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Domestic drama

A play about nannies who must leave their own children raises close-to-the-bone issues for real-life sitters and employers.

March 01, 2003|Michael Quintanilla | Times Staff Writer

Ingrid Solis sits in the Mark Taper Forum and watches her life unfold. Her eyes well with tears, her lower lip quivers. Her friend leans over and tenderly pats her on the leg, holds her hand. Solis doesn't want to sink into sadness, but it's too late. The moment is too real.

On stage, the character Ana Hernandez is on her cell phone, long-distance to her 11-year-old son. Ana, a smart, proud, Salvadoran nanny, hasn't seen Tomas since she left him eight years before to find work in the United States. She desperately tries to keep the conversation light. Did he like the Tommy Hilfiger shirt she sent him? Is he eating well? Doing fine in school?

*

Ana: "Do you miss me? I miss you up to the sky! You're going to come real soon, mijo. No, no, not for vacation -- you're going to come here to live! No, not with abuela. Your great-grandmother don't want to come, mijo. She says she's too old. I know it's hard to leave her. But don't you want to be with mami?"

(Pause.)

"Oye, did you get the pictures I sent you from the beach? With the rides? Te gustan? That's me and my sister-in-law and her friend."

(Long pause.)

"No, mijo ... I'm the one in the middle."

*

For Solis, two rows from the stage, the scene is gut-wrenching. Guilt and emptiness weigh on her. She too has a child left behind in the care of his grandmother. The story of Ana in Lisa Loomer's "Living Out," a play about the lives of immigrant Latina nannies and their affluent bosses, pierces her heart. For the past seven years, Solis, 35, has cared for two young boys in Pacific Palisades.

She hasn't seen her son, Jose Guillermo, 12, in Guatemala for almost nine years. And once, he didn't recognize her in a photo either. "He asked, 'Which one is you? Which one is my mom?' "

Solis immigrated to the U.S. from her impoverished homeland because she needed a better-paying job than what she had at a medical center. Now she sends her son clothes, tennis shoes and video games -- and wires money -- replacements for the love and tenderness she can't physically give him.

"That's me on the stage," Solis says, joining three other women to discuss the play and their experience after having seen it. "That's my life."

The Times asked two nannies and two mothers who have hired nannies to watch the play and then discuss its issues of motherhood, child care, and the complex relationship between boss and nanny. Settling in at an office near the Taper, the women gather around a polished wood table to explore how the play reflects their lives.

Zoila Collis, the other nanny in the group, was also moved by the play. "I cried the entire time," she says. Twenty-five years ago, she left El Salvador for the U.S. to get a job and landed nanny work while raising her own five kids, all born here. Three are now adults and on their own; the other two, ages 17 and 12, live with Collis and her second husband in South Pasadena. When her kids were young, she enrolled them in child-care centers while she went out to care for other people's children.

Ivy Greene, 40, owns a children's clothing store in Pacific Palisades and, like her neighbor Karen Jeffers, 40, has hired nannies. Greene's current nanny has been with the family two years and helps raise Greene's toddler daughter and 7-year-old son.

Jeffers has two sons, 10 and almost 9. She quit her job as a television producer four years ago to become a full-time mom. But when the boys were babies, she relied on nannies.

Like other theatergoers who saw the matinee performance on this particular Sunday, the women stayed to listen to the audience's post-play discussion. Much of it centered on the principal characters, especially Ana's lie to her boss, Nancy, about not having any children in the U.S. when, in fact, she has a 6-year-old son. Ana felt compelled to lie because in other interviews employers didn't want to hire her once they knew she had a child. Much was also made about Nancy and Ana's hesitant friendship, and Nancy and her husband's responsibility as employers to help their nanny with her legal, financial and personal well-being.

Solis and Collis won't reveal their salaries and have nothing negative to say about their bosses. They are grateful to work for people who treat them like members of the family. Still, they know other nannies who get little vacation, are abused and paid much less than the average $400 a week. Most nannies work about 10 hours a day, some longer. (Laws requires that domestic workers receive at least minimum wage and that employers pay into Social Security, pay unemployment insurance tax and withhold income tax.)

Similarly, Greene and Jeffers prefer not to talk about salaries they have paid. They agree a nanny's job is difficult.

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