Standing Up for the Poor in Latin America

The mistreatment of domestic workers in Latin America is nothing new, but recent cases have been generating more attention and widespread outrage thanks, in part, to the proliferation of social media. Perhaps with confidence that their voices are being heard, more people are speaking out against their abusers and demanding the respect that much of the upper class has long withheld from the working class throughout Latin America.

In August of 2011, two women in the upscale Mexico City neighborhood of Polanco became YouTube stars when they were caught on tape hurling vile insults and slaps at a police officer. The women, who were pulled over for erratic driving, called the Mexico City officer who stopped them, a "crappy wage slave" amid a tirade full of verbal abuse and obscenities. Later identified as former Miss Puebla, Maria Vanessa Polo Cajica and reality TV contestant Azalia Ojeda, they ironically became known as "the ladies" of Polanco.

Another YouTube video out of Mexico that went viral last month featured parking attendant Hugo Enrique Vera being beaten by a wealthy resident of the luxury apartment complex. The aggressor, identified as Miguel Sacal Smeke, became enraged when Vera told him he couldn't leave the front desk to show him where to find the jack in his car. A surveillance camera captured Vera's beating which happened in July of 2011. In the video, Vera appears not to defend himself, instead taking a submissive stance by covering his face, turning his back and walking away as the man comes behind the desk calls him "gato" and "indio" (both derogatory insults in Spanish), and continues to pummel him. Vera sustained damage to two teeth in the incident.

Mexico, however, isn't the only Latin American country engaged in these clashes of social class. Spain's ¡HOLA! Magazine underwent heavy criticism in December 2011 when a story titled, "The Most Powerful Women of Valle del Cauca," featured an image of the light-skinned wealthy Colombian women sitting poolside at their mansion with two uniformed dark-skinned maids in the background forced to pose while holding silver trays.

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Most recently, a 57-year-old widow named Felicita Pinto who is being called the Chilean Rosa Parks, caused a stir when she dared to walk past the gates of the community she works in as a maid instead of taking the mandatory minibus to her employer's home. Security guards chased Pinto and forced her to go back to the gate citing the development's bylaws which state that servants are forbidden to move through the neighborhood at will.

Anger grew when a neighbor told a television channel:

"Can you imagine what it would be like here if all the maids were walking outside, all the workers walking in the street and their children on bicycles?" 

These are just a small handful of the most talked about and most recent stories of class wars in Latin America, but there are millions more.  A 2010 United Nations report called Latin America the region with the "highest levels of differences in wealth and income." However, I have hope that things are moving in the right direction.

It seems that those who have suffered social inequalities at the hands of the elite privileged class have had enough.  Increasingly, the abused are speaking up and fighting back. All of these stories have generated push back from the working class majority and have resulted in positive outcomes.

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The so-called "Ladies of Polanco" were taken to court, Miguel Sacal Smeke paid damages and apologized, the "¡Chao! Racismo" (Goodbye racism!) campaign in Colombia resulted from the ¡HOLA! magazine photograph, and protests broke out in Chile in support of Felicita Pinto who inspired Chilean labor rights group, Justa Causa (Just Cause),  to accuse Chile before the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights of violating anti-discrimination treaties.

Perhaps these aren't fairy tale happy endings, but progress is being made.

Tracy López is a bilingual writer living outside the Washington DC metro area. She is the founder of

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