Better and more profitable media

By Blanca de Lizaur, PhD, MA, BA, Content specialist.


Redimensionador de tamaño de fuente


Redimensionador de tamaño de fuente

For media people Magazine

DOMESTIC PROFESSIONS, a brief “dictionary” for media people

Read Time:12 Minute, 32 Second

Our telenovela writers have gleefully decided to call nannies “governesses”, without having the slightest idea what differentiates them.

Their goal, quite laudable, is to encourage us to talk about them with more respect. To do this, in my opinion, we do not need to assault our language, but rather bear in mind they are human beings, and that we need them very much, in this world in which both the father and the mother are often forced to work out of the home.

In the Judeo-Christian world, the domestic worker maintains a complex relationship with his employers, half professional, half familial. The obligations set out by Judeo-Christian religions for the employer of a domestic worker, are quite similar to those a head of family has regarding his relatives.

In Spanish they were called “criados” (brought up) because they actually grew up as as family members although they were not, and “sirvientes” (servants) because they provided a service (served), which is a much nicer and more dignified verb than employ, since a greater affection and loyalty are expected between them and the family, which is not expected of (or towards) just any other salaried employee (towards persons who do things mainly or only for money).

Without them, their bosses could not devote themselves body and soul to more specialized tasks, nor excel professionally.

A domestic worker’s professional success is measured differently from that of a company employee. We know he/she is improving, because he is more and more trusted, because he is treated in a more familiar way (without becoming disrespectful), because we see an improvement in his/her living conditions within the family, in addition to earning more money, …although his/her position remains the same. His worth is measured according to the length of time he has been at a particular house, and not only according to the skill with which he carries out his duties.

Our culture, in a well-off home, demands that a domestic worker have a private living space (and bedroom), separate from the bosses’, so that he/she has a place where he/she can feel comfortable, without family pressures, while still respecting their customs. A good boss, for his/her part, should respect his/her employee’s beliefs and morals. People who treat them poorly do not deserve to have good domestic workers, that continue working for them for years, and that they can ultimately think of as part of the family.

Having established the above, we shall list the most common domestic professions of the last one hundred years:

Wet-nurse: She nursed (breast-fed) another woman’s baby. When she had no more milk, she often stayed on as a nanny, then called a “dry-nurse”. This is no longer done in our country; or at least I have never met one.

Nanny: She cares for the child (or children), makes sure they eat their meals, bathes and dresses them, plays with them and cares for them when they are ill. She is expected to maintain an affectionate relationship with the children in her care.

∙ Lady companion: Person employed to keep an old woman company, or (far in the past) to accompany young women, to protect them from their ignorance regarding the world, and prevent them from falling into bad company.

Tutor or governess: Professional teacher (with a degree), who lives with the family, and is hired when the child cannot attend school normally and regularly (for example, if the family travels a lot, if the child has a chronic illness, if they live far away from public schools, etc.). It is very unusual today, but there are some –in fact, in countries where schools have become unacceptably violent or bullying, the figure is returning–.

Private teacher: Person who gives private classes to a specific family member. He comes to the home, but does not live there. He may be hired to help the children with their schoolwork, to teach music, cooking, good manners or art history to the parents…

Housekeeper/butler: They are not the same; a housekeeper takes the place of the female head of the family if she travels a lot, has died, or the bosses have divorced, for example. She manages the household; that is: the expenditures, the repairs, gives instructions to the other domestic workers (including hiring or firing them, when necessary), ensures the daily meals are suitable and sufficient, served in keeping with the family’s tastes and customs, etc. This had become quite unusual, but is becoming more common due to the increase in number and degree of family disintegration. A current peculiarity is that nowadays the role can be taken on by a relative or friend, who is turned to in an emergency, and who is later kept on for their continued support. It is quite unusual to have a butler in the home nowadays in our country, …if indeed there ever were any. He is higher-ranking than the other workers, receives the guests, offers them refreshment, and is primarily in charge of the dining room and the “logistics” of special events (he is assumed to be knowledgeable about cooking, enology, tobacco, music, protocol, etc. He may have a poor opinion of the housekeeper’s work (due to professional jealousy, sometimes), or that of other domestic workers. In novels, he always appears to be well respected by others, devoted to the family, and he is usually called James…

Cook: Person who prepares the meals, obviously. He has a higher salary than a maid or some other domestic workers, since he has specialized knowledge and training. The better his cooking, the higher his salary will be. Nowadays, however, even the best cooking is rejected in favour of cooking to doctors’ orders, or for weight loss. Eating well will soon be a thing of the past. Children in the United States in general, according to a teacher friend of mine there, think cooking consists of taking food out of a box, and heating it. Due to increasing professionalization in this area, as well as the growing awareness of the health risks of industrialized foods, however, we will doubtless soon have cooks in homes again.

