Doña Maria is an 85-year-old woman who has lived all her life in the house of her bosses, a servant inherited from father to son for three generations in Rio de Janeiro. The universe of this woman was blown up on the first Monday in May, when a stranger told her that she would no longer return to the family she had lived with since she was a 13-year-old teenager. She dropped the world at her feet. She didn’t understand anything. Very distressed, she implored them to let her return to them: “The level of submission was clear when she began to say: ‘I have to go back because I have to feed Mrs. Yonne, I have to take care of her, I have to bathe her… I’ll come back, he’s going to die’. She felt absolutely responsible for the life of her employer, ”recalls Alexandre Lyra, the labor inspector who rescued her after 72 years of service to the Mattos Maia without salary or vacation. A life with no more horizon than the four walls of the home. Never in Brazil had such a prolonged case of contemporary slavery been discovered.
In all those years, Doña Maria —a fictitious name given by the authorities to protect her identity— never had a partner, children or friends, nor did she know anything about labor rights. The employer whose well-being was her main concern and her occupation is also in her eighties. They matured and grew old together, but not the same.
Mrs. Yonne occupied the main bedroom of a house that she also shared with her son André. When, after an anonymous complaint, the labor inspectorate showed up at her house, the Mattos Maias resorted to the most repeated argument in these cases: “It’s like family.” With that explanation she often disguises the crime of labor exploitation. They are raised in wealthy families that often subject them to really unworthy conditions, like Doña Maria. The elderly caretaker slept on a sofa, in the middle of the corridor, on the other side of the door of the landlady’s room, she was ready to come whenever she needed her. The inspector calculates that the accumulated debt for salaries is around 1.5 million reais ($300,000).
Domestic workers are legion in Brazil, a true institution and a pillar in the most privileged families. The majority, black, from very needy families. Doña Maria, black, embodies the legacy of slavery in today’s Brazil. A crime that is based on a perverse power relationship.
“Neither does she recognize herself as a slave, nor do they as slavers,” emphasizes Inspector Lyra, who had never seen a case as extreme as this one. Extreme but not unique. In the last year alone he has rescued seven other enslaved domestic workers in the city of Rio.
Social worker Thaiany Motta, 33, has treated other victims subjected for decades by wealthy, apparently respectable families. She is part of the Integrated Action project, created by the Public Ministry of Labor of Rio de Janeiro and Cáritas when they realized that rescuing them was not enough. First, they focus on reducing the damage from separation trauma. Then, they help them build an autonomous life.
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Motta sees a clear pattern: “The power relationship to which they are subjected is very strong. It is a bondage due to a debt of gratitude, an emotional and affective debt. They feel compelled to stay because they think they could be worse off, that at least they have a house and food there.” In the last year alone, this professional has attended to a dozen women who had been exploited for 70, 50 or 30 years in the home environment, which is conducive for the crime not to spread. “They are all black, although one does not consider herself black,” she says.
Over the years they are completely annulled, the social worker points out in a telephone interview. “Her whole life revolves around the interests of the family.” They change churches, they go to their bosses’. And when they sit in front of the television, it’s to watch their favorite shows. The therapy includes gestures as simple as going out for ice cream. For choosing the flavor.
134th anniversary of the abolition of slavery
The date on which Doña Maria’s case was disclosed, Friday, May 13, multiplied the impact of the news in the Brazilian media and households. Brazil commemorated the 134th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. The Golden Law was signed by Princess Isabel in 1888 in a Rio de Janeiro palace that still exists on a dock where slave ships docked for three centuries. The inhumane practice that was the basis of the economy in the Portuguese colony was outlawed, not eliminated, throughout America. Only 13 kilometers —an hour by bus— separate the scene from that historical moment of the house where the Mattos Maia subjected their maid to what is classified here as work analogous to slavery.
After abolition, Brazil did not offer land, work or education to the freedmen, who were soon replaced as labor by white European immigrants. Totally helpless, many former slaves preferred to return to their masters. They begged for shelter and food.
Inspector Lyra, 51, remembers from Rio other details of Doña Maria’s rescue. The first time she was questioned in the presence of the boss, she kept silent. He vouched for her; he also kept her documents. The former maid arrived at a municipal shelter in Rio de Janeiro, where she continues to be welcomed, with what she was wearing and little else: documentation, a bus pass and a bank card that she did not handle. Investigators believe that before the pandemic she went out to do the shopping once a week. Punishment for employers can range from two to eight years in prison.
When she arrived at the shelter, “she was very thin, very afraid, she was reluctant to stay,” says social worker Cristiane Lessa, 40, who received her. There she finally sleeps in a bed while she receives help from a psychosocial team to put her life back together. “Now she begins the task of deconstructing that idea that she has a family with whom she wants to return, an idea built over years of total dedication,” explains Lessa, from the area that cares for the elderly in the Rio City Hall. Simultaneously, the authorities have begun the search for relatives who can take her in when she is ready. If not, she will live in a residence with other elderly people.
Five years have passed since the Brazilian authorities rescued for the first time an enslaved worker in the home, a private environment and conducive to crimes not transcending. But in the last year, the ransoms have increased because there are more complaints. This increase is due to several factors. One, the enormous repercussion that the interview had on one of the most watched television programs with Madalena Gordiano, exploited since she was eight years old (and to whom the courts compensated with the family home). Many Brazilians understood then that what happened in the neighbors’ house was a crime. And two, the awareness-raising work of the unions of domestic workers and anti-racist movements.
Contemporary domestic slaves often share a childhood of enormous need and abuse. Doña Maria was born on the farm of her current employer’s grandparents, where her parents were settlers. When she was a teenager, she was sent to serve the Mattos Maia in Rio. When she moved to the newly built Brasilia, she had been cleaning, washing, ironing, cooking for a decade… in exchange for only shelter and food. Six more decades passed, Brazil experienced a dictatorship, a World Cup, an Olympic Games… At 85 years old, she tries to overcome the most recent trauma to savor freedom.
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