By Alexandra M. Landeros
Even though the stories in Barefoot Dogs, by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, revolve around the members of a wealthy family that has to flee Mexico City after the grandfather is kidnapped, I was constantly drawn to the vital roles that the maids played. It’s no coincidence that the family tree at the end of the book includes the maids. The grandfather—the head of the family—along with each of his five sons and daughters had maids.
Maids were a central part of my life growing up in an upper-middle class extended family on my mother’s side in Mexico. Even though they weren’t as wealthy as the Arteaga family in Barefoot Dogs, there was a history of wealth. My mother’s maternal grandparents, Aurelia Diaz and Tirso Gurrola, were hacienda owners in Durango. Even though they were forced to flee to Texas during the Cristero War of the 1920s, when they returned to Mexico to live in Aguascalientes, they had enough money to purchase a large colonial era house in the center of the capital city.
By the time my grandmother took ownership of the house in the 1960s, she was married to my grandfather and had four children, including my mother. My grandmother ran a profitable flower shop, converting one of the street-facing bedrooms to the storefront, and by the time I was born in 1977, they already had a maid who was part of the family.
Blanca was the part-time flower shop assistant and housekeeper, eventually being promoted to the lead floral designer and part-time nanny. During the thirteen childhood summers I spent at my grandparents’ house in Aguascalientes, Blanca was the one who bathed me, cooked for me, and walked me to my folklorico dance lessons. She’d French braid my hair and put up with my whimsical requests.
I’d go with her to get fresh tortillas from the tortillería, to the corner grocery store, or to the paletería for Mexican popsicles. I spent countless hours with her in the flower shop studio, watching her make arrangement after arrangement, bombarding her with questions about everything under the sun, and listening to the Radio Uva station on the little black radio.
Blanca didn’t live in the house with us, as maids usually did with other upper-middle class families. My grandparents held her in such high esteem that they let her and her entire family live in a second house they owned within walking distance. Although she took on many of the responsibilities of a typical maid, she was never referred to as a “sirvienta.” At one point, they hired an actual maid to assist her with household tasks as Blanca became busier with the flower shop and looking after my brother and me during the summers.
We stopped spending summers in Mexico after I turned thirteen. I never kept in touch with Blanca. At one point, I learned that she had met someone and gotten married, which caused a major conflict with my grandmother. They had a falling out. She quit her job at the flower shop, and Florería Mayali shut down not too long after that.
By then, I was a teenager absorbed in the details of my own life. As an adult, I’ve often thought about what happened to her, hoping she is still happily married, maybe with children of her own. I don’t even know what happened to her parents and siblings, whether they were able to keep living in the house after the falling out with my grandparents.
My parents never had a maid—they moved to Los Angeles in 1976, shortly before I was born. When I was ten, my Mom befriended one of her coworkers, a fellow interpreter at the East Los Angeles Courthouse. She came from an upper middle-class family in Mexico City, and they had a maid named Julia. I remember hearing a story about how they smuggled her illegally across the border in the 1970s, crouched in the back seat of the car.
Now I wonder how she didn’t get caught—maybe they looked upper middle-class enough for border patrol not to search them, or maybe I remember the details incorrectly; after all, I heard the story nearly 30 years ago. By the time I met Julia, she was already a U.S. citizen, with her own bedroom, complete with matching white furniture and a frilly pink bedspread and curtains, and a massive doll collection.
Between the ages of 10 and 12, I spent a lot of time with Julia—she was my new Blanca. My parents had an active social life at the time, often going out with my mom’s coworker and her husband to parties. So my brother and I would spend the nights at their house with Julia.
We’d watch television and eat dinner with her. I asked her a lot of questions, especially about her real family that she left behind. Living in Southern California, it was also a period of time I was terrified of earthquakes. I have a vague memory of Julia comforting me during my moments of fear. But the only detail I remember vividly were Julia’s eyeglasses—they had her name etched in a gold, cursive font into one of the legs.
My mom has grown apart from her coworker friend. The last time I saw Julia was during a Thanksgiving we spent at their house nearly 20 years ago. She always seemed old to me. I don’t even know if she’s still alive.
If I managed to get in touch with Blanca or Julia somehow, would they be happy to hear from me? Was I as much a part of their lives as they were mine?