When I was roughly six or seven years old, my mother hired a cleaning lady to help out around the house once a week while she was pregnant with my brother. I don’t remember how we came to hire Rosa, but I do recall how this was a new turn of events for our family. Where some families I’m sure were accustomed to hired outsiders entering the private world of the home, my family was not. I was always instructed (usually multiple times with increasing levels of insistence and volume) to clean before Rosa’s arrival. My mother’s heightened sensitivity to appearances and specific presentations of domestic life therefore were equally performed regardless of the social position of the individual entering our home. Those used to hired help I’m sure dismiss paid employees. Employees disappear and melt into the scenery. For my mother, Rosa was never invisible. Her perception of our home was something my mother cared about.
To me, she seemed more like a friend of my mother’s who just so happened to also straighten up our house. Most of my memories of Rosa involve her sitting at our dining room table speaking Spanish with my mother while drinking coffee. Yet, even though she was more friend than employee, and my parents never modeled pretentious conduct; I still was aware of a difference in status between myself and Rosa and the way I behaved because of this embarrasses me to this day.
That summer was also the first summer my parents sent me to day camp. I was thrown into the maelstrom of upwardly mobile middle class suburbanites. These kids seemed more sophisticated and competent. Many had attended this camp since they were younger and, as an outsider, I was keenly aware of my difference. The rigid structured activities, the hushed cliquish gossip, and the shared camp culture were all things I needed to quickly adjust to in order to belong. I was playing catch-up, trying to learn Miss Mary Mack, knowing where to be at “Muster,” and perfecting lanyard stitches.
One morning before camp, as Rosa arrived, my mother realized our car wasn’t working and asked Rosa if she could drive me to camp. I spent the entire car ride, roughly twenty minutes pretending I dropped change in the backseat so I wouldn’t be seen in her car. Looking back at that moment, besides feelings of intense shame, I try to think of why I was so embarrassed.
First, Rosa’s car was not as new as our car and somehow at that age I realized that this was a sign of social position. Her car signified utility and nothing else, in the sea of luxury sedans, her car stood out as an outlier. Of course it didn’t cross my mind at that age that our position was only slightly above Rosas and our grasp of middle class habitus was tenuous at best. Our family’s car wasn’t more reliable than our cleaning lady’s, but it looked nicer and newer. It surprises me that at that age I already knew to value perception and aesthetics over function. Signifiers of class position are noticeable, even for children. Our car, although it consistently gave us trouble, was comparable to the others dropping off boys and girls, and this small detail gave me a sense of inclusion in this new world and power over others.
Second, while Rosa engaged with my mother as a friend, she was also an “other.” Her grasp of English was slight; therefore, even though my Puerto Rican mother speaks Spanish, Rosa was an outsider based upon citizenship and ethnicity. I knew somehow that the world she was taking me to was not the world she moves in easily, and her presence with me would mark me as an outsider too, because of both class and race.
What surprises me when I look back at this moment is how perceptive I was, and simultaneously how ignorant. I’m sure many campers actually were driven to camp by domestic employees, either nannies or cleaning ladies in their own cars, and I’m sure they were never self-conscious about the make, year and cost of the car they were in or nervous about being seen with “the help.” At that age, in that moment, I didn’t see this act as an assumed aspect of her duties as a paid employee, and therefore I did not exit her car with a haughty privileged air. For me, this moment, even for someone as young as I was, could possibly destroy the façade. My response to this event demonstrates a certain type of class position, one that is striving for inclusion in the upper class, yet unaware and incapable of actually performing the taken-for-granted position of privilege that would have actually have signaled belonging.