Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

by Jenny Moore

Were you to visit the playground this summer, before the grass turned brown and the first school bus rounded the corner, you might have noticed small children and their mothers giving in to the last days of summer; disheveled blondes with salt stains on their cheeks, sippy cups dropped in the mulch and everywhere, little plastic shoes lying in the grass.

Standing there in the mid-morning light, a group of white women sip ice tea from sweating bottles. The sun, a prominent glow in a white sky, casts its hot glare on their southwest silver. So relentlessly hot, this day brings even the most exuberant child to a slow descent across the grass to sit near his mother where the topic of conversation is Austin and his new nanny.

"Where did you find her?" one mother asks the other.
"She used to work for Christa. She says her girl is really good."

At this point perhaps a flinch. "My girl?" Then you hear it again. 

"Is your girl going to live with you?"
"Does yours clean?"
"Mine is going to teach Ellen Spanish."

"My girl." Definition: The Latina nanny. She's young, attractive, but not too attractive. She is between 21 and 45, conservatively dressed, acceptably middle-class and absolutely adores your children. She's in high demand and in full supply. Listen again: 

"My girl is really responsible. But she doesn't always clean up after herself."
"Monica is really good on walks with the kids."

Perhaps you think the mothers are talking about their pets. But we're not talking about pets. So, what's the point? I'm agitated. It's becoming harder to ignore that I live in an enclosed cultural pocket where parents desire for their children a "diverse" upbringing, but don't want to leave the comfort of their neighborhood lest the experience of diversity becomes "uncomfortable." It's becoming harder to ignore that I live in a place where mothers fight to get their children into a Spanish immersion program, but the only Spanish speaking person she allows herself contact with is the man who mows her yard. 

I live in a place where Anglo women publicly exhibit a sense of ownership over Latina women, projecting an air of culturally superiority, yet, at the same time, desire said women because they can offer their children "experiences" that mother and father can not. I guess the real issue is cultural hypocrisy: one group desiring the cultural heritage of another while fearing their company, their neighborhoods, their "differences." Let's go back to the playground, because there's something else to hear: 

"How much are you paying her?" she asks.
"Probably not enough," she answers.

In San Antonio a full-time nanny makes anywhere from $200 to $400 dollars a week. In comparison, a nanny in Austin makes between from $400 - $600. In other words, $8-10/hour in San Antonio (though some make significantly less) or $10 - $14/hour in Austin. Nannies can be hired through an agency, but many simply get around by word of mouth, and families will often assign a pay scale in relation to age, experience or services. Here's an example. Friends, but not friends, the women on the playground listened with increasing anxiety over what the other had found. Who had secured the best deal? One nanny had taken a dance and music class which might alleviate the need to drive to Gymboree twice a week. Another knew CPR. And best of all, another had some Indian blood in her and will prepare some Oaxacan dishes. Now that's a good arrangement they say.

Soon comes the first day of school, and a new scene appears on the playground. Mother is back at work and the nannies slowly inch toward one another. They introduce themselves. 

"Does he take naps?" she asks, pointing at the boy.
"Do you run her errands?"
"Do you cook for her?"
"Do her wash?"
"Is she often late?"

The women compare employers. They compare how much they are being paid in exchange for the skills they offer. Who is making what? Always more dollars for Spanish lessons, they say. The agreement is that it pays better than other jobs in the city, but the hours are long and sometimes very dull. Friends, but not friends, the women compare who has the best arrangement. 

The irony is overwhelming. Women negotiating with each other to agree upon standards of what has become a very successful underground childcare industry. And yet, you will never see these two groups of women at the playground together. You will never find them laughing, talking together, or exchanging information -- even though both their interests are at stake. But you will find these women in a competitive sort of solidarity.

This is where the conversations take place, albeit separate. This is where standards are set, where business is done. Here at the playground. Such a benign place... or so it seemed.
Jenny Moore is a freelance writer. She lives in San Antonio.