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Book examines domestic laborers in US

Mary Romero at a table in her ASU office, with her new book in foreground.
September 12, 2011

If recent box office receipts for “The Help” and sales of the novel it’s based on are any indication, Americans are ready to engage in a grassroots conversation about domestic labor as never before. The historical fiction focused on relationships between employers and household maids is striking a national nerve, catalyzing a lot of buzz and self-reflection across the country.

“We seem to go through periods when ‘the servant problem’ surfaces in the national conscience for a time, like in 1993 when Nannygate illuminated troubling wage and social security issues in the underground economy for domestic labor,” observes professor Mary Romero, faculty head of Justice and Social Inquiry in the School of Social Transformation, an academic unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Romero’s own scholarship has been illuminating the plight of domestic laborers and the justice issues surrounding the structure of their work since her days as a young assistant professor in the early 1980s. Her new book, “The Maid’s Daughter: Living Inside and Outside of the American Dream,” offers an intimate, non-fiction look into how issues of culture, wealth, gender, and language shaped one life in particular.

The book examines themes that emerged over more than 20 years of interviews and conversations between Romero and “Olivia Salazar,” a Mexican American woman who grew up as the daughter of a live-in maid in a well-to-do Los Angeles gated community. Romero’s painstaking research reveals a complex story of identity, belonging and resistance and brings to light the hidden costs of paid domestic labor that are transferred to the families of private household workers.  

For readers, Olivia’s story sheds light on a number of compelling questions and contradictions: What's it like to grow up a child of the working poor but living with an affluent family, feeling both inside and outside that family and life? Where speaking Spanish is sometimes rewarded and sometimes frowned upon? To understand that your mother’s continued employment depends to some degree on your behavior? What are the stresses on the parent-child relationship in this kind of environment?  

In the weeks since the book’s release on Sept. 1, “The Maid’s Daughter” has garnered media attention across the country, from interviews with Romero on National Public Radio affiliates in Southern California and North Texas, to book reviews in New York and Washington outlets. Professor Romero was one of four featured NYU Press authors at the annual American Sociological Association meeting in Las Vegas in August and last week she received word that she’ll be one of 200 prominent authors featured at the 2011 Texas Book Festival on Oct. 22-23. One of the premier literary events in the nation, it typically draws 40,000 participants to the Texas capitol for a weekend of author readings, panel discussions and book signings.

Blinders Lifted

Romero says that her own eyes were opened to the economic and social injustices in domestic work the year she began her academic career. Having accepted a teaching position at the University of Texas-El Paso after earning her doctorate at the University of Colorado, Boulder, she stayed briefly in the home of an El Paso colleague while apartment hunting.

“The family employed a teenager from Juarez to help with cleaning and cooking who lived with them during the week, and the way the family treated this young 16-year-old girl horrified me,” recounts Romero. “Any attempts at serious conversation by the girl were met with teasing and flirtatious comments from the father; the children barked orders at her. She was completely isolated from any family activities or interactions beyond her chores.

“It really shocked me, even though growing up, domestic service had been part of my taken-for-granted reality,” she explains. “Many of the women I knew worked cleaning other people’s houses. My own mother did day work and cleaned houses, and I worked with her as a teen to earn money and cleaned homes myself as a graduate student. Flying back to Denver from El Paso and thinking about what I’d seen, made me sick to think people might’ve treated my mother that way.”

Romero began researching domestic work from a sociological perspective. As more jobs opened up for domestic women and African American women left the field, she began studying Mexican American domestic workers and then started to look more closely at the work itself and the way work gets shaped by gender, class and relationships between people.

“A person hired to clean the carpets is more likely to be a man who has a machine. The client is expected to do a lot of prep work getting the room ready for cleaning,” explains Romero by way of example. “A domestic worker, on the other hand, is often expected to work around what’s going on in the family. Negotiations about how the work gets done are controlled by the employer and are much less systematic.” 

In 1992, Romero published the groundbreaking “Maid in the U.S.A,” which was re-released as a tenth-anniversary edition by Routledge in 2002. A look into the struggles with employers of 25 Chicana household workers in the Denver area, it expanded the theoretical understanding of the dynamics of race, class and gender in housework.

Romero began the life-history project with Olivia in 1987. After several years spent getting transcripts from her conversations with Olivia together, Romero published articles and book chapters exploring Olivia’s experience. Their interviews continued over two decades, with both the subject and the researcher growing into new insights about the impact of Olivia’s early socialization on her adult relationships and professional life.

“Eventually I started seeing themes and felt the need try to put the research into a chronological narrative, and the book project emerged,” says Romero.

A generous scholar who has served on countless editorial boards and taken on leadership roles in many professional organizations, Romero extends her expertise to activism to improve household employment conditions. She serves on the advisory committee to the National Domestic Workers Alliance and over the Labor Day weekend she was the featured guest at a Los Angeles fundraising event hosted by Congresswomen Karen Bass and Judy Chu and Los Angeles Unified School District board president Mónica García in support of California’s efforts to pass a Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights, similar to that enacted in New York earlier this year.

In 2004 Romero received the highest award made by the Society for the Study of Social Problems, the Lee Founders Award, for a career of activist scholarship; in 2009, the American Sociology American Section on Race and Ethnicity Minorities gave her its Founder's Award, for career excellence in scholarship and service. Romero is a former Carnegie Scholar, spending 2000 in residence at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning.

"Mary Romero has done it again,” reflects Professor Mary Margaret Fonow, director of the School of Social Transformation. "‘The Maid's Daughter’ is a brilliant follow-up to her prior book on domestic workers, ‘Maid in America.’ Mary’s talents as an ethnographer are on full display as she tells the story of  the dynamic Olivia—there are surprises at every turn, and I could not put the book down. It's a work that creates an easy bridge between academic research and social relevance and is embedded in community struggle.”

In addition to the event at Changing Hands Bookstore on Sept. 16, “The Maid’s Daughter” and professor Romero will be featured on October 26 in the new lunchtime book discussion group at ASU, open to anyone in the ASU community interested in participating. Book discussions are held in the Piper Writer’s Center, on ASU’s Tempe campus.