We agreed verbally that I would work for the family for two years. I would be part of the family, they said. They planned on doing a lot of traveling, visiting museums, and so on. They only had one child, and my job was to take care of him. I got a domestic-worker visa, and I didn’t even have to go to the U.S. embassy to pick it up. I never had to do an interview. I was never asked any questions. Only later I found out that I would get paid $100 per month, or $25 per week, with room and board included.
Because I was underage, I needed my parents’ permission to travel abroad. I traveled home from my sister’s house and read them a letter from the family that would employ me. They were happy for me and signed the forms. I was granted a two-year domestic-worker visa. A few weeks later, in 1990, I boarded a plane to Boston carrying a Portuguese–English dictionary, some (warm-weather) clothes, and some cassette tapes of Caetano Veloso, Tina Turner, and New Kids on the Block.
I remember feeling nervous on the plane. I’d be in a new country, learning a new language. But the family told me I had nothing to worry about. They said this would be new for them too, and we would all learn together. Those conversations made me feel safe.
But things started going wrong from the beginning. For example, the family was told by the building management that to receive mail, their names had to be on the mailbox. So they put their names on, but not mine. I couldn’t receive mail. I tried to put it on there several times, but every time, they took it off.
There were more, little things. They asked me to do more than just childcare. They asked me to do the dishes, because running the dishwasher was too expensive. They said I couldn’t use the phone to call home, because it was also too expensive.
One day, they said they wanted to turn my bedroom into a guest room, and told me to stay on the porch. It was a “three-season porch,” one that had storm windows, a concrete floor, and a big red door with thick rubber around it to keep the cold—the cold of my new room—from coming into the rest of the house. I had to sleep on a futon on the floor. Beneath that, I put cardboard boxes, to insulate me from the concrete. Remember, this is Boston. I did have a space heater, but for many months each year, the floor was frigid.
Every day, I woke up at 6 a.m., dressed, and worked nonstop, from morning until night. I made breakfast and served the family. I cleaned the house until it was spotless. I took care of their child. I did all the laundry. One thing I never understood was that they wanted everything ironed: bathroom towels, sheets, even underwear. At 11 p.m. at night, after I’d made dinner, tidied up, washed the dishes, and the children were sleeping, I would have to do the ironing.
Sometimes they had family visit from Brazil, or people over for dinner, and I had to cook and clean for them too. None of the guests ever said a word to me. Neither, mostly, did the parents themselves. There was very little conversation between us. I was a fixture in the house; a robot there to do things for them. I felt invisible, dispensable, and alone. Many days I worked 15 hours straight.