Juanita's Choice

If she could go back ten years, this Colombian nanny would still come to Miami, but with her boy

When I ask to see a photograph of her son Luis Carlos, Juanita goes to her room and returns with a metal-framed stand-alone portrait, a thick 8x12 album, and two smaller cellophane packs. She sits down with them at the dining-room table of the handsomely appointed home where she works and lives in Coral Gables.

"These are the ones I have at hand," she says, opening the big book. By that she means she has many others, drawers full, the bursting archive of a decade of sacrifice and separation, testimony to the ache she has been obliged to relegate to a corner of her heart.

The main subject of the album is a good-looking, rail-thin Colombian boy in Cartagena. On the first page he stands, aged about eleven, in his grandmother's kitchen in the working-class barrio of Zaragozilla, the sun filtering through frilled white curtains. He is dressed sharply in stone-washed jeans and sneakers de marca, an immaculate white oversized T-shirt with a big blue-and-red Fila logo on the chest. Other photos show him with his aunt Doris -- Juanita's sister -- and her children, and several more portray the day of Luis Carlos's first communion a year and a half ago, when he was thirteen. In those he is dressed in a light gray suit -- a bit baggy on him -- white gloves, white shirt and tie his mother bought here in Miami and sent home for the special day; she also sent the tablecloth beneath the spread of cake and snacks, and the festive, sturdy American paper cups and plates. All provided by the missing mom, who could not be there for the joyous occasion.

Bill Cooke
Stand-in Mom: Olivia, four, and Mateo, two and a half, are Juanita's current charges
Bill Cooke
Stand-in Mom: Olivia, four, and Mateo, two and a half, are Juanita's current charges

Juanita flips the album pages and points out her relatives -- her boy as he changed over the years, younger nieces and nephews she's never met. About four pages in is a page mostly taken up with a vertical full-body shot of skinny Luis Carlos in his Primera Comunion finery, looking at the camera with a contemplative expression. Overlapping that photo is one of Juanita, chosen for the way in which its surroundings and scale combine with the other in a pretense of seamlessness; it's even trimmed along its length so that the mother is nearer her son, at his side, almost close enough to touch him.

Juanita is 35 years old and a Colombian immigrant who has lived in Miami for nearly 10 years without a visa or green card. For all of that time she has been an excellent nanny, in the emphatic opinion of her only two employers: a Colombian couple with whom she spent seven years caring for three children, and the owners of this Coral Gables home; she's cared for their four-year-old daughter, Olivia, and two-and-a-half-year-old son, Mateo, for three years now.

On one level, Juanita's story appears to be a simple one. Somehow the employers of domestic help tend to assume that their own lives -- as well-off professionals, socially active homeowners, payers of myriad bills -- are infinitely more complicated than that of the woman who has everything provided for her -- room and meals and clothing. Her principal concerns have been keeping the children's diapers dry, seeing that they got their naps, and playing with them at the local park. Miami, idiosyncratic and anomalous in so many ways, has a proportion of domestic servants well above that of other major metropolitan areas of the United States, mainly because of the abundance of "unskilled" and illegal Latin-American women willing to work below minimum wage. Their lack of language skills is not a problem for the many financially comfortable locals who hire them. The employers either speak Spanish themselves, or if Anglos, have culturally acclimatized enough to be able to muddle through instructions in pidgin.

But of course such a presumption of the help's uncomplicated existence is arrogant. Juanita and thousands of other women in South Florida have made what must be among the most difficult choices possible -- whether to leave family and friends and move to el norte for money. And if that choice is not as terrible and definitive as the one made by William Styron's Polish Sophie on the sidings at Auschwitz -- when she gave up her daughter in order to save her son -- it is, in at least one way, more complex. Because Juanita renounced her day-to-day exercise of motherhood -- gave up, in so many ways, her only son precisely in order to save him, spare him the poverty and miserable prospects that attend being poor in Latin America.

Juanita is black, short, and compact, in good shape, and attractive, her straightened hair usually pulled back. I've known her for three years and have spent many hours in her presence on more than a dozen occasions, mostly at dinner or social gatherings or around the pool at the home of her employers, who are my friends. She has always been amiable but reserved, responding with economy to attempts at conversation, such as whether she went out with friends to celebrate Colombia's Copa America soccer championship (she did). She can be a bit more forthcoming on the subject of Olivia and Mateo, with whom she spends much of her day. But overall she could never be described as gregarious.

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