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Maria Antonieta Gómez Álvarez / Chiapas correspondent
San Cristóbal de las Casas – Chiapas, Mexico — As maids, cooks, nannies and housekeepers they work behind closed doors, away from the public eye; unprotected by Mexican labor laws.
Carmen Sánchez Gómez’s hand trembles as she struggles to form the letters her teacher slowly spells out for her. She sits at a table with five other Latina indigenous women, each bent over sheets of paper. Children finger paint nearby as their mothers learn to print their names.
These women, all domestic workers in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, meet in a sunny courtyard twice a month for literacy classes and workshops that teach them about their rights as workers and as women.
Beside Sánchez Gómez, Josefa Díaz Martínez’s tired face shows the years she has spent working hard to keep ‘other peoples’ homes impeccable. Like most domestic workers in the city, she is female, indigenous, poor and an immigrant. And like many domestic workers, she has experienced the occupational hazards of mistreatment, sexual abuse and economic exploitation.
Since September 2006, Concepción López has coordinated literacy classes and workshops for a domestic workers. A recent group of six domestic workers and their children in San Cristóbal are part of a new class. As a literacy teacher López is director of the Palenque based women’s rights organization, Ixim Antsetic, which means ‘Women of Corn’ in the native indigenous Tzolzil language.
The women in the group are united by their hardships and the trying paths that led them to domestic work. Most have been forced to begin their work at a very young age. They are united by an absence of rights and legal protections that the Mexican government does not provide to domestic workers.
Approximately 50% of the women in Chiapas are illiterate, compared to 30% of the men. Family responsibilities, young motherhood and a relentless need to work due to the hardship of life has contributed to an uphill climb for most women who desperately want an education.
“As in many Latin American countries, there are huge income disparities between rich and poor,” says a World Bank Chiapas report.
Josefa Díaz Martínez, 33, was orphaned when she was three years old as she was put into the care of her grandparents. Five years later her grandfather died. On the days of grief her grandmother, “threw herself into vice,” and was unable to care for eight year old Díaz. It was then that Díaz Martínez was forced to leave home as she went to work as a maid in the Chiapas’ state capital of Tuxtla-Gutíerrez.
Coming from a humble indigenous home Díaz barely spoke Spanish. Working in a wealthy household meant learning new ways. Those who employed her had little patience. Her boss told her that if she didn’t fry eggs correctly she would beat her with the skillet.
Díaz remembered once being stabbed in the hand with a fork as punishment for setting the table incorrectly.
“It is common for such mistreatment to escalate into sexual abuse,” said literacy teacher Concepción López. Across Mexico, sexual harassment and abuse are two of the most common problems faced by domestic workers.
Virginia Martínez Jiménez, 32, came to San Cristóbal de las Casas in 1994, displaced from her community by the ongoing conflicts between Zapatistas and the Mexican army. She spent 7 years working for the same family, but was eventually forced to leave. “My boss tried to sexually abuse me and my four-year-old daughter. That was when I left, running from that house,” she admitted.
It’s a challenge for many women domestic workers to stay safe in households where they are vulnerable, first as women, then as low-wage slave laborers. Subjected to degrading treatment and given little to no dignity by their employers, many forms of abuse range from forced 14 hours work days, an intense amount of unending work that often can cause chronic health problems.
Indigenous domestic workers also complain that they suffer racism in the Mestizo homes where they work. Díaz Martínez says her bosses shamed her for being indigenous, adding that the children call her “a flea-bitten, smelly Indian.”