Maria is a young girl who helps the family, not quite a maid, but something close. Today was her fourteenth birthday. When I arrived I had no idea who she was. They didn't introduce her as part of the family, but she was always there, actually I don't think I have ever been awake at the house when Maria wasn't there. She arrives before I wake up and leaves after I go to sleep seven days a week. When I asked the twelve year old daughter in the family to help me with a family tree so I could get to know a little bit about each person she described Maria as the house girl. Part of me has always thought she must have some relation to the family because they treat her as part of the family a lot of the time. When we all took a picture on Carnaval they made sure she was front and center, but she eats all of her meals in the kitchen. After a while I thought maybe she had worked for them for so long that she had become a part of the family, but I met a previous student who lived with my family a couple months ago and she said Maria wasn't a part of the household at that point.
When I have spoken to other Bolivians about the situation they think it is a little odd, but say that Maria is probably from a very poor family and the family needs the small salary she most likely brings in. I was frustrated she wasn't in school, but I understood and took that as the reason. Then one day there was another young girl over at the house talking to Maria. She was introduced as Maria's older sister. Maria is always in traditional dress with her hair in the traditional braids. I've never seen her in anything other than a skirt. Her sister had her hair down, big flashy earrings, and tight jeans and a t-shirt, clothing that would fit in perfectly in the US and was taking pictures with her cell phone. I was confused all over again. How are these two girls from the same family? Sure, one could be traditional and the other not, but they are only a year apart. Why is one working for a family all day?
More was explained to me today. I always thought it was odd what a big deal the son-in-law's parents made about Maria when they came to visit. Then today they brought her a cake and two of her sisters to celebrate. After I asked a few questions I figured out that Maria's older sister works for their family, but under very different circumstances. I would love to know more about Maria, but all of my questions are met with one word answers. I guess I thought there was a bigger secret behind Maria and maybe there is. But I do know today was the happiest I have ever seen Maria and it made me happy.
A couple of days ago when my Bolivian Grandparents were out of the house Maria sat down next to me and started talking. She spilled everything or at least it felt like it to me. It turns out that she is from a small town five hours away, where her parents, whom she hasn't seen since September, still live. When she finished eight years of school the family decided it was best that she move into the city for a better life. She lives with her two older sisters, her brother, and her brother's wife and baby. She said she loves the family she works for, but shares my dislike for the son-in-law, which makes her not want to stay after a year is up.
She asked me a million questions about what the US is like and how much money things cost. She asked me how much I pay the family. I didn't want to answer because I knew she was going to compare it to how much she is paid, and she did. She makes 400 Bolivianos a month. I pay 490 each week to the family, which is a completely fair price from my point of view, but she was shocked. She talked and talked and said how happy she was to get to talk to me one on one and that from now on she wanted to come to my room at the end of the night to learn English and for me to practice my Spanish. She almost started to cry when I said I was leaving in three days. I noticed that she had her ears pierced three times, but had tiny pieces of wood in the top two holes of each ear. When I asked why she said she was going to get earrings soon, but had to wait a few more months.
I can't just give Maria money, and giving her things isn't going to help either. It isn't my place to feel bad for her, or to judge my Bolivian family or hers. I don't know what I'm supposed to do other than realize it is just a different life than I know. I'm not sure if the gift was more for my benefit or her's, but I bought her two pairs of silver earrings as a late birthday present.