Kitchen assistant: In homes where they “entertain” a lot, this person helps the cook prepare the meals. There is no point in saying he slices, dices and washes up, since nowadays, in a house where they can afford the luxury of employing a kitchen assistant, one assumes they will have dishwashers, food processors, and other similar kitchen appliances for these tasks.

Maid/man-servant: Person who cleans the inside of the house; that is: makes the beds, dusts, cleans the bathrooms, vacuums, etc. In a normal house with not too much work, he also does the washing and irons the clothes.

Girl/Boy, or also: Servants with general duties: Nowadays, in the majority of homes, there is not enough money to have several servants, and there is just one domestic worker who takes care of the cooking, washing, car washing, child care, etc. Therefore, one might say it is the most common domestic profession nowadays. These words are also used to refer to domestic workers in general. When referred to as “live out” they do not sleep in the home, but rather arrive early in the morning, work, eat and go home at the end of the day. Their pay, therefore, is calculated by the day (in México), or by the hour (elsewhere; in which case logically the pay is calculated according to the number of hours worked, excluding breaks…).

Laundry worker (laundryman/laundrywoman): Person who only does the washing and ironing. They are often employed in homes with many children. Some still charge per piece.

Handyman or handywoman, Errand boy or girl: Young person, who helps with the heavy work around the house (changing lightbulbs, moving furniture, bathing the dog, cleaning the silver, etc.).

∙ Waiter: Person who helps serve food in homes where they do a lot of “entertaining” (where they often have luncheons and elaborate celebrations). Training them is their boss’ nightmare, since it takes them longer to learn than to leave.

Gardener: Person who takes care of the vegetation (of plants and gardens); prunes, grafts, fertilizes etc., according to the season; mows the lawn, and so on. In the case of large companies or institutions, he is almost a “landscape designer”, in charge of the beauty of the gardens and grounds. In a normal home, however, they barely know how to mow the lawn, prune and fertilize; but that is enough for them to earn an honest living.

Chauffeur/Driver: Despite what our telenovela writers believe, chauffeurs nowadays, in Mexico, do not wear liveries [and certainly not like the one in “La usurpadora” (The Imposter), which makes him look almost like a religious minister]. They usually wear gabardine trousers, and a cotton shirt. I have occasionally seen them wearing a “guayabera” (loose shirt with large pockets common in Mexico and parts of the United States), or a suit and tie (especially those who work for a government agency or an important company), but never a pocket watch. A chauffeur, naturally, is the person who drives the family car (or cars, in very wealthy homes). Ideally they have some understanding of mechanics (which is why they used to be called “mechanics”), and know how to read street maps (for example: the “Roji” guide), [nowadays: knows how to use the GPS street guide, too]; and they now incredible shortcuts to the places where we want to go (plus: they remember all the places where we use to go). This is however, almost as unusual as seeing them wearing a livery; nowadays, people who need and can afford them, are contented if they are not thieves, speak respectfully, and have a driver’s license. If you ever meet a truly professional one, pay him the respect he deserves, because he is a treasure.

Doorman/gatekeeper/manager: Very common nowadays due to the increasing number of condominiums, this person is in charge of, as his name indicates, the door. That is: he receives and distributes the mail, takes care of visitors and gets rid of unsavoury characters, takes care of the gas delivery, gives messages, washes cars, cleans the “common areas”, and other similar tasks. He usually lives with his family in an apartment adjacent to the main door of the building or complex, although nowadays he is being replaced by uniformed guards, who leave when the next shift worker arrives. In Spain they have started calling them concierges, but according to the “Diccionario de la Real Academia” (the most comprehensive Spanish dictionary), this is not an appropriate name: Concierges are custodians in charge of the cleaning and keys of a public building –one where people work, not live.

Bodyguard, security escort, or “tough”: Profession in high demand in our country, given the current circumstances. It seems they wear suits, use cars with special license plates (having a triple number nowadays; a triple letter previously), drive like maniacs, and follow the person they are supposed to protect, everywhere. According to general opinion, they are arrogant, use neighbours’ garage space, and ignore traffic signs. They work 24 hours per day, and I heard one was fired because he fell asleep while waiting for his boss. I have never met one in real life, and they do not often appear in novels, so I cannot say more about them.

