At 8 o'clock on a Monday morning in June, Rosa Coronado arrives for work at a two-story mansion in Beverly Hills. All over L.A., it's the hour of exchange, when those who inhabit middle- and upper-class homes turn them over along with the children they shelter to those who make them run. Steady streams of luxury cars with white drivers race down the canyon roads as brown men in battered trucks full of mowers and rakes drive up. Dark-skinned women, most trudging uphill on foot from boulevard bus stops, knock on doors. Rosa's luckier than most; seven years ago, when her son, Miguel, was born, she bought a car. She's 29 now, short and slender, but with strong bones and curves. Her skin's the color of lightly creamed coffee, her thick black hair cut to shoulder length, then washed with a red tint and waved. Her features are strong: heavy black brows, full mouth. When she's dressed and made up to go out, men stare. In the typical daily domestic-worker uniform of loose jeans and T-shirt, she disappears, just one among the thousands.
She rings the security buzzer on the gate at the foot of a long driveway. When it unlocks, she heads in and through the main house's back door. As soon as she drops her purse in the laundry room, she hears the call from an upstairs bedroom. "Rosa!" She knocks, enters. The room is immense canopied bed, sitting area, two attached bathrooms and closets as big as her own apartment. "Please give Samara breakfast." Rosa takes the 3-year-old girl from her pretty, stick-thin mother, the young wife of a spectacularly successful businessman in his mid-60s. In her 10 years as a nanny, this is the richest family to employ her eight-bedroom, nine-bath house, two gardeners, three housekeepers, two secretaries, and two babysitters, one for each child.
"Qué quieres comer?" she asks Samara gently. As in several homes, she's been told to talk to the girl only in Spanish child care and language lessons, all for the same hourly wage. Huevos. In an enormous kitchen, she prepares an egg-white omelet, fruit and dry toast for the little girl the mother is very concerned she not get fat and makes sure she eats every bite, since no other food will be permitted until lunch. She brushes the child's teeth, cleans her bottom, dresses her in a cotton shirt and pants. The clothes are simple, but fashionable and well-cut. Eighty dollars for the top, $150 for the slacks; she's seen the price tags. Over the years, Rosa has learned not to dwell on the financial disparity between herself and her bosses, but today it's harder, with the situation involving her half-brother, Eduardo, in the back of her mind.
The day grinds on: hours of playing in the house and yard, reading children's books in Spanish, watching educational videos, preparing a healthy, low-fat lunch of fish and vegetables. (No dessert, of course; sometimes the household workers feel so sorry for the little girl that they slip her chocolate bars when the parents aren't looking.) Rosa genuinely loves children usually, they're the easiest part of this work but today she's exhausted. After she found out about Eduardo, she couldn't sleep, and she has to rise at dawn to dress and feed Miguel, drop him off at school and make the drive in from the Valley. While Samara naps, she goes back to the laundry room to eat the usual lunch of chicken, beans, rice and tortillas the family's cooks have prepared for the domestic staff. Then she hurries to wash and fold clothes before the girl wakes, and it's another round of singing, playing, filling time.
Nobody's asked about the circles under Rosa's eyes, and no one will. In the past, she's had employers who genuinely cared about her and wanted to share her life. There are children she still sees, years after she stopped sitting for them. But here, as at several other jobs, her bosses seem to feel that she disappears the second she leaves their home. Her history, needs, obligations are just potential inconveniences reasons for her to call in sick on a day when they really need to be at the office. Or worse. Rosa still remembers the way the 8-year-old in her last family, the son of a wealthy attorney, talked about her to a school friend. "She doesn't speak English," he said, right in front of her, his voice full of contempt. "People who speak Spanish are stupid and poor."
The day ends at 5 o'clock. Rosa picks up Miguel, gets home by 6, cooks, helps him with homework. He's moving on to third grade, but can barely read. "I hate school," he tells her. She fights to get him in bed, then her own mother, Flori, calls, to cry and moan once more about Eduardo: "Ay . . . pobrecito . . ."