Characters and the author
Written by Mary Romero and published by the New York University Press in 2011, the chef-d’oeuvre book, The Maid’s Daughter: Living inside and outside the American Dream, is a non-fictional book that highlights racial and cultural discrimination in the American society. The book’s title glints interest within me as I am interested in knowing how it feels to live both inside and outside the American dream. Mary Romero is a lecturer at the University of Arizona. She is an experienced author and she has written many books in the course of her career as a tutor, even though I have not read any of her other books. The book, The Maid’s Daughter: Living inside and outside the American Dream, is a historical study and it covers the history of a woman, Olivia Salazar – the daughter of Carmen – an immigrant working in the United States in the 1970s.
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The author explores the life of Olivia Salazar to illustrate mistreatments that minorities face as they try to settle in the United States. The author emerges as a perfect scholar from her style of writing. She is respectful, honest, and a good listener who allows the protagonist recounting the story to dictate the flow of narration. The author uses fictitious names, viz. Carmen and Olivia without revealing their identity for security purposes. However, this aspect does not stop her from relaying the intended message. Carmen and her daughter live in the house of Smith, who is Carmen’s employer in exchange for domestic chores. The two are the main characters in the book and their story features throughout the writing. Olivia Salazar finds herself in confusion as she tries to balance two cultures, viz. her mother’s culture and the American culture.
Summary of the book
As aforementioned, this book revolves around the life of Olivia right from her tender age through adolescence and later into adulthood. At a dreadfully tender age, Olivia abandons her family to join her mother, Carmen, in Mexico. She leaves her culture to start a new life with the white communities in the west. Olivia’s mother, Carmen who is a Mexican immigrant, works as a house help in Los Angeles. The story is composed after analyzing the life of the mother and the daughter for a period of 20 years. The story begins even before Olivia is born. In the first part of the book, Olivia’s mother is seen leaving Mexico in search of a job, which leads her to Los Angeles.
The author analyses Olivia’s challenging life for over a period of 20 years. The controversy starts right from Carmen’s departure from Mexico leaving behind her daughter in the hands of a caregiver. Olivia thus grows believing that the caregiver is her real mother. In the book, Olivia calls the caregiver ‘mama,’ which means mother. The problem degenerates when Olivia later joins her mother in Los Angeles where she finds herself in the middle of two conflicting cultures.
In the book, the challenges facing domestic workers in the United States are addressed. Olivia and her mother live in a small house assigned to them by their employer until Olivia is later secluded from her mother to be given a room in her Smith’s luxurious house. Carmen is charged with the responsibility of bringing up four children belonging to her employer. However, ironically, despite her being the caregiver to the four children, her boss denies her the right to own her own daughter.
The boss intends to separate Olivia from her mother in the name of bringing her up in the American culture as opposed to Carmen’s Mexican culture. During her young age, Olivia receives numerous gifts and other privileges that are rarely available to other immigrants. However, according to the book, Olivia knows the motives behind these acts of appreciation and she is against the idea. The book is emotional as it paints a clear picture of the pain that immigrants go through in foreign countries with the Salazars as an example of an immigrant family.
The book also paints a clear picture of a community where racial and ethnical backgrounds are used as the base of determining how well an employee is treated by his/her employer. In the book, the life of Olivia is demonstrated as being full of challenges as she endeavors to establish her real identity. This problem is perpetuated by the different advices emanating from both sides, as the mother requires her to behave in a more decent manner as compared to Smith’s children.
On the other hand, Smith requires Olivia to abandon the Mexican culture and act as his children. Smith goes to the extent of paying Olivia’s school fees and takes her into an expensive private school as if she were his own daughter. However, Olivia is opposed to this idea, as she believes that Smith should increase Carmen’s salary instead of educating her in such an expensive school whereas her mother remains poor. The problem climaxes after Olivia secures a job as an advocate. She is equipped with skills that most Spaniards consider unsuitable in their country since such mannerisms are not in line with the Spanish culture.
In the book, racial discrimination is a commonplace in Los Angeles and the minorities frequently suffer severely courtesy of their racial backgrounds. In the book, it is evident that the minorities are discriminated and mistreated. They earn scrimpy wages despite the fact that they are in one of the most developed countries in the world. As Olivia grows up, she comes to terms with the occurrences of her environment, which is dotted with inequality.
