Cars, Marrying the Maid, and More Classism

My last article, Classism in Latin America, wasn’t a dig at the upper classes of Latin America. It was meant to be a dig at the Spanish. Their ways manifested into countries where people would leave in droves for the US if they had the option.

The more time a gringo spends in Latin America, the more he’ll recognize the Spanish legacy, which has self-perpetuated wealth in a small, incestuous community via nepotism and cronyism. “Meritocracy in Latin America” – that’ll make many seasoned gringos laugh out loud. “Self-made man” – there isn’t a word in Spanish. How Latin American capitalism was designed promoted nepotism, with a well-known tradition of gatekeeping, alliance-building, pocket-greasing, and collusion in favor of fierce competition. Not even monopolies are prohibited.

Now everybody can point to some gringo rich kid who isn’t worth dick but lives well spending his parents’ money. Of course they exist. But in Gringolandia, it’s something to be ashamed of. In Latin America, it yields a feeling of superiority. There’s no shame in being a zero despite going to all the good schools and having all the opportunities. That just doesn’t enter their head because they were born into a good family. They deserve nice things by birthright. And this – the Spanish legacy – is why they’re largely disdained by expat gringos.

The gringo bloggers in Peru have been harsher on their upper-class equivalents (pitucos) than the gringo bloggers in Colombia. I’d assume because, while there are fewer, the bloggers in Peru have more time on the ground. In addition to having more experience, they also have sharper teeth in their writing. This from a pituco rant from Streets of Lima:

[I]f you’re walking down the street in Peru and you get in the way of a Pituco who is driving his car you better dive out of the way because he/she will have no qualms whatsoever about running you over. The fact that you’re not in a car will prove to this person that you are of inferior fiber. I’ve actually SEEN fancy cars hit people only to have the driver jump out of the car and BERATE the person they just struck!

This touches on a major area of classism I didn’t mention: the car. Colombian film El Carro perfectly captures the importance of owning a car to status and social class (it’s also a great Colombian film WITHOUT drugs, kidnapping, or guerrillas).

This is why Enrique Peñalosa‘s anti-car, pro-public transportation arguments are politically difficult. Although only 20-25% own cars, most aspire to own one. On the other hand, those arguments are easily swallowed by gringos. I don’t know the numbers, but an overwhelming majority of Americans own cars. In fact, it’s almost become a sign of status if you don’t own a car, since the only cities where you can do so are NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco – cities with some of the highest costs of living in the world. You gotta make good money to live in those cities. Everywhere else, life is near impossible without a car. I lived without one for almost two years in St. Louis. But towards the end friends and especially family were getting pissed for having to always pick me up for reunions and parties inconveniently or impossibly located to public transportation.

Regardless, car ownership is a major status symbol in Latin America. That’s why, in the Streets of Lima’s example and others, car owners berate and look down upon pedestrians. Here’s a simple smell test for classism in Latin America:

  1. If you don’t own a car and don’t aspire to, you’re probably not a classist.
  2. If you own a car which is not a Mercedes or BMW and you’re not aspiring to upgrade, you’re probably not a classist.
  3. If you’re a woman willing to date a man who does not own a car, you’re probably not a classist.

Here’s a different pituco rant from American in Lima:

(1) I was walking Lola through a park in Miraflores which is cross-crossed by running lanes. A middle-aged lady in a baby-pink running suit was jogging through the park at an achingly slow pace. Behind her trailed a small Andean maid in a blue smock and white apron carrying the woman’s water bottle. God forbid la señora should have to carry her own water!

(2) Last September Sammy’s school held … an elaborate fair with games, rides and raffles … I had a major pituca attack when I saw one lady in skin tight jeans and high heels (face almost alien-looking as a result of excessive plastic surgery) being followed by two uniformed maids, who were carting stacks of toys and kitchen items won at the raffle. One woman, two maids. Of course, the woman didn’t deign to carry a single raffle item herself.

(3) One day [my friend] was walking along the Malecón in Miraflores when she bumped into a client, who was walking parading her little toy dog. The dog was dolled up in a gingham outfit, and The Client began to brag that said dog had a Nana.

A Nana is like a nanny but more pretentious. The word “nana” is Italian for grandmother; in Peru is usually connotes a live-in maid who is deeply devoted to the welfare of a human child.

Plenty of rich Limeños have maids who walk their dogs, but to boast that you have a Nana for your pooch is pure, status-seeking insanity.

The Nana even accompanies the dog when the family flies to Miami for shopping expeditions, explained the client. It is so necessary.

