones. “Our final goal is to reduce the workday to eight hours, even for live-ins,” said Solis at a recent union meeting. “We are not slaves––we are people,” she said with a rising voice, stressing that their job is just like any other, and should be treated as such. The nanas in the room clapped. I looked around and saw a dozen old and middle-aged faces.


The room was somewhat empty––it was Mothers’ Day, and most maids were spending the day with their children. “They call me a communist––I’m a communist if it means demanding what I ask for,” Solis told me over coffee. “We are totally radical,” she added, noting her contacts with left-wing parties. “We can never get stepped on again––the dominant class takes advantage of us,” she said. I wondered if she could tell that I was part of that class.

Solis has been working as a maid since she was thirteen. She recounted how one of her employers refused to give her a contract, and when she sued, the employer turned up with a forged signature and contract in court. Emilia founded the new union to fight similar abuses. After three years, it counts some 70 active members. Out of nearly half a million nanas, the numbers are low, but Solis notes that thousands of maids have come for queries and support. She cooperates with Olate’s union in organizing awareness marches. The largest one, held last November, drew hundreds of nanas. Again in June, scores of liveout maids marched against long commutes to their upper and middle class workplaces. The sight of nanas on the street grabbed political and media attention.

Still, the organizations’ unity cracked over the new law’s treatment of live-in maids. When I asked Olate why her union, as opposed to Solis’, supported the twelve-hour workday, she retorted that lowering it to eight would hurt some of the poorest maids. “Many immigrant nannies need to work in-house––they don’t have anywhere else to stay,” she said. And with an eight-hour workday “there would be no demand for live-ins.”

Many of these immigrant live-in maids come from neighboring, poorer Peru. Peruvian nanas, identifiable by their accents and somewhat darker skin, often face discrimination from Chilean nanas who fear losing their jobs to a cheaper workforce. “Some of our union members cry that we are ‘invaded by Peruvians,’” said Olate, “but I tell them ‘No! These are our fellow workers, we’re all the same.’”

“Fellow workers” are not the only ones who discriminate. Santuza Atao, an immigrant maid from Cuzco, said she “would call potential employers, who would say ‘Chilean yes, Peruvian no.’” Some Chilean parents are worried their children will pick up a Peruvian accent, she explained.

Santiago’s Plaza de Armas, the city’s foundational square, is the favorite meeting place for the capital’s growing Peruvian community. Money transfer shops with Peruvian flags line its side streets, and nearby restaurants advertise Aji de Gallina and Arroz Chaufa, typical Peruvian dishes. In a small second floor room with a view of Santiago’s cathedral, Matilde Rodriguez, a nana from northern Peru, runs a new union for immigrant maids.

“Peruvian nanas leave everything behind to work… immigrating felt like exile,” said Rodriguez, who came to Santiago over a decade ago. Immigrant live-in maids “have nowhere to go on their day off” and “drift through the city, alone,” she said. Rodriguez founded the union this April to help them find support. They host workshops on attaining proper documentation and workers’ rights, and even began a campaign in Lima to educate young Peruvians about the difficulties of immigration. But Rodriguez is most proud of the knitting lessons they offer: “Working as a live-in nana is to live without living, to live for someone else—it’s like slavery with psychological flagellation,” she says, with teary eyes. The solution to this harsh, “impersonal” situation is “reencountering yourself, doing things for yourself,” she said, “and knitting is for you!”

More and more nanas, whether immigrants or not, are beginning to think like this. Miriam Gonzalez, the Mualims’ maid, had told me how younger maids “like to have fun, go out, have their own homes, husbands, kids.” She believesthat in a few years it will be more like in Europe or the United States, with cleaning ladies paid by the hour replacing nanas. Miriam noted that nanas like her, who spend a  lifetime with an employer, are increasingly rare. Indeed, there are now fewer live-in maids: the Domestic Worker’s Union estimates they have dropped from two-thirds to a third over the past decade. This trend will continue. As Chilean society grows richer and less unequal, the social situation that gave rise to nanas will become rarer. Practically all of the maids I spoke to had worked hard to get their children to college—Chilean university enrollment has increased fivefold over the past twenty years.

With better education and rising wages in other sectors, fewer young women will become nanas, and hiring one will become more of a luxury. Given Peru’s recent economic boom, even the inflow of immigrant live-in maids could slow down. I have a feeling that my future children will do at least some of their own chores, as hundreds of thousands of small service rooms lie empty, their would-be occupants living in their own homes, leading their own lives.

DIEGO SALVATIERRA ’13 is an Ethics, Politics and Economics major in Pierson College. Contact him at diego.salvatierra@yale.