Invisible: domestic workers’ commutes in Latin America

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By Valentina Montoya Robledo and Rachel Randall

Domestic workers make up one in every five working women in Latin America, totalling approximately 13 million individuals. In recent decades, a significant transformation has occurred as many domestic workers have shifted from living in their employers’ homes to commuting daily from their own residences due to rapid urbanization processes. Latin America became the most urbanized region in the world in 2014. By 2020, 83% of domestic workers in Colombia, for example, resided in their own homes. Their precarious earnings and the fact that more than 80% of them are informal workers, however, have forced them to live in city outskirts. Both their homes and the households where they work often lack proper connections to public transport as well as pavements for pedestrians, making their lengthy commutes both time consuming and expensive.

Still from ‘Invisible’

This shift has led to extensive commuting times across Latin America, with domestic workers’ journeys reaching up to seven hours per day in Bogotá, six hours in Lima, five hours in São Paulo (Montoya Robledo, forthcoming) and three and a half hours in smaller Colombian cities like Manizales. According to Bogotá’s 2015 Mobility Survey, domestic workers have the longest commutes among all urban occupations in Colombia. In many countries they also allocate a significant portion of their income to cover transport costs: 36% in Lima, for example, and 28% in Medellín. During these prolonged journeys, domestic workers often face racial discrimination, gender-based violence, common crime and road safety concerns.

These hardships not only risk domestic workers’ safety but also hinder their access to a range of opportunities from education to leisure to political participation. And yet, local governments in Latin America frequently overlook their situation. The Invisible Commutes project was set up in 2019 to shed light on this critical issue, starting with a documentary about domestic workers’ concerns, which was expanded into a transmedia project in 2020. Collaborating with musician and cultural manager Andres Gonzalez and filmmaker Daniel Gomez, the project aims to raise awareness not only among scholars but also the general public and mobility experts about domestic workers’ limited Right to the City in Latin America.

Invisible Commutes uses various media to depict domestic workers’ expensive, violent and lengthy commutes in order to advocate for their Right to the City. The project includes short audio segments featuring their testimonials, which focus on their experiences when commuting and their perspectives on mobility infrastructure projects. It includes a section on the maps that domestic workers have drawn of their commutes. The project also produces opinion pieces and journal papers, and engages in academic, civil society and local government discussions. Recognized in 2023 as a ‘Remarkable Feminist Voice in Transport’ by Tumi and Women Mobilize Women, Invisible Commutes is a comprehensive effort to address transportation injustice for millions of women.

Still from ‘Invisible’

Filming for the Invisible Commutes documentary, Invisible, has taken place over an extended period, beginning in 2019 with a focus on Reinalda Chaverra, a domestic worker based in Medellín. In 2022 filming continued in Bogotá with domestic worker Belén García. In 2023, Invisible Commutes was awarded funds by Migration Mobilities Bristol to complete the documentary short and hold a workshop with the Afro-Colombian Union of Domestic Workers (UTRASD) in Medellín.

The workshop explored how domestic workers themselves want to see their commutes represented on screen and enabled their voices to feed into the form and content of the final documentary. This was crucial for us because, despite a recent upsurge in Latin American films that focus on domestic worker protagonists, almost none depict the workers’ lengthy and challenging commutes. It is widely acknowledged that these films tend to be made by directors whose perspectives are more closely aligned with those of employers, rather than employees. They often dramatize the dynamics of employer-employee relationships within employers’ homes by taking live-in domestic workers as their protagonists, as is the case, for example, of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018) and Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother (2015). In reality, hourly paid roles are becoming more popular than live-in forms of domestic work, as this report focusing on Brazil also shows. When we talked about the lack of visual representations of domestic workers’ commutes at the workshop, one participant explained that it is not convenient for employers to acknowledge the long, challenging and costly journeys that their employees have to undertake because it raises the question of how these commutes should be compensated.