Lady’s maid or valet: A servant in charge of the boss’ clothing and personal items, of helping him/her dress, of shaving/styling the hair/applying makeup, etc. I have never seen one in real life, unless you count those in theater and media productions, but I believe that older people, who have lost strength and dexterity in their hands, would benefit greatly from such support. There are also nurses and care takers, dressmakers, seamstresses and tailors, make-up artists, hairstylists/barbers, and massage therapitsts. The first two usually stay with the family when one of the members is ill, but not so ill as to need hospitalization; the others go to the home as needed, and charge for each visit according to the services they render and the time needed to complete the task. They cannot strictly speaking be considered domestic workers, because they rarely live with the family. They are, more correctly, independent professionals.

I suggest we make copies of this article, and give them to every telenovela writer, actor and producer we know. With any luck we will one day hear them use the word “governess” correctly, carrying on their very necessary and laudable efforts to dignify domestic professions.

I even propose they be elevated to and included among the professions protected by the Constitution, with medals and awards for excellence (in Spain, the Ministry of Labour gives out medals to those who have worked for the same family for 40 years, for example), as well as exemplary punishments for those who take advantage of them.

Life would not be the same, if when we die, the person we employed, and who lived with us for a longer length of time than our own parents, does not mourn our passing; or when the only available child-care option is a child care center (although some are very good), or when –too ill to work, but not ill enough to go into hospital– there is nobody to bring us our soup to bed, and wash our clothes.

Just having someone in the home, answering the telephone and opening the door, makes it more pleasant. And even safeguards it against thieves who seek out homes which remain empty during long working days. This is only true, of course, when the employee is trustworthy, loyal, and truly deserves to be considered part of the family, when they do not abuse their privileges nor try to seduce the young man of the house or illegitmately inherit something from the old woman they take care of.

In other words: Life is wonderful for everybody, when each person –the employer and the employee, the seller and the buyer, the teacher and the student, those-who-govern-us and every citizen in their jurisdiction, etc.– carries out his/her tasks cheerfully and in the best possible way!

Anyone who mistreats his boss, or –in the context of this discussion– his servant or employee, generating resentment in the victim and giving him/her cause to mistreat the next people to cross his/he path, deeply hurts all of us.

He is truly –be it on a large or a small scale– destructive to society.


Illustration source: Image Bank (© Patrick).




Blanca de Lizaur; [“Diccionario de] Profesiones domésticas I” (Dictionary of Domestic Professions, part I), in “Humanidades” (Humanities) at the UNAM (Autonomous University of Mexico) # 174 [1998], pp. 28 (inside back cover) and 25; and “[Diccionario de] Profesiones domésticas II” (part II), in “Humanidades” at the UNAM # 175 [1998], p. 8.

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    Durante los años que he vivido en Europa, he visto llegar de otros países a gente muy valiosa, huyendo de países en guerra, de la persecución política, de regiones ricas en cultura pero depauperadas económicamente –vamos: sin esperanzas de futuro–:
    Me refiero a gente que muchas veces cuenta con estudios universitarios, o proveniente de familias de “buen nivel” en sus países de origen, y que en el Viejo Continente no encuentran trabajo sino como empleados domésticos.

    Una vez aquí, y salvo que tengan mucha suerte, les toca convivir con personas o familias que frecuentemente …no les dan una buena imagen de su país –cuyos valores, ideas y creencias, y cuya formación y comportamiento, distan un mundo del de sus servidores domésticos–.

    El acoso y maltrato, el engaño, el robo en sus pagos y beneficios, e incluso el abuso sexual (de todo tipo), es mucho más frecuente de lo que creemos.

    Así las cosas, no es raro que el empleado agradezca que no lo obliguen a convivir con la familia más de lo necesario, ni siquiera en la cena de Navidad…

    Por eso es que, otorgarle a un empleado doméstico “su espacio”, no necesariamente implica discriminarlo. Y viceversa.

    El que sea discriminación o no, dependerá de cómo se le trate habitualmente, y de la comunión –o no– entre sus costumbres, valores y formación, y los de sus empleadores.

    Cuando las diferencias son muchas, sentarse juntos a la misma mesa puede ser una tortura para ellos, para sus patrones, o para ambos…
    Algo que –debo confesar– no se me había pasado nunca por la cabeza. En Antropología se habla de “hegemonía” para referirse a algo que una cultura da por sentado, y que por lo mismo nunca cuestiona.
    La “hegemonía”, precisamente, nos lleva a suponer que el patrón va a ser siempre “superior” de alguna forma a su empleado doméstico, y esto no siempre es así.

    Por esto es tan importante que “…el empleado doméstico cuente con UNA ZONA DE VIDA (Y HABITACIÓN) PROPIA, aparte de las de los patrones, para que tenga dónde sentirse a gusto, sin la presión de la familia, pero respetando sus costumbres. Un buen patrón, por su parte, debe respetar las creencias y moral de su empleado.”



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