Even with the increasing importance of social history in Latin America, we lack much information on the world of servants. This book helps fill the gap for Bolivia, a country where domestic servants are still ubiquitous in middle-class and elite households. Although the author is mainly interested in writing an ethnography of domestics in La Paz, she includes two brief historical chapters, and her research on the ethnographic present has numerous implications for examining similar groups in historical time.
In the first two chapters, Leslie Gill takes the story from the turn of the century to the 1980s and develops the themes that permeate the rest of the study. Having migrated to La Paz, women had few opportunities other than domestic service; middle-class and elite families used the numerous servants they employed to proclaim their status. While serving their employers, these women were exposed to exploitative conditions and even sexual abuse by the male members of the household, despite the paternalistic veneer of the employer-servant relationship. The 1952 Revolution, although it benefited other groups, did little for domestics. The middle sectors could not afford more than one servant anymore, so the isolation of domestics increased.
The main emphasis is on the late 1980s, when the author conducted her research. With much empathy for the domestics, Gill describes the process by which women and men migrated to the cities and illustrates their initial experiences. She shows the problems that frequently occurred when domestics provided services in the intimate conditions of the household but themselves belonged to a different class and culture. Turnover was very high, but employers often cheated the women out of their meager wages. Once servants had children, moreover, they could not live in the household and needed to take up part-time work or enter petty commerce.
Gill laments that domestics have generally failed to organize into a coherent labor movement. Many have turned instead to the Protestant (mainly evangelical) sects that proliferate in the Bolivian cities. The author shows very well the sects’ contradictory beliefs; they preached the inferiority of women, but among them domestics could find male partners who tended to remain more faithful and who did not drink.
I found most fascinating the discussion of the distinctive chola fashion, in which the author shows a fine sensitivity to class differences within the Aymara urban community. This, the description of domestics’ daily lives, and the chapter on the lure of Protestantism (about which few works exist for Bolivia) are Gill’s most important contributions for historians. The author’s discussion of female employers, while suggestive in many ways, is somewhat less satisfactory. This brief but rich study deserves to be read by those interested in urban Andean culture, domestic servants in Latin America, and female rural-to-urban migration.