And, of course, the dog has its own bedroom in the house, which is in need of redecorating…

Empleadas (’employee’ in English) are more than maids. ‘Maid’ in English means a woman who cleans the house. Empleadas in Latin America do much more. They cook, clean, do the laundry, and take care of the kids. The perfect translation would be ‘servant’. I imagine they don’t use ‘servant’ because it doesn’t sound nice in English. So they use niñera, chacha, and a slew of others. ‘Employee’ is the least harsh, ‘servant’ the most accurate.

The servant culture in Latin America is widespread. I don’t have a problem with the industry, it’s simply an effect of a less developed economy. If there’s supply and demand, so be it. In fact, I love being able to pay so little for someone to do my laundry and clean my room.

That sign is fake, but the law isn’t.

But some things are indefensible. For example, upscale Peruvian beach Asia sits just south of Lima. At Asia, servants are not allowed to swim in the water. Not even in they’re dressed in swimwear. How do they enforce this law? How do they justify it? What was the thinking behind it? I don’t know. But I know that there are two beaches in Asia: one for lower class, the other for the pitucos who come in from Lima. And in the latter, the maids must wear blue uniforms and stay out of the water. This isn’t a discrete way of discrimination, as Streets of Lima describes occurs in the posh Lima clubs where Inca-looking people always have the wrong dress code or whatever. This is indiscrete, explicit, on-the-books prohibition of citizens from a public beach.

One Colombian client, Colpresario, went off on a hilarious tirade once. He spent several years in the States and got Americanized, but he also grew up in Colombia, so his classism attitudes are a mixed bag. But he’s clear regarding empleadas – he won’t allow one near his kids.

Colpresario lives in the heart of estrato 6 Bogota. He once told me he sees couples walking around that make no sense to him at all. He believes because many upper-class boys are raised by niñeras (‘nannies’), that’s what they look for in their later love lives. Hence his shock when he sees a well-educated kid with a simple-looking woman. “He married the maid!” Colpresario exclaims.

Or sometimes, explains Colpresario, these young men will marry a woman of similar social class just for appearances. “But when they want a fuck,” (that’s a quote) they find a poor empleada.

For that reason, he only allows an empleada in his house once a week to clean. He won’t stand for one touching his kids. He insists his wife, an un-Americanized Colombiana who I imagine would like a niñera, give the kids all the affection and care. He doesn’t want his sons marrying a maid later in life.

Milagros told me a story from a hospital. The kid was crying, but she didn’t want her mother. Only the maid could soothe the crying. That kid may very well be on his way to marrying a maid.

I recently saw The Help about the servant culture in 1960s Mississippi. It’s has some eye-rolling Hollywood cheesiness, but it’s largely how things were in the Jim Crow South. And it’s very much what happens today in developing economies. So we gringos can’t act like Gringolandia has always been completely above it, but at least we’re past it.

On American in Lima’s post about the maids being banned from the beach, this comment from Barbara:

If Peru wants to enter the 21st century and be respected by developed nations, those kind of attitudes will have to go, whether the so-called elite like it or not.

That’s what it comes down to. It doesn’t matter how many Polo shirts and Tommy Hilfiger flags with sweaters tied around their waists they have. Classism is an indicator of low progress societies.



  1. There is a colombian movie that depicts perfectly the classism, especially about the maids: Pisingaña
    About 2 decades ago it was the norm to have a maid at home even at middle class homes. Since the tightening of labor laws it became impossible to have one living 24/7 at home, so the maids had to transform into “de por dias” (per day) that actually exist.
    My mom, since she wasn’t born in a city, had a lot of contacts to bring young maids to middle class families in our neighborhood. Some people thought that practice was despicable but I’d rather think that those poor girls had a better chance comming to the big city than remain poor at their homes, because part of their payment was education (night school for most), which is a lot better in Bogota than at the country.
    Trivia: Plancha music is called that way because was the music that the maids listened on the radio while on duty (ironing, cleaning, etc). it strike a chord in all of us who had a maid, because it was the only music at home when we were child… if you find that a person seems to like or knows about plancha music… you can bet he/she had a maid at home.


