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Never Too Late to Say You're Sorry

Guilt fuels a Latina playwright's story of a maid and her mistress.

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Tanya Saracho's world shifted in 2001 during an improv exercise with the members of Teatro Luna. "We were doing all these workshops about mothers for our second show, and I was working with Erika Martinez," she says. "I would say, 'My mother has the most beautiful hands--she has never worked.' And Erika would say something like, 'My mother has the roughest hands--she has worked every day of her life.'"

The realization that Martinez was the daughter of a maid startled her. Growing up Saracho had had a maid, and she'd never quite thought of her as a person before. "My family hired a maid, Ema, who was 12 when I was 12," she says. "We grew up together--but she took care of us."

Martinez, who's now a bookkeeper for a property-management firm as well as an actress, was born in Jersey City, the daughter of a coffee farmer and a woman who was the daughter of a doctor. When she was small her family lived in the Dominican Republic, where both of her parents had been born. But in 1980, when Martinez was seven, they moved back to New Jersey. A year later her parents divorced, and her mother, who spoke little English and had only a high school education, had to find work.

The only jobs she could get were working in a sweatshop or cleaning houses. She did both--and she took her children with her. "I didn't know it was a sweatshop then," says Martinez. "But me and my brother would cut strings and put the plastic on the shirts. And we would go with my mother to clean houses and a foot doctor's office."

Saracho was born in Los Mochis, Mexico, but grew up in the border town of McAllen, Texas. "It took 18 hours to reach another American state from home, but only ten minutes to go to Mexico," she says. Her father, a Mexican politician, was wealthy enough to buy her a house of her own for her 18th birthday. "Having a maid," she says, "is the tradition, the culture."

One evening shortly after the improv exercise Martinez and Saracho were preparing a mailing to raise funds for Teatro Luna. Martinez says, "I said to Tanya, 'I'm just so tired. I'm just so exhausted.' Not because we've been working so hard on fund-raising or because I haven't slept well the night before--but because I've been working since I was eight years old, and I just feel like I can't keep working this hard for the rest of my life."

Saracho started thinking about her family's maid, comparing her to Martinez. "Now I'm very American, and I'm seeing Erika as a person, a friend, a peer. I saw what she went through," she says. "It blew my mind. I didn't know what to do."

All the women in Ema's family were maids, Saracho says. She remembers clearly the first time Ema came to the house. "She was tiny, really, really short--shorter than me and I'm five-five," she says. "She had long, dark hair, and I think she was wearing shorts, which was weird because traditional girls in Mexico didn't wear shorts then. She didn't say a word for weeks unless you asked her something. I didn't see her cry. I didn't see her smile. I don't really remember talking to Ema until high school. Now I notice those things, but back then I never did. I just took her for granted."

Ema did everything for Saracho's family, from ironing, cooking, and cleaning to comforting Saracho's baby sister when she had bad dreams. "I would change clothes ten times before going to school because it had to be perfect, you know?" Saracho says. "It was chaos in that bedroom in the morning, because I'd use Obsession powder, and it would go pfffft all over the place with that big puff. So it would always be a mess. But when I came home it was pristine and clean."

Saracho's parents processed Ema's papers and got her a passport, though not work papers. "Ema didn't know how to read or write when she came to us," she says. "I don't know how she learned. Who told her about her period? Who bought her pads? How did she get clothes when she was a teenager? How did she meet her boyfriend? She never went out. A whole world opened in my head."

Saracho started asking her mother about Ema and discovered that her mother had held on to Ema's passport so she couldn't run away. Saracho was furious. "That's like a chain trapping you," she says. "All the neighborhood families held on to their maids' passports. It's a power trip."

Saracho didn't know what to do with her guilt. "I wanted to vomit it," she says. Instead she wrote a play. "Because how dare I treat a Mexican woman like that? A woman the same age as me."

Her short, semiautobiograpical Kita y Fernanda, about a ditsy, well-to-do Mexican-American, Fernanda, and her ambitious maid and companion, Kita, was first performed as part of Teatro Luna's spring 2002 group show, "Dejame Contarte." Last summer Saracho spent six weeks back in Texas turning it into a full-length play, in English with a little Spanish. It opened February 21 at Teatro Luna.

Saracho sees the seven women of Teatro Luna as "aunts" of Kita and Fernanda. "They take the side of one or the other," she says. "The people who are immigrants or who have lived in Latin America or the Carribbean understand Fernanda better" because they accept class divisions more readily. "People who are second-generation or first-generation Latinas here, they side with Kita. They think Fernanda's terrible."

Martinez says she identifies with Kita, especially when Kita's trying to go to college and make a better life for herself, but she understands Fernanda too. Her mother's family in the Dominican Republic had servants, and she remembers a weekend with her extended family at a beach house. They took one of the servants with them.

"I was swimming with the girl--I don't even remember her name," says Martinez. "I feel so bad about that. My aunt was reprimanding me. 'You should not be playing with the servants. You should not be looking at them.' There's a class separation that as a child you don't understand at all. So I can totally see how Fernanda could believe that her maid was also her friend. I can see how she would grow up and not realize the social pattern that she's feeding."

But, she adds, "There's also a twinge of anger or hatred that comes out, where you're just like, 'God, how could you not see?'...It's frustrating when someone grows up and is old enough to understand things and they don't." She quickly adds that she's not talking about Saracho.

Saracho sees her play as an apology to her maid, a way to show that she gets it now. Ema left Saracho's household unexpectedly when she was 20. She didn't tell anyone where she was going, and Saracho can only wonder what happened to her.

"I don't think Ema became Kita, but maybe she did," Saracho says. "I hope she got married and had children, because that's what she wanted. She wanted her own home. I hope she has her own home."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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