The book illustrates this theme through Olivia and Carmen’s story, who are victims of racial discrimination. As aforementioned, Carmen earns peanuts despite the fact that she is surrounded by a sea of wealth and opulence. Even though Olivia receives better treatment as compared to her mother, the entitlements come at a cost. They are not prompted by the deep running desire to see an equal society; no, the deeply held loathing of foreign cultures drives such acts of kindness. According to Smith, any other culture apart from the American culture is retrogressive she cannot stand the notion that Olivia will grow to become a Mexican in the United States.
Some of the many entitlements afforded to Olivia include proper housing and education as well as some other benefits only available to Smith’s children. However, as aforementioned, the reason behind this genial treatment is to deprive Olivia of her cultural values and fit her in the ‘westernization’ fad. Initially, Olivia lives with her mother in a small room next to the kitchen, but she is soon taken upstairs and given a room of her own and later she is transferred from a public to a private school. Such privileges are only exclusive for the American children. Fortunately, as Olivia grows up and begins to realize the motives behind her cordial treatment, she turns down Smith’s offers as she considers herself equal to any other immigrant, and thus she feels obliged to live like her fellow immigrants. What annoys Olivia most is the fact that her mother is left to work alone in the kitchen, while she is asked to join the rest of the family for dinner.
She feels for her mother’s plight, which explains why she needs some time with her mother at the expense of spending time with the Smiths. Things change when Olivia grows up to become an advocate. Having experienced the discrimination that immigrants go through, Olivia returns to defend the rights of Mexican Americans.
Right from the beginning, Olivia does not really know who she is. Having spent part of her life in Mexico and now in Los Angeles, she does not really know where to fit in. Unfortunately, the ever-conflicting demands from her mother and the Smiths do not alleviate her identity crisis. The Smiths try to adopt Olivia into their family by letting her become one of their children. However, Olivia does not exactly know where to place her allegiance. Her mother is persistent with her calls for Olivia to observe ‘Mexican’ way of life. On the other side, the Smiths are very adamant that she should behave like an American and perhaps become civilized. In their bid to ‘westernize’ Olivia fully, the Smiths go a step further to pay for her school fees in an expensive private school. They welcome her to accompany the family during the frequent shopping sprees.
One of Carmen’s bosses tries to woo Olivia into dating a white man, and thus all these conflicting occurrences feed the identity crisis within Olivia. However, Olivia knows deep down that she is not part of this family – she is a Mexican and that fact cannot change. Nevertheless, her young mind is troubled, as she does not know how to handle the privileges accorded to her by the Smiths. Why punish herself, yet she has been offered a lifetime opportunity to become an American by the Smiths? These conflicting interests underscore the deep running identity crisis that many immigrant children face as they grow up in a society that is different from their native nations.
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However, Olivia’s doubts on where she belongs do not last long. One evening in a party organized by her mother’s bosses, one of the invited guests drops some pennies and obviously expects Olivia to collect them (Romero 52). This incident is a revelation to Olivia, as she categorically knows that she is an ‘outsider’ and no matter how she feels ‘westernized’ and regardless of the privileges she enjoys, she remains a Mexican and trying to fit in the American society as someone else is an arduous task. She confesses, “I just knew the Smiths were racist, very racist” (Romero 123). Despite the ever-bulging identity crisis, Olivia somehow comes to terms with her identity and accepts the “Chicana” personality, which befits her.
The question remains, how can someone remain a “Chicana” in a westernized environment? Olivia’s identity crisis does not just fade and it haunts her even in adulthood. Even in her adulthood and having completed her college studies heading for the prestigious UCLA, she still battles her identity. One side of her yearns for the admirable middle class entitlements, but the other side of her warns of the evils that come with materialism. Olivia’s identity crisis stands out clearly towards the end of the book in an interview with Romero where she admits that she really does not who she is. Ultimately, she concludes, “…everybody is fucked up. Everybody has hard life…” (Romero 194).