As a starting point for our discussion, we watched clips from the film Roma, which focuses on domestic worker Cleo. Set in the early 1970s in Mexico City, Cleo’s story is strongly inspired by the real experiences of Liboria Rodríguez who was employed by director Alfonso Cuarón’s family when he was a child. Although Roma risks reinforcing a narrative in which its protagonist is both celebrated as, and relegated to, the status of a surrogate member of her employer family, the way the film dwells on Cleo’s gruelling routine maintaining an extensive house and supporting her employers’ four children sparked strong affective responses among the workshop’s participants. Some addressed the negative implications this kind of workload has for managing to exercise or relax, while others reflected on the impact it has for workers’ relationships to their own loved ones, namely their children.

Still from ‘Roma’

Many of the insights that fed into Invisible were, nonetheless, provoked by the participants’ reflections on the differences between their experiences commuting and those depicted in one of the only Latin American films that focuses on this topic. Rodrigo Moreno’s Réimon (2014) traces the lengthy journeys undertaken by its protagonist Ramona, an hourly-paid cleaner who commutes on public transport from her home on the outskirts of Buenos Aires to her employers’ upmarket apartments in its centre. Like Roma, Réimon also dwells on the details of Ramona’s work and routine. One workshop participant praised the grace and elegance that characterises Ramona’s portrayal: she is always nicely dressed and well presented. The importance of this became clear as multiple participants spoke about how the distance that they need to walk across difficult terrain to catch initial transport links means they are forced to arrive at work with unclean clothes, suffer rude comments from other commuters, or take a cloth with them to try and wipe off the dirt. The dignity of Ramona’s depiction resonated with UTRASD members who shared experiences of having been denigrated by others due to their occupation and discriminated against on the basis of their race.

One participant also noted that Ramona does not appear to feel afraid walking through the city in the dark of the early morning, while the participant herself has often feared being attacked. Ohers attested to how common it is to be sexually harassed or assaulted on public transport. Another participant observed that Ramona is shown getting a seat on the train, while the buses they catch are so full at peak times that they must always stand.  

In response to these challenges, Invisible concludes with the changes that UTRASD members themselves would make to improve domestic workers’ experiences commuting to their employers’ homes. These include: building more public bathrooms in stations and across the city; introducing women-only carriages; giving domestic workers preference in queues at peak times; and subsidising public transport for domestic workers or introducing forms of transport specifically for them. The final three proposals would likely require individuals to register formally as domestic workers, which would be a positive given the challenges that widespread informality brings across the sector.

We hope that the documentary encourages policy makers and urban planners to take up their proposals and continue hearing what they have to say.

‘Invisible’ (Valentina Montoya Robledo, Daniel Gómez Restrepo and Andres Gonzalez Robledo 2024) will be screened in London at BLOC cinema, Queen Mary University of London on 30 May 2024. Registration is free: https://invisible-screening-panel.eventbrite.com

This blog post was originally published on Migration Mobilities Bristol


Valentina Montoya Robledo is a Senior Researcher in Gender and Mobility at the Transport Studies Unit (TSU) at the University of Oxford. She directs the transmedia project Invisible Commutes on domestic workers’ commuting experiences. Her most recent paper is ‘That is why users do not understand the maps we make for them’: Cartographic gaps between experts and domestic workers and the Right to the City.

Rachel Randall is Reader in Latin American Studies at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL). Her book, Paid to Care: Domestic Workers in Contemporary Latin American Culture has recently been published by the University of Texas Press. It explores the struggles of domestic workers in Latin America through an analysis of films, texts and digital media produced with them or inspired by their experiences. The book is available with a 30% discount using the code UTXM30 in the UK and Europe and in the US and Latin America.

Caring with/about the wetnurse: the zine

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By Andrea Aramburú Villavisencio, Daniela Meneses Sala and Rachel Randall 

On 25 May 2023, we organised a workshop for postgraduate and early career researchers in Bristol: “Creative Visual Methodologies: Affective Interventions in Archival Materials”. The idea was to experiment with the affordances of creative and caring methodologies when exploring archival materials that both reveal and conceal forms of affective labour. Participants in the workshop were confronted with a series of photographs featuring wet nurses and infants that were taken in Lima in the nineteenth century. The product of their interventions into these photographs is this zine 

The zine features a series of reappropriations and critical reworkings, via collage techniques, of a set of photographs from the Courret Archive at the Biblioteca Nacional del Perú (BNP).

