The ‘kasambahay’

Some moral progress is noticeable in the way we now refer to our house help, though not always in the way we treat them. First we called them alila (servant), a term that recalls the feudal culture from which it was drawn.  Then for a long time they were simply referred to as katulong (house help). The mass media then came up with the modish terms atsay and chimay, both derivatives of the Spanish word muchacha (house girl). In urban homes, the prevalent term used is still “maid.” But, today the politically correct word is kasambahay (literally, housemate), a term that is stripped of any connotation of rank.

This semantic shift indicates a tacit recognition of the rights and status of domestic helpers. However, the reality is that, despite the inroads of modernity, stay-in, all-around house workers have remained pretty much in the same situation as in traditional society. Their duties are diffused, their work hours are open-ended, they have no work contracts, they are not assured of regular days off, and are typically the hapless victims of domestic violence.

Their relationship to their employers is marked by ambivalence. Because they are supposed to be taken in as part of the family, they are thus supposed not to conduct themselves as mere employees. They are expected to be not only competent but also loyal. But, in truth, they are treated differently from the rest of the family. Some spaces in the house are reserved for the exclusive use of the master’s family. They are not permitted to help themselves to the food on the table or inside the fridge, unless they are explicitly told to do so.   They are barred from receiving visitors, or using the telephone except for work-connected chores. They are sent home to their own families when they fall gravely ill.

We are wont to take the presence of maids in our homes for granted. They serve us unconditionally and wholeheartedly, but they remain peripheral to our everyday concerns. We notice the quality of their work but seldom see them as persons immersed in their private worlds and in their own dreams and problems.

The other week, my daughter who lives in Singapore with her husband and year-old son shared pictures of their little boy enjoying the chocolate cake in a restaurant. “It was Ate Grace’s birthday,” she said. “We took her out to dinner.” Grace is their kasambahay.  I don’t remember ever inquiring into the birthday of any of our house help or, much less, treating them to dinner. But our four children had the rare fortune of growing up in the company of house help who took care of them as if they were of their own blood. Today they treat their own house help no differently. They trust them implicitly, and compensate them generously.  They know that without them, they would not be able to run a household, raise a family, and pursue a career at the same time.

Coming back from our studies abroad in the early 1970s, my wife Karina and I moved into the University of the Philippines campus to live with her grandaunt, the opera diva Jovita Fuentes. She had just then retired as a professor at the UP College of Music. Her house was one of the pioneer homes that the university permitted the first Diliman-bound faculty to build on UP land in appreciation of their readiness to transfer to what was then a largely forested hinterland.

Ms Fuentes had two devoted helpers. Vita, her namesake, was the cook who took charge of the kitchen and the dining table. Conching, a big, strong woman, was in charge of the rest of the house. Interestingly, they were both single mothers, with one son each. Vita’s son grew up in the UP house, while Conching’s son remained with her relatives in Capiz. On Ms Fuentes’ death in 1978, the rights to the house were transferred to my wife, as a member of the UP faculty, and we became the beneficiaries of the two loyal kasambahay who had served the strong-willed Maestra faithfully.  Conching decided to go back to the province not long after, but Vita stayed on and continues to cook for us to this day.

In the last 40 years, I have seen house help of various ages and from different parts of the country come and go. On the average, they stay with us for about five years, and then they move on, mostly to get married. Vita was always there to orient them and, most importantly, to teach them how to cook the kind of food we like. When she turned 70 a few years ago, Karina told her that she could retire, and she would continue to be paid her salary. She was grateful for the pension. She left for Guam to visit her son, but came back after just a few months. She has built her own house nearby, and still turns up at our kitchen now and then to cook for us.

In charge of our house today is Candida, who is in her 40s. She has been with us for over 20 years. She fears cooking but she is very thorough and totally dependable in everything else. She, too, is a single mother. We persuaded her to stay with us and to raise her children in our home. My children treated her as a sister, and tutored her children. Candida’s only dream today is to see her kids finish college, and we have sworn as a family to help her realize that dream. It is the least we can do for her.

House work is skilled work. I discover this for myself each time I try to cook, or figure out the knobs of the oven, or sort out and pack the garbage. There is a system to it. In an advanced and more equal society, no one but invalids rely on the full-time personal labor of others to prepare one’s breakfast, wash one’s clothes, or do one’s bed. I look forward to the arrival of such a society, and to the definitive interruption of the intergenerational transfer of servitude.