Class is another theme evident in this book. Most women employed by the upper and the middle class American families are immigrants. They are mistreated on grounds that they are of different ethnic groups. Domestic workers are housed far away from the rest of the families and they are never given the opportunity to interact their employers’ family members. Carmen is treated as a total outsider and even as her daughter is allowed to reside in a room with the rest of the family, she is left in a secluded room away from the main family. The seclusion and mistreatment of foreign employees cannot be controlled, since the children of the employers are made to believe that the workers and their families are “outsiders”, and thus the cycle will continue.
The theme of class is also evident in the way kids are treated. American children go to luxurious private schools while the immigrants’ children attend local public schools. In addition, the employers’ kids do not have the opportunity to interact with the workers’ children. This aspect widens the racial gap between the two groups. The employees’ kids are soon recruited to the same positions as their parents due to lack of resources to advance their careers.
House helps in the American households are overworked throughout. Carmen is ever-busy with house chores that she does not find time to socialize with her daughter. Therefore, due to the limited time available for domestic workers, they do not have time to interact and take care of their children who end up being caught in a cultural conflict as they try to balance between westernization and their parents’ cultures. This assertion is evident in Olivia’s case.
Olivia is caught up in the culture of the whites, as she cannot resist the pressure emanating from Smith. Class differences breed confusion amongst children as they grow up in a society defined by one’s status and social standing. Olivia experiences the pangs of class divisions on various occasions. However, the most embarrassing of all occurs when she is forced to pick some money dropped by a Smith’s friend, while attending a certain event. In her story, she narrates how embarrassing it is to be treated as an outsider. Generally, there exists a sharp division between immigrants and the Americans. Conventionally, the Americans belong to a noble class of citizens, while immigrants occupy the bottom section in the pyramid of social standing.
Own opinion on the book
The rights of domestic workers have been ignored for a long time. However, this book is designed to address the ongoing debate on the violation of the rights of domestic workers. In my opinion, the book is written in good faith and without prejudice. It analyses the humiliation that domestic workers encounter even in the contemporary American society. Even though the book’s journey started in 1986 when Romero met the Salazars, it was published in 2011 and it covers events of the contemporary American society. Even thought the author does not explicitly state that she whatever she highlights is the current plight of the modern-day American domestic worker, the reader can connect the dots from other contemporary writings and news and conclude that Carmen is s representative of the current state of affairs concerning domestic workers in the United States.
The book is compact with less than 300 pages, but it explores almost all aspects of the historical injustices directed towards domestic workers in the United States. It also describes how racial and cultural inequalities have been used for a long time to discriminate and infringe the rights of minority groups in the US. The case presented here is a representative of many other cases in the US and across many other western nations. The use of Olivia’s own words not only creates a sense of truth of the story to the reader, but also brings to light many myths about upward mobility. The author presents her ideas in a perfect sequence, thus making the book readable.
In her writing, Romero discusses individual aspects in a simple, yet convincing manner, thus making it easy for the reader to understand the entire narration as it unfolds. She describes the events professional, impartial, and more detailed way as compared to other authors in the same field. Therefore, the book is one of simplest writings that anyone would recommend to the reader wishing to gain unprejudiced knowledge on the historical and social injustices that domestic workers go through in their workplaces. Though the book is very emotional, the reader can acquire deep perspectives on the abusive treatment directed towards fellow human beings. The book is not just a learning material, but also a tool that may be used by the international community to help in protecting the rights of workers and especially the rights of immigrants. It makes the best analysis of the relationships between the upper class whites and minority groups especially domestic workers.
In the light of the above-discussed issues, it is evident that there exist high levels of racial and cultural discrimination in the United States. The vice is mostly directed to poor immigrants who travel to the US to seek better jobs and perhaps experience the American Dream. Before reading this book, I did not know the identity crisis issues that immigrants face as they grow up in the United States but now I know thanks to Olivia openness in her interviews. I liked the interviews bit of the book as it introduces some aspect of reality in the book. In addition, I liked the way Romero lets Olivia narrate her stories without interjections. The only thing I would change in the book is to enlarge it to cover more contents. I would also interview the Smith’s four children and see how they are holding up after the death of their father. Of the many characters, in the book, I liked Olivia. Apart from being the protagonist in the book, she is straightforward and she does not hold back, which enlivens the book.
Romero, Mary. The Maid’s Daughter: Living Inside and Outside the American Dream, New York: New York University Press, 2011. Print.