Zuca (not her real name) has reached her early 40s. She is overweight. The trouble in her stomach makes her eat thin soups and stay away from salt. On the bus Zuca talks to everyone. She wears a golden cross that’s smaller than a dime. She dyes her hair a lighter hue. Its closest match is yellow tang.
She isn’t married anymore. Her foreign husband migrated here from off in Central Am. He spoke about five languages. Through him God gave her children. They are adults now and he, the ex, continues like a child. Her sons still live at home, as is the norm here. Home is in Goias, outside the Federal District. Like Washington, DC, Brasilia is both a district and a city. But unlike metro DC, with jobs in Maryland and NOVA, the jobs are few in her part of Goias. Everyone commutes into the city.
Zuca is a diarista, a daily worker, a nanny, a maid. She has been one for more than 20 years. She has cleaned for ministers and CEOs. She has raised their kids. She’s been belittled by their wives.
One such family had a troubled teenage boy. He’d been to prolonged stays in watched facilities. Zuca cared for him and his calm and merry sister. One tormenting afternoon the boy punched Zuca in the face. She had a migraine, was concussed. Her eye had swelled up bad. The mother of the boy arrived. She gave Zuca no apology, but only an excuse. There was no talk of paying for a private doc and x-rays, nor other compensation. She got the next day off. Her elbow on the armrest and ice against her eye, Zuca chose to quit. Returning for her pay, she hugged the calm and merry sister. Zuca said, I’ll see you tomorrow, because she couldn’t say goodbye.
Zuca then was at home for a while. She waited for the word of mouth to spread among the upper class saying she was free. Getting older, and with her troubled health, cleaning floors was something to avoid, if she could. Her sons were working but she needed to be working too. Though now she had the afternoons to wait for the internist at the public hospital, this see-saw raised the need for cash.
She got an offer with a family she had worked for once before. They were going to a foreign country to teach economy. She turned it down. Brazilian families are bound by the strong nuclear force.
After too long out of work she had an interview. A couple had a newborn. They asked only for a nanny, no cleaning was involved. It was a perfect fit for her but for the long commute. The couple lived on the other side of the District from Zuca’s home. But Zuca liked the child. In the interview she cooed to her and held her close. The couple told her she could watch TV as long as the girl was her priority. They offered $500 a month, five days a week, plus $3 a day to cover transportation. She decided to accept.
Zuca found in her neighborhood a man with a car who commuted to the city. For the price of busfare she could ride along. She got out at the central station and took a bus to the couple’s home. Evenings she took a bus back to the station and a second bus home. It was a five-hour commute, two in the morning and three with evening traffic. She got home at 8 pm, ate little because of her stomach, saw her kids if they were home, and went straight to early bed. She rose an hour before dawn for the nine-hour workday, with an hour break for lunch, when she did little more than play with her phone. For the five hours on the road there were other passengers.
Two weeks into her job she was very tired. The wife had taken a day to show her how she’d like things done, and after did not hover. The newborn slept a lot and she could calm her when she fussed. There was the TV. Though not cleaning saved her back, the commute was such a drain. And then the protests spread.
She was riding in the man’s car on the road into the city. Traffic stopped. Down the hill were single plumes of black and acrid smoke. Young men were down there burning tires, blocking the way into the city. No police around. At those cars that tried to make it past the barricade, the protesters threw stones. Zuca’s driver turned around for home. He couldn’t take the chance of damage to his car. Zuca called and told the couple why she couldn’t come.
The next morning Zuca had to find another ride. Her driver’d gone the night before into the city to sleep. But the highway was once more volcanic with newly burning tires. Some protesters held up signs that said, We’re sorry, But to make the city listen, We have to shut it down. The police didn’t come. The district line was like a moat. The city roads stayed clear. The rungs of government, paid enough to live within the district, got to work okay. They met and made some promises, may they keep.
The couple, her employers, understood it was not her fault. Zuca could leave early, to beat the protests home, but they were not so understanding as to pay for what she missed. Zuca stayed with them overnight to make up the time. She slept on an air mattress in the maid’s room, a little room that all the houses have, that holds the family boxes, now that few afford a maid.
At the conclusion of the day she took the bus for home. Waiting for her transfer at the central station, around 4 or 5 pm, momentum clobbered what stoicism bus riders adopt. Men attacked some parked buses, rocking them, breaking out their windows, trying to start fires. The police were there. They matched violence with violence, firing tear gas at the men. Standing at her stop, away from all the trouble, trying to get home, sore from her uncomfortable sleep, Zuca got gassed. She hunched and turned away. Her face was wet from tears, snot, and drool.
Later, blind, she found her bus, a coughing choral ride. Zuca missed work the next day, sick. But she made up the time. She left the couple’s employ for another family in the District who lived closer to her home. She told the couple now was good to go because the child would not remember her.
A human pattern played out here.
Dan Souder is an American living with his family in O Distrito Federal. He’s been published by The Missouri Review and X-Ray Magazine, among others.