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Mothers with immigrant housekeepers have harsh words for Whitman

Brentwood shoppers say their longtime maids are part of their families, and that they'd do everything they could to help their employees, no matter their legal status.

October 08, 2010|Hector Tobar

Just about any way they look at it, Meg Whitman comes off badly to the moms I met at the Brentwood Country Mart.

Most of them are lifelong professionals like Whitman, with kids grown up and in college. And, like her, they've lived many years with Spanish-speaking immigrant women working in their homes.

They don't quite believe Whitman when she says she didn't know that her longtime domestic, Nicandra Diaz Santillan, was an undocumented immigrant. And if the billionaire and GOP candidate for governor is being honest — well, in a way, they think, that's even worse.

"If that's true, then what a horrible person Meg Whitman is," a 49-year-old mother of two told me as she headed to one of the Country Mart's boutiques. "How could she have this woman in her home, looking after her kids, and not have a relationship with her? You'd have to be a pretty superficial person not to know that she was illegal."

These Westside moms told me that when a woman works in your kitchen, cleans your bathrooms and prepares your food, day in and day out, you can't help but learn a lot about her. After a year, or two, or nine, she becomes part of your "extended family," as Whitman herself put it.

"They're people, with all the problems that people have," said another mom, a retired teacher who's had the same Salvadoran housekeeper working for her family for 25 years. As with all the other moms I spoke with in Brentwood, I agreed not to use her name so she could speak honestly.

"She is someone I care about deeply," the retiree said of the Salvadoran woman, who helped her raise her two daughters, now college-educated adults.

"When her daughter was having trouble in school, I helped her," the retired teacher said. "She's a dear, lovely person, and a consistent worker.... But she has a lot of problems speaking up for herself."

This mom has known for years that her maid was undocumented. "Now she's finally working to get her legal status," she said.

It's a secret kept between women in many California households. And every few years a case like Meg Whitman's brings this familiar domestic telenovela back out into the open.

The Brentwood mothers I spoke to felt for Diaz Santillan. But at a bus stop in Beverly Hills, a Latina housekeeper was far less sympathetic. Diaz Santillan, she told me, clearly was in the wrong. After all, she submitted a false Social Security number, then failed to tell the truth when presented with evidence that she had done so.

"For starters, you have to be honest," said the woman, a 45-year-old from San Salvador. "If the patrona accepts you without papers, OK," she said. "But they have the right to say, 'I don't want you that way.'"

In Latin America, it's common for an employee to be discreet and indirect when broaching a delicate subject with a boss. In their daily interactions, Diaz Santillan probably thought she was giving Whitman more than enough clues about her immigration status. She has said that when Whitman asked her if she was going to Mexico on vacation, she replied, "I cannot travel outside the country."

One can imagine the housekeeper sadly casting her glance down on the freshly polished floors of that Silicon Valley mansion as she revealed this embarrassing truth. One can imagine her thinking: now my boss knows.

The Beverly Hills maid told me she wouldn't lie to her employer. "I know that here, for the Americans, lying is the worst," she said. "But the necessity of this lady led her to lie. I wouldn't do that, but I can put myself in her shoes."

The maid told me she arrived here a few months ago on a tourist visa. She's not supposed to be working. But so far no one has asked her for a Social Security number. And now that her husband has lost his job running a San Salvador gas station, she's desperate to make enough to keep their two daughters in school.

"These mansions — the Americans don't clean them," she said as we looked across Sunset Boulevard at the opulent order of Beverly Hills. "It's Latinas who do it."

Back at the Brentwood Country Mart, the moms pretty much owned up to that. Balancing a career, motherhood and housework would be near impossible, they told me, without the help of those quiet, reliable women.

The moms said they didn't understand how Whitman could consider someone a part of her extended family and then send her packing when she asked for help.

"After nine years I would have made a phone call at least, to look for an immigration lawyer," said one mother of two from Westwood. "Or she could have said, 'I can't keep you, but let me give you six months' salary because I know you won't find a job right away.'"

Bonds of loyalty built over many years can lead an American woman to do unexpected things.

The retired teacher told me that when her immigrant housekeeper went into labor, she drove her to the hospital. "When her daughter was having problems in school I helped her with tuition for private school," she said. "That little girl is in college now."

Thinking about the larger issue of undocumented immigrants working in this country, this mom added: "It's an unfortunate situation. We need to be generous to them."

The moms I met know how much work is done for them. They know the lives of those who do that work can be hard. They express compassion for the women in their kitchens and nurseries. They speak of trying to help them.

But generosity on this front seems to be in short supply these days.

We live in a country rich in hypocrisy. Here a billionaire running for governor can vow to hold employers accountable for following the law but deny accountability in her own home. And she can ask us to trust her while absolving her of any moral responsibility to try to help a woman who for so long helped her.

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