  2. ROFL ! Colin, good eye for idiosyncratic cultural behavior, and your blaming the Spanish for man’s inhumanity to man in Latin America is well founded. In fact, a bigger bunch of assholes probably never set sail. To this day, Spanish expats in Latin America can make the worst Ugly American Red Neck look like a hero, but I digress. Over the years I have seen many otherwise well heeled gringos marry the maid, if not at least give her a propina every once in a while for a “favorcito”. In fact, it is not unusual in Costa Rica for an adolescent son of a middle to upper class family to get his first chupadita from the maid. Chances are, the kid’s dad is probably hosing her, too. But then again, what the hell. Think I’ll go look for my hottie Nicaraguan empleada and tell her that I am going to need a quickie as soon as she finishes making the rice …


  3. Ha! I know two gringo expats in BsAs who married their maids. Both military doing stints in LatAm and enjoying life, as apparently are their new esposas. I call it a “win-win”; the fellas get hot ladies with decidedly lower maintenance costs – assuming they don’t get really stupid and bring them back the EEUU – while the mucamas score a minor lottery ticket.


  4. This is so spot-on it’s almost funny. To be fair though I have gringo friends who grew up wealthy with maids/nannies and many of them are fluent in spanish because of it. Of course that’s here in Texas where we have an abundance of cheap immigrant women to do this line of work. Up north I guess it is less common.

    Actually now that I think about it, my mexican grandmother was basically a maid for the family who owned the ford car dealership where my grandfather worked as I was growing up. I remember my abuelita would take me with her sometimes when she would babysit the family’s twin daughters who were my age. I would play with the girls while my grandma cleaned the house and did the laundry. I remember seeing the twins later on when we were all grown up and they turned out pretty damn hot. I never got to bang either one of them. Damn, so I guess I come from a peasant family, wtf. This is literally occurring to me as I type this. I guess if I ever go to that beach in Lima I’m legally not even allowed to get in the water. Holy shit!


  5. Matthew – that’s a good point, I’ve seen in movies more and more the Mexican maid/nannies in California, etc. I imagine it’ll be a long time before it’s common in the Midwest.


  6. Why exactly, do these societies have any obligation whatsoever to conform to your expectations? You sound like Hillary Clinton, banging on about some shit that it none of her business.


  7. Excellent articles this and the last one Colin – insightful, carfully observed, entertaining, well-written.
    It is very true to say that higher class Colombia rejects the notion of Republicanism, indeed an expensive education is largely a training in anti-Republicanism.


  8. I had lived in Spain for 12 years and know what you mean when you mention Spanish classism; it’s true, the Spanish are very classist, but I also find that they are very progressive in many ways, much more so than the USA (which I do not know any more than through films, friends etc).

    I do find your arguments quite simplified though, I think there’s much more to Dutch vs Spanish cycling habits than just the weather and a preference for cars (the terrain is an important factor) but Spain has changed a lot in this aspect in the last 5 years.

    What I find most lacking in your chronicle is the lack of socioeconomic insight. South America has suffered a constant pillaging of its resources since the Spanish set sail, and continues so to this day. The USA has played an enormous role in this aspect, although of course, this was aided by the strong (but small) ruling classes within these Latin American countries and helped by the threat of military coups, when the balance of power was questioned.

    When this is taken into account, I understand that Pituco/Gomelo classism is more a question of survival than a Spanish heritage. I understand that the pilgrim arrival in the United States is what led to the creation of that particular form of anthropologically-friendly capitalism, but it’s also what massacred millions of native American indians and what has perpetuated the current state of affairs in the USA’s “back yard”.
    Fortunately, things are changing, and there has finally been a little more political will to change this sad state of affairs.


  9. @”Since the tightening of labor laws it became impossible to have one living 24/7 at home, so the maids had to transform into “de por dias” (per day) that actually exist.”
    My mother in law had a live in maid until 2015 when she realized she didn’t need one.

    Regarding this
    “Their ways manifested into countries where people would leave in droves for the US if they had the option.”
    Have you read

    It compares the US to Latin America and has a very interesting theory to why one is richer than other.
    (It also looks at many other countries).


  10. It’s ironic that your intend to critique the Spanish system, the same system that set up the country you are so infatuated with. The English had their own way of doing things, which was extermination, and strict racial separation. How about Jim Crow America or Rhodesia?

    Servants are not slaves. They don’t have to work it if they don’t want to. They are providing a service and the maids are getting paid. If it upsets your egalitarian sensibilities, then you sir are the one with the problem.

    Question: at Asia beach, are the servants allowed to go in the water when they are not on the job. On off days for instance? If that is the case, then it is not citizens who are prohibited but servants who are prohibited from going into the water. It sounds like a good idea to me. That way you know who is who.

    What’s wrong with marrying the maid? That attitude strikes me as extremely classicists. What’s wrong with being able to afford and then hiring a maid to begin with? If classicism is a sign of low progress society then you must love the USSR.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s