I got a maid fired when I lived in Nicaragua. Tania and I told each other secrets. She taught me to do my laundry using a washboard. She invited me over to her house where I met her family and we ate mangoes in the sunshine before the tropical rain bore down so hard we fled to her cousins’ house/storefront to escape the water pellets God had to offer that afternoon. Tania peeled my mangoes for me because she was afraid I was too delicate to use a knife. She teased me for getting fungus on my fingers after I bathed in rainwater. She was a year younger than me and had a three-year old daughter. By the end of that summer, she was pregnant again, and she and her husband were so excited. The summer of 2008 – remember when the world had hope? Nicaraguan friends told me how excited they were that I would get to vote for Obama.
At first we were really careful to keep our friendship under lock and key. A clandestine smile here, an encouraging “que linda” there… but then the whispers turned into chatting and soon enough the children of the house began to notice. (Side note: during my stay at this family’s house, the cook named Susana, a really great lady who taught me to dance bachata, was fired after not making it to the house one day due to torrential rains that washed out half the streets in the city. I asked about Susana to the doña of the house and the doña straight up told me, “Oh, Susana doesn’t like to work, she would rather be a prostitute.” About a month later, I ran into Susana on the street while I was walking to my internship – she was safe and had gotten a job as a cook with nicer people. We caught up, thankfully, and got to make our peace.) Anyway, once the children started noticing our friendship, they made comments. “You shouldn’t talk to Tania because she’s supposed to be working.” Tania and I knew we were being watched. I neglected to mention that while we chatted, Tania was changing sheets, doing laundry, washing floors, and otherwise staying busy.
The first time I went to Tania’s home, we left the doña’s house at different times and met on the street corner to catch the bus. Everyone stared at me. The men flirted with me. The ladies told the men to shut the hell up and asked me how I liked Nicaragua. The second time I went to Tania’s, we left together, but got caught at the door. “Where are you going? Why would you go there?” We guiltily ran out the door, trying not to laugh that we’d made the doña so angry.
The new cook, Elena, who I’d also befriended, told me she’d lined up a new job for the end of summer and Tania should do the same. They were both getting fired for being friendly with me, but the doña wanted to keep up appearances while I was there. I’d paid to stay there for the remainder of the summer and had no funds to move elsewhere – even if I did, it wouldn’t save their jobs and I wouldn’t have gotten my money back.
I wasn’t friends with Tania to “rescue” her or to “save” her or because I “felt guilty” for being white. I was friends with her because she was 19 and I was 20 and we both liked dancing and were a bit chistosa. More than a bit. But, by accepting her friendship, I broke the rules. Upper-class people in Nicaragua have rules about who talks to whom and with what tone and who eats in the kitchen and who eats on a bench in the hallway in the back of the house. I was given a handbook on what to do with my toilet paper when I was done using it, but not warned about keeping up appearances in this class-based culture. Still, I take responsibility. White people, like Jamie McAllen in Mudbound, don’t follow the rules because they think the rules won’t be enforced where they are concerned. Jamie wasn’t friends with Ronsel Jackson to save him, Jamie was friends with Ronsel because they were the only two World War II soldiers who returned to the godforsaken Mississippi farm they lived on. But, Jamie broke the rules and hung out with Ronsel because Jamie didn’t truly believe his actions applied to the rules of segregation. And, Ronsel paid the price for Jamie’s arrogance. A note about white people: we’re arrogant. Even in kindness, even in the depths of my friendship with Tania, when she took me shopping at places where I wouldn’t get ripped off for being a stupid gringa and I bought her clothes for her daughter in return, I was arrogant. I believed nothing would happen to her because, why would the rules apply to me?
When I left Nicaragua, I gave Tania my leftover shampoo and eyeliner and she gave me some makeup to remember her by. She left the house carrying a paper bag. The doña suspiciously asked Tania what she was carrying. Tania said I had given her some things to take home. The doña glared but let her walk away. It’s been over ten years and I still have the eye shadow Tania gave me. It’s a reminder for me to (quoting Michelle Obama here), “be better.”
I’ve always said you have to break the rules in order to learn them. But, what if, just what if, we believed the rules applied to us, too? American exceptionalism has led white people to believe we are the exception to the rules of society around us. Of course, many rules need to be kicked into the abyss only history can offer. However, Rosa Parks did not break the rules because she did not believe they applied to her. She broke the rules thoughtfully, intentionally, and delightfully on purpose. She broke the rules not just for herself, but for humanity. I hope one day I can say the same.