Writers in Aprons

Brazilian Servants’ Testimonios
  • Sônia Roncador


In a disconcerting essay written in 1978, Brazilian critic and writer Silviano Santiago addresses the systematic gap between literature and the popular classes, including the so-called populist literature from the 1960s and 1970s, in a country like Brazil where the book persisted as a luxury cultural artifact. Given the forceful editorial pressures, and “economic censorship” (Pellegrini, Despropósitos 44) from a fast-expanding book market, Brazilian writers, according to Santiago, felt compelled to cater to the tastes and interests of the leading consuming class of cultural products—namely, the urban bourgeoisie. In other words, regardless of their own aesthetic and political agendas, these writers “spoke to one specific class under the assumption that this class would applaud and bestow deepest meaning through reading, a reading that became a pleasant echo of (self-)revelation and (self-) knowledge” (“Vale quanto pesa” 28).1 Even modernist writers like Graciliano Ramos or Guimarães Rosa, who managed to expand the national canon with a sort of “literary-ethnographical” fiction (37) or “transcultural narrative” (in Angel Rama’s terms) failed to reconcile literature and a wide multisocial readership. According to Santiago, Brazilian writers did nothing more than expose the problems of the dominant classes and, even worse, were fixated on their own “rear-view mirrors, driving an old jalopy down the paved road with blinders on.


Sexual Violence Labor Union Domestic Work Household Worker Domestic Servant 
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  1. 2.
    These terms refer to the contemporary production in theatre, film, literature, and music by the urban Brazilian underclass. For more on the aesthetic innovations and cultural politics behind this substantial production, see João Máximo et al.’s “A nova arte engajada,” O Globo, December 8, 2002: 4–5; Ferréz’s “Manifesto de abertura: Literatura Marginal,” in Marginal Literature, Act I (Special Issue of Caros Amigos, 2001), “Terrorismo liter á rio,” in Literatura marginal: Talentos da escrita periférica (Rio de Janeiro: Agir, 2005), and “Bula,” in Ninguém é inocente em São Paulo, 9–10 (Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva, 2006);Google Scholar
  2. Karl Erik Schøllhammer’s Ficção brasileira contemporânea (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2009); andGoogle Scholar
  3. Beatriz Resende’s Contemporâneos: Express õ es da literatura brasileira no século XXI (Rio de Janeiro: Casa da Palavra, 2008).Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    As her daughter reveals in “Esta historia é meio minha e meio de minha mãe,” Carolina Maria de Jesus also included biographical material of her former employers in her novels written after her bestselling Quarto de despejo: “Before we were all born, our mother worked for several distinct traditional families, and each of them had its own way… She used to make a note of everything, and took inspiration from these stories to write her novels… She wrote everything down to avoid forgetting these people, and later [in her novels] she would change their real names, mix the characters, the stories… But I think it would cause a big scandal if readers could find out the characters’ real names! It is amazing the level of moral corruption in these respectable homes” (Robert M. Levine and José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy’s Cinderela Negra [Rio de Janeiro: Editora UFRJ, 1994], 68).Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    Levine and Meihy, Cinderela Negra (In English: The Life and Death of Carolina Maria de Jesus [Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995]). As suggested by the title of this biography of Carolina Maria de Jesus (1914–1977), “Black Cinderella” refers to de Jesus’s immediate, but brief fame after she published her aforementioned diary about life in the slum, Quarto de despejo: Diário de uma favelada (1960).Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    As Ilse Scherer-Warren states in “O car á ter dos novos movimentos sociais,” “the defining elements of these movements include their struggle to break away from traditional paternalizing or populist schemes, their creation of a more democratic activism with the direct participation of the movements’ constituents in the discussions, decisions, and actions… [These movements] fight for their autonomy from the State and political parties, thus considering citizenship an all-inclusive right” (Uma revolução no cotidiano?: Os novos movimentos sociais na América Latina, ed. Ilse Scherer-Warren and Paulo Krischke [São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1987], 42). Other studies have emphasized the “cultural politics” activated by these movements: “When they propose alternative concepts of women, nature, race, economy, democracy or citizenship, which shatter hegemonic interpretations, these movements perform a cultural politics” (Sonia Alvarez et al. “Introdução: O cultural e o político nos movimentos sociais latino-americanos,” in Cultura e política nos movimentos sociais latino-americanos: Novas leituras [Belo Horizonte: Editora da UFMG, 1998], 25).Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    Beatriz Costa, Para analisar uma prática de educação popular (Petrópolis: Vozes/NOVA, 1982). The working-class education programs of the 1970s and 1980s were important precursors to other important cultural projects in poor urban neighborhoods. For more on the history and practice of working-class education in Brazil, see, for instance,Google Scholar
  8. Carlos Rodrigues Brandão’s A educação popular na escola cidadã (Petrópolis: Vozes, 2002);Google Scholar
  9. Celso de Rui Beisiegel’s Política e Educação Popular (A teoria e a prática de Paulo Freire no Brasil) (São Paulo: Ática, 1982); and Educação Popular: Utopia Latino Americana (São Paulo: Cortez Editora; EDUSP, 1994).Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    According to the seventh article of the 1943 Consolidation of Labor Laws (Consolidação das Leis Trabalhistas, also known as CLT), “the precepts ratified by the present Consolidation… do not apply… to domestic employees” (qtd. In Heleieth Saffioti’s Emprego doméstico e capitalismo [Petropolis: Vozes, 1978], 37).Google Scholar
  11. 16.
    Despite having been marginalized from disciplinary discourse in Brazilian academia, it is important to acknowledge the pioneering studies on maids and their labor starting in the 1970s by researchers such as Heleieth Saffioti, Margo Smith, Alda Brito, and Elizabeth Jelin. Among some early studies of servants in Latin America, I would like to mention: Margo Smith, “Institutionalized Servitude: The Domestic Servant in Lima, Peru” (Masters thesis Michigan University, 1971); Felicia Madeira and Paul Singer, “Estrutura do emprego e trabalho feminino no Brasil: 1920–1970,” in Caderno 13 (São Paulo: CEBRAP, 1973);Google Scholar
  12. Elizabeth Jelin, “La Bahiana en la fuerza de trabajo: Actividad doméstica, producción simple y trabajo asalariado en Salvador, Brasil,” Demografía y Economía 8.3 (1974): 307–32) and “Migración a las ciudades y participación en la fuerza de trabajo de las mujeres latino americanas: El caso del servicio domestico,” Estudios Sociales 4 [Centro de Estudios de Estado y Sociedad, Buenos Aires] (1976): 1–18; Alda Brito da Motta, “Visão de mundo da empregada doméstica” (um estudo de caso) (diss. Federal University of Bahia, 1977); and finally, Heleieth Saffioti, Emprego doméstico.Google Scholar

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© Sônia Roncador 2014

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