The archive, now fully digitised, is made up of thousands of glass plates originally from Fotografía Central, a photography studio founded in Lima in 1863 by the French brothers Eugène and Achilles Courret. In nineteenth-century Peru, the Courret brothers were key figures involved in one of the crucial technologies of “mechanical reproduction” conceived to construct the bourgeois, modern image of the nation and its citizens: photography. Through the lens of Eugène Courret, we saw the Creole elite of a Lima in which independence was still nascent. Even if society’s marginal citizens were not the focus of Courret’s photographs, they still appear in many of his portraits, often as secondary characters. His representations, as such, contributed to the creation of stereotypes, often reinforcing differences of class and race. This is the case of a series of images scattered within the archive, where children appear held by their wet nurse or nanny, a role which at the time was popular amongst Lima’s elite family and which was commonly taken up by Afro-Peruvian women. In some of these photographs, these women appear covered with drapes or partially concealed; in others, they look directly at the camera as they hold their charges close to their chests; and in some, which are meant to feature newborns on their own, the wet nurses are almost entirely erased from the frame, though occasionally they leave behind a trace for the careful observer, like a hand or the glimpse of a head.  

Our first encounter with these images provoked a series of questions related to how archives articulate remembrance, how they perpetuate (and yet invisibilise) the violent structural conditions sustaining the historical moments they memorialise. Society’s marginalised actors are anonymised, violently hidden and ignored, even if the archive retains their presence in plain sight. It was in this context that we came up with the idea of making an art workshop. Inspired by the works of scholars such as Saidiya Hartman, our aim was to recuperate, in a caring manner, the centrality of the wet nurse figure in the Courret Archive. By “caring”, we refer to a critical engagement encompassing the complexity of this task, the fact that we may often be required to sit with discomfort and the conscious recognition that each of the women who appear in the photographs were subjects with a life and a history of their own. We wanted to create a counter-archive that would bring attention to these women, their care work and the structures behind their oppression, both within and beyond the archive.

We prompted our participants to critically reflect on, even play with, the photographs’ materialities, cutting them up, juxtaposing them, finding associations with quotations and other visual objects. Part of our objective was to produce a collective and thoughtful response to the archive, one that could consider the various forms by which material, active interventions could bring the often invisibilised labour of care work to the fore. 

The pages that the workshop participants and facilitators created compose the zine. The thought-provoking interventions reflect individual and collective concerns as well as the participants’ varied disciplinary backgrounds. Many interventions self-reflexively foreground the limits of the participants’ understanding. Tropes such as the inclusion of reflective paper or a polaroid photograph enable participants to meditate on their positionality or to foreground the limitations of indexical materials (such as celluloid photographs) in providing historical insight. A second trope that resonates across the zine is the irreverent swapping of roles and positions, including the gesture of bringing the wet nurses to the centre, which often requires the babies to be relegated to the background or even disappear from the pages. We see, for example, pages where wet nurses are shown holding each other or where they appear in groups, as well as a page where a wet nurse’s head is attached to the body of an infant, and the wet nurse is almost engulfed by the veiled figure of a baby behind her. These interventions draw attention to the ambivalent nature of care work and to the race, class and gender identities of those who provided it and continue to provide it today. Finally, many of the pages play on the visible signs of wear and tear in the photographs and the presence of the archival watermark, which are deployed as indictments both of violent archival practices and of the suffering that the role of wet nurse could have entailed for some of the women pictured. 

The digital form in which we have made this zine available both adds to and takes away from the original, hand-made pages created at the workshop. The latter are characterised by participants’ uses of mirror paper, flaps that can be opened and closed and interventions that extended beyond the edges and on to the reverse of the pieces of card provided.

We have done our best to do justice to participants’ thoughtful and creative interventions when compiling this zine, and we hope that interacting with it is an engaging experience for you as a reader. The zine will soon be printed using risography, and we will add photographs of the physical version to the zine page on this website as soon as possible. 

 

Affective and Embodied Labours: Sex Work and “Puta Politics” in Contemporary Latin American Film

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By Rachel Randall

I wanted to write this blog post, first, to explain how the focus of our project on affective and immaterial labour in Latin(x) American culture emerged and, second, to introduce the research into cultural portrayals of sex work that I have recently begun. I realise that it might seem unusual that our project explores representations of such different types of labour (wet nursing, migrant domestic work and sex work) and spans such a lengthy period (from the late nineteenth century to the present day), but my sense that links – which traverse historical eras and types of media – were being drawn between these forms of work surfaced as I was writing my last book, Paid to Care: Domestic Workers in Contemporary Latin American Culture. I noticed that lots of the texts I was analysing were drawing connections – both critical ones and problematic ones – between domestic work and other forms of waged or unwaged reproductive labour, such as sex work, breastfeeding and child-rearing.

The two films I’ll focus on here, which explore the experiences of sex workers Alanis (Anahí Berneri, Argentina, 2017) and Patrícia (Alexandre Carlomagno, Brazil, 2014) – are characteristic of a recent trend in Latin American cinema to link different forms of gendered, reproductive labour together. Other examples include Consuelo Lins’ short documentary Babás (2010), which locates the roots of contemporary childcare arrangements in Brazil in the historical practice of wet nursing that was enabled by enslavement, and Lila Avilés’ film La camarista (2018), which focuses on a hotel cleaner, Eve, and skewers gendered expectations by exploring the ways that its protagonist is compelled into performing informal childcare duties for a guest and coerced into serving as a figure of sexual release for one of the hotel’s window cleaners.

Recent Latin American films that link different forms of gendered, reproductive labour.

These links were already being identified in the 1970s and 1980s by Italian feminist theorists such as Silvia Federici and Leopoldina Fortunati who observed that capitalist economies rely on the separation of reproductive labour, or the work involved in the reproduction of the workforce – such as domestic work and sex work – from productive labour (Fortunati 1995, 7). While Federici focuses on the naturalisation of the unpaid domestic labour that women do at home, arguing that capital ‘makes money’ out of women’s cooking, smiling, cleaning and fucking (2012: 20-21), paid domestic workers also suffer from the conflation of different forms of reproductive labour and the ways these are engendered and often racialised in Latin America. Valeria Ribeiro Corrosacz’s ethnographic research into white middle-class masculinity in Rio de Janeiro has found that it has been common for men who are members of the dominant class to identify sexual initiation with their family’s domestic worker as a kind of rite of passage (2017, xii-xiv, 49-50). The gender, race and class status of paid domestic workers has made male members of employer-families feel that they are entitled to domestic workers’ bodies.

Despite their important differences, domestic work and sex work are often characterised by workers’ experiences of vulnerability, precarity, informality and intimacy. The fact that domestic workers and sex workers, as well as other kinds of care workers, come into close contact with other people’s bodies and bodily fluids has made it possible to associate their work with dirt or waste, and thus with the abject. These connotations have sometimes wrongly led to these workers’ stigmatisation. This process is intensified in the case of sex work, where close physical intimacy is part of the job and where there are health-related concerns, particularly regarding sexually transmitted infections. Fears surrounding the defilement of women’s bodies through sex work have been deployed in Latin American works as a metaphor for the corrosive effects of modernity (Wells 2019, 224), including the plundering of the natural world, such as in the Brazilian film Iracema: uma transa amazônica (Jorge Bodanzky & Orlando Senna, 1974). These works are often interested in depicting sexual exploitation or sex trafficking, sometimes of minors. Alanis and Patrícia do not employ this metaphor and I think this is because their principal objective is to advocate for and frame sex work as work, as well as to depict sex workers’ potential for agency.

Alanis is a fiction film that depicts two days in the life of its eponymous protagonist who is a sex worker living in Buenos Aires. At its opening, Alanis and her friend Gissela are evicted from their apartment by the police. Gissela is arrested and treated as though she is Alanis’ handler. Following this, the film portrays Alanis’ struggles to continue working while caring for her 18-month-old son, Dante, without Gissela’s support. The film is motivated by a desire to explore the current legal conjuncture faced by sex workers in Argentina. The country has adopted an abolitionist approach, which means that it is third parties that exploit the prostitution of others that are criminalised, rather than sex work itself (Orellano 2016). In reality, the distinction between a prohibitionist and an abolitionist approach is blurry. Since 2011, a powerful anti-trafficking lobby in the country helped to bring in new laws that do not differentiate human trafficking from sex work (Orellano 2016).

Patrícia is an interview-based Brazilian documentary that is available in full on YouTube (without English subtitles). The film paints a multi-layered portrait of its sex worker protagonist, who reflects on her job, her childhood, and her enjoyment of Shakespeare, among other topics. Patrícia describes herself as ‘kind of an activist’, and the documentary enables her to speak about her work supporting others in her industry, including through her involvement in the NGO Vitória-Régia, of which she was president for a time. She explains that she has helped to organise workshops that train health workers in how best to respond to the requirements of different kinds of sex workers, for example.

Patrícia being interviewed in Patrícia (Alexandre Carlomagno, 2014)

The films are united by their explorations of sex work and its affective and performative dimensions. They link sex work to other types of reproductive and affective labour. I am defining affective (or immaterial) labour here as embodied forms of work that nonetheless include the production of feelings, emotions, relationships or information as key outputs. In Alanis, these forms of work include domestic labour, care work and child rearing. In Patrícia, they include waste collection and the protagonist’s activism, which has the objective of promoting and protecting the health and well-being of other sex workers. The films’ emphases on the production of affect through different forms of reproductive labour, together with their affective appeal to spectators, enable them to align the experiences of sex workers with those of many other kinds of workers in capitalist economies on the level of their immateriality and precarity – an argument also made by Sarah Ann Wells (2019, 222). In so doing these films are, most importantly, advocating for sex work to be treated as another form of work.

Whenever she is not attending clients, Alanis is shown feeding and caring for her son. In one scene, Alanis reclines on the bed, where she later expects to receive a client so that Dante can nurse. In the background, a lacy red cloth draped over the bedside lamp functions as an allusion to Alanis’ employment.

Alanis nurses Dante in Alanis (Anahí Berneri, 2017)

Marina Gamba argues that this scene makes reference both to Renaissance depictions of the Madonna and of nudes, such as the Venus of Urbino (Titian, 1534) (2021, 95). The film thus signals the underlying links between two ‘prototypical visions of feminine corporeality’ – the Madonna and the whore – that are usually presented in opposition (Gamba 2021, 95). Alanis is also the protagonist’s professional name, while her given name is María, signalling even more overtly how she embodies both identities. Later, Alanis attends a regular client who sucks her nipple as Alanis’ face is shown in profile, like in the sequence that previously showed her breastfeeding. In both scenes, Alanis appears distracted, but her expressions communicate distinct affects. While Alanis’ strong emotional attachment to her son is foregrounded throughout the film, her interactions with clients, although intimate, are usually marked by a certain distance or detachment that signal the fact she is providing a service in return for payment or, in other words, that she is working.

Alanis cleaning an employer's toilet in Alanis
Alanis cleaning her employer’s bathroom in Alanis

Alanis nonetheless expresses a preference for sex work over alternative types of employment. After she and Gissela are evicted, Alanis is forced to seek refuge for herself and Dante with a friend who openly disapproves of Alanis’ usual work and arranges a position for her in the home of a woman who has a disability and needs someone to clean for her. The sequence in which Alanis is shown cleaning the woman’s bathroom underscores the negative affects Alanis experiences while undertaking this labour. As she scours the toilet, we see disgust in her expression, but when she stands up to scrub the sink, the camera remains static, cutting her face out of the frame and leaving the audience to project their own feelings on to her as she removes hair from the plughole. Alanis never returns to work in the woman’s home. Instead, she sneaks out at night to do sex work. Her narrative reminds spectators that “for most women sex work is not the only option for making a living” (Gerasimov 2018). For some, it is preferable to lower-paid jobs such as domestic work.

Carlomagno’s documentary explores these issues even more explicitly via the interviews with Patrícia who comments that it pleases her that clients pay well for what she offers. She enjoys describing the emotional and psychological elements of her interactions with customers and talks about how she has a particular strategy that includes showing affection. She states that she is the one who calls the shots in these interactions, which empowers her.

The interviews in which both protagonists participate in these films signal most strongly their refusal to serve as figures of negative social affect and to conform to the role of victim that others attempt to ascribe to them. Alanis’ pivotal scene involves the protagonist being questioned by the police.

Alanis is questioned by the police in Alanis (Anahí Berneri, 2017)

It quickly becomes clear that the interview is designed to paint her as a victim of trafficking. Alanis states that she was 23 when she willingly came to Buenos Aires from her hometown of Cipoletti (Río Negro). The interviewer nonetheless presses her to go into greater detail about her relationship to Gissela. Alanis explains that they share the rent and bills in their apartment, Gissela also attends clients and she is her friend. Alanis begins to play on the interviewer’s prejudices when he asks her about her son’s birth by joking that Dante was born at home when her waters broke while a client was having sex with her. Immediately afterwards, she laughs and reveals he was actually born in hospital.

Alanis’ story is designed to illustrate the negative consequences of anti-trafficking laws that frequently result in sex workers being arrested and treated as victims of trafficking (Garofalo Geymonat and Macioti 2016; Blanchette and Murray 2016). Sex workers organisations have repeatedly pointed out that “in practice, ‘saving prostitutes’ means taking away their livelihoods” (Garofalo Geymonat and Macioti 2016). Alanis’ eviction from her apartment not only takes away her income but also compels her into hostile environments. She is forced to walk the street to find clients and is physically attacked by other sex workers for invading their territory.

Just like Alanis, Patrícia also makes the audience aware of their own fascination with the sex worker’s image. Its opening and closing sequences show Patricia walking along the street, thereby placing the spectator in the same viewing position as a prospective client. Both Patrícia and Alanis deploy dirty or scratched mirrors to signal that the audience’s understanding of the sex workers’ experiences is mediated and incomplete.

Patrícia is interviewed via a mirror while preparing to go out in Patrícia (Alexandre Carlomagno, 2014)

Alanis’ reflection is shown in a bathroom mirror as she cleans her injuries after being attacked by other sex workers in Alanis (Anahí Berneri, 2017)

These distancing devices are important in a documentary like Patrícia which uses an investigative interview to explore and depict the experiences of a real sex worker via a method that echoes forms of ethnographic research. Nicholas De Villiers has highlighted the parallels between ethnography and pornography as methods for finding out more about an issue that is unknown to the researcher or viewing a practice that is usually carried out privately (2017, 2). He terms documentaries about sex work that feature interviews “confession porn” and foregrounds the power relationship between the filmmaker and the sex worker (De Villiers 2017, 10).

In places, there appears to be an assumption that Patrícia will function as a kind of confessional. Occasionally, the camera continues to roll for some moments after Patrícia has signalled that she no longer wants to speak. The affective labour expected of her ironically recalls Patrícia’s description of the emotional elements of her interactions with clients, with the important distinction that the latter, as she describes them, are often enjoyable. What is significant here is the choice to signal that Patrícia exerted a certain level of influence over her portrayal in the documentary and negotiated what she would and would not disclose about herself. When talking about her childhood and the sexual violence she has suffered, she often becomes emotional and chooses not to continue. She either asks for a break or visualises cutting by making a signal with her hands or picking up a pair of scissors, and the filming is stopped. At various points, Patrícia also tries to engage members of the crew in conversation. Her behaviour indicates a refusal to act as the camera’s passive object, and her subjectivity and sense of humour emerge as she attempts to establish a dialogue. As well as commenting on the advantages and disadvantages of her work, Patrícia expresses her love for her dog, who she goads into pleasuring itself on her leg because, she says, finds it funny.

Patrícia’s approach, like the approach of the film Alanis as a whole, is playful and provocative. Both films, I argue, can be understood as forms of “puta politics”, which Laura Murray describes as mixing “calculated political strategy with playful and provocative protest” (Blanchette and Murray 2016). Inspired by Brazilian sex worker activist, Gabriela Leite, and her political use of the word puta (whore), Murray defines puta politics as the strategic leveraging of aspects of the puta subjectivity to: “mobilise allies, media attention and state power in favour of prostitute rights. Puta politics refuses victimisation, invests in the transformative potential of what is often perceived of as immoral, and disrupts divisions between institutional structures and the street” (Blanchette and Murray 2016).


Rachel Randall
is Senior Lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies at the University of Bristol. Her research explores representations of reproductive and affective labour and childhood and adolescence in contemporary Latin American film in particular. She has just completed a book entitled Paid to Care, which examines the depiction of paid domestic workers in post-dictatorship Latin American cultural production, including in film, documentary, literary testimony (testimonio) and digital culture. The book will be published by the University of Texas Press in 2023.

Archival Wanderings: Reflections on Pictures of Wet Nurses Found in the Courret Archive

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By Andrea Aramburú Villavisencio

In a couple of weeks, I will be back in Lima, my hometown, to do some fieldwork for the project Affective and Immaterial Labour in Latin(x) American Culture, led by Dr Rachel Randall. The main core of my field research will revolve around the Courret Archive at the Biblioteca Nacional del Perú’s digital library, which houses a series of photographs taken by Eugenio Courret and his successor after he left for France, Adolphe Dubreuil, in Lima, during the second half of the 19th century. Within the archive, I will be specifically thinking about a sub-series of images, those picturing, and – as I will soon explain – often also hiding, wet nurses.

Wet nursing was a common practice in colonial and newly independent Peru, particularly among the upper classes. Before the abolition of slavery in 1854, it was not unusual for Afro-Peruvian women to do both unpaid and paid work as wet nurses for criollo (European-descendant/upper-class) families. The practice of hiring wet nurses carried on into the early 20th century, even if the discourses surrounding it were very contradictory. Most of the women working as wet nurses were black or mulatas (mixed-race), and generally poor (Rosas 2004: 106). Some newspapers used their racial and class difference to construct negative views of wet nursing, basing their arguments upon hygienist discourses. Some periodicals, such as the Semanario Crítico directed by Olavarrieta, discouraged the hiring of wet nurses, in order to safeguard the image of (white) women as devoted mothers who would breastfeed and take care of their own children. Other periodicals, such as the Diario de Lima encouraged it, advertising the availability of wet nurses on their pages, most likely because the practice remained popular among elite families, who continued to hire them in spite of what hygienists had to say (Rosas 2005).

A toddler with a Afro-descendant wet-nurse
Figure 1. “Alzamora niña” (Alzamora Girl; source: BNP Library)

The amas or nodrizas (wet nurses) pictured by Courret are mostly black women. Many are dressed in costumes covering their bodies and part of their faces. As the researcher Carlos Estela-Vilela has said, these women appear similar to the famous tapadas limeñas (women who wore clothes covering their entire bodies). Their attire included the saya y manto (particular kinds of skirt and veil). The tapadas popularised a habit of promenading the streets in anonymity, veiling their faces, leaving only one eye visible to the public. But if the tapadas had some sort of agency over their bodies, in terms of what was shown and what wasn’t, the wet nurses pictured here have none. The photographs inscribe the symbolic ownership of the children, or the “pequeños amos” (little masters) (Estela-Vilela 2021), over the wet nurses’ presence and visibility.

Amas de leche

In Image Matters, Tina Campt writes on the historical power of vernacular photography in US black communities. Campt thinks about a series of archives made of family portraits and everyday pictures, via a range of sensory regimes from the haptic to the auditive. In doing so, she asks about the “social life” of these images.  She uses this expression to refer to “the social, cultural, and historical relationships figured in the image, as well as a larger set of relationships outside and beyond the frame” (Campt 2012: 6).

What is the social life of the photographs of wet-nurses housed in the Courret Archive? Can we even access their historicity? These are pictures labelled with a family name and some extra information. Like Figure 1, the name is always that of the baby and never that of the nurse. When mentioned, such as in the photograph shown below, it is only through the generic term “ama”. Both the portraits and their titles imply who can be admitted within this visual regime, and who ought to be made invisible, always already forgotten.

A baby and a wet-nurse
Figure 2. “Retrato de Alfredo Figari, acompañado de su ama” (Portrait of Alfredo Figari, accompanied by his wet nurse; source: BNP Library)

Lactantes

There is a further set of pictures in the Courret Archive where loss and violence become even more poignant. I came across these photographs, categorised using the label “lactantes” (nursing babies), by exploring the keywords used to archive the amas de leche (wet nurse) pictures. The “lactantes” set shows portraits of very young babies sitting by themselves. They are called “lactantes”, I assume, because they must be of a breastfeeding age. These babies, most likely, have a dedicated wet nurse to take care of their nourishment and needs. And yet, the portraits show them as self-sufficient, sitting by themselves, fully owning their subjective presence.

A baby sitting up on a raised platform, possibly being supported by someone who is concealed behind them.
Figure 3. “Ascher, Pablo y ama” (Ascher, Paul and wet nurse; source: BNP Library)

The first time I saw these photographs, I felt there was something very odd, if not uncanny, about them. I was confused, in particular, by the photograph titled “Ascher, Pablo y ama” (Ascher, Paul and wet nurse; Figure 3), one of the first ones I stumbled upon. The image didn’t seem to be of the ama, and yet the title included a reference to her. While this seemed very odd, I didn’t think too much about it then. It was only after reading the article “The Dark Side of Photography: Techno-Aesthetics, Bodies, and the Residues of Coloniality in Nineteenth-Century Latin America” by Beatriz González-Stephan and Carl Good that I returned to the Courret Archive with a different gaze. 

In this piece, the authors look at four cartes de visite from the 19th century, paying special attention to a couple of pictures from Venezuela that feature babies firmly positioned over what, in their words, seems to be “a mere lump” (2016: 32). Later on, we find out that this “lump” is actually the covered nanny holding the baby in place. The authors propose that we think about how we construct the “gaze” when we look at these cartes de visite, in the context of their historical formations. They suggest that there are elements in the photographs which escape our gaze but at the same time emerge as points of reading “against the grain” of official history. In the Venezuelan photos, the “hidden” detail are the nannies, who may allow the whole archive to be read “in its reverse” (35).

Family matters

Everyone I talk to has something to say about wet nurses in Lima, or so it seems. When I chat with my mother over the phone, she mentions that my great-aunt, now almost 100 years old, and possibly two of her siblings (who have already passed away), all had wet nurses. “Who were these women?” – I ask her – “Do you think she remembers, at least, their names?” A few days later, having a chat with my sister, I tell her a bit about the project. She mentions that my dad, born in 1954, was breastfed by a wet nurse. I consider the possibility of this being true, even if my sister often exaggerates the facts that make up her stories. According to her, my paternal grandmother, La Nana, who was born in Lima to a wealthy Italian family, never had milk.

A baby sitting up on a raised platform wearing a christening dress and necklace.
Figure 4. Bebé de la familia Aramburú (Baby from the Aramburú family; source: BNP Library)

With these ideas in mind, and aware that this would have happened long after the time of Courret, I rush once again to the digital archive, and I type in my paternal family name. I find two pictures of “bebés de la familia Aramburú” (babies from the Aramburú family) archived under the keyword “lactantes”.

Up to the moment when I’m writing these reflections, my encounter with the photographs of