Lisa Alvarado
Reviews for The Housekeeper's Diary

NEW CITY, 2002

Lisa Alvarado cooks and cleans her way through "The Housekeeper's Diary"
Elaine Richardson

On her first day as the maid for a wealthy Chicago family, Lisa Alvarado was handed a basket. "The lady of the house gives me this wicker basket—it was woven and very nice. It contained her lingerie and... I was expected to hand wash it," Alvarado says with some incredulity. "It was... surreal. Here I am washing the panties of this woman I just met and all I'm thinking is, 'I don't know you well enough to do this.'"

Returning from Mexico in 1998, Alvarado—an artist, poet and painter then with only a high-school degree—needed a job. "I think I was interviewed five times before I met the family... Their first choice was a gay man so they could get some kind of hip sensibility, but that didn't work out, so they went with the buzz cut, tortured poet Latina artist chick," she says.

She would spend nearly nine months with the family ("It all unraveled over time," she says), and the experience would become "the catalyst" for Alvarado, now 45, to finish work on both her bachelor's degree (completed in 2001), as well as a master's that she'll finish in 2003. "I decided I didn't want to be a 50-year-old Chicana in America with no degree," she says. "This is the nexus of where race, class and gender come together. For women of color especially—what kind of job can you do where you can pull down enough money to support your family? What can you do in this country that doesn't require documentation?"

It would be another six months before Alvarado would write "The Housekeeper's Diary," her 1999 book of poetry about her domestic experiences. And still another year before she revamped it into a performance art piece that has been staged in Vermont and Washington D.C., and plays in Chicago for the first time February 15.

Combining poetry, music, movement, song—and yes, cleaning—the piece works to show the housekeeping world from the point of view of the domestic. "It's so hidden, it's so taboo, so invisible," says Alvarado, who now spends her days working at Lambda Legal Defense. "I always have a Q and A after the show and depending on where you sit, the reactions differ. Someone wondered why the work is so bitter. I'm not bitter about the experience—it was what it was. But I think whenever people of color step out and talk about their experiences it's considered in a negative emotional light."

And then there's just denial. "After one of the performances on the East Coast, this woman was really offended and said 'My maid is my best friend,'" Alvarado smiles. "Do you ask your best friend to clean your toilet? I don't think so."

Mostly, Alvarado says she wants to show respect for the past. "For every intelligent person of color who has any kind of vantage point, influence, bully pulpit or clout, they're stepping on the backs of their aunts, mothers—those women who spent years working as domestics to make these doors open," she says. "It really feels about ancestry. If I can, I want whatever words come through me to be the words some other woman couldn't speak."



Invisible and invincible; Poet relives her days
as servant to Chicago's wealthy

On a stage in East Rogers Park, the performer had piled objects representing what she remembered of her job: a heap of clothes, a whisk broom, cleaning supplies, a mound of earth.

But poet Lisa Alvarado, once a maid on East Lake Shore Drive, was not about to dish the dirt.

For the crowd that gathered Friday night at a church annex, she offered thoughts (but no names) arising from the eight months she spent serving one of Chicago's wealthiest, most self-absorbed families.

"Why did I clean houses?" she wondered aloud. "Because I was all alone in a strange place. Because I needed the job," she replied. She was speaking, she said, "for the generations of women of color and immigrants who built opportunities for their future generations by doing this work." It isn't easy.

To begin her one-woman play, Alvarado made a startling entrance, arising from under a pile of clothes--washed, but not sorted--that had covered her completely while the audience filed into the theater.

That drew a gasp.

It was, she said, her way of showing "the isolation, the invisibility of domestic workers."

In homes where they work, domestics are "a whisper, a shadow, sliding in and out of rooms," she said. Employers often have trouble remembering their last names, though they are frequently referred to as "one of the family."

"She does not care what I know about her. What is important is that I know about Woolite," reported Alvarado, remembering the woman who hired her in 1997 to do dusting, cleaning, laundry and a litany of other household chores in a large apartment on what demographers have identified as Chicago's wealthiest block.

Alvarado, who got the job by answering a blind ad in the Chicago Tribune, became privy to all sorts of intimate family secrets, stories left behind in the form of spills, smears, fingerprints and soiled clothing.

It did not appear that her former employers, or their neighbors, were in the audience.

But the crowd came with questions--and praise--for the show, which ran two nights. It was sponsored by Insight Arts, which describes itself as an organization of "artists, community activists and liberatory educators."

Alvarado has performed the piece in Washington and plans to repeat it in San Francisco.

"I want to thank you for the physicality of your show. It embodied that kind of work so well it was difficult to watch," said one woman, noting Alvarado's struggle against the ongoing forces of household grime.

"Does the family you worked for know about this?" asked another audience member.

"Well, I didn't send them a copy of my book, but they're free to buy it, at Women & Children First," Alvarado replied. She was referring to her collection of poems, "The Housekeeper's Diary" on which she based her play, and to a bookstore at 5233 N. Clark St., where she worked as a manager.

"If I need domestic help, what can I do to treat them right?" wondered a third.

"Pay a decent wage. Treat them the way an employee in an office is treated. Respect them. Know a bit about them. You don't pretend your dental hygienist is a member of the family. Don't do that with household help," Alvarado replied.

Chicago Tribune; Chicago IL.; Feb 19, 2002; Jon Anderson, Tribune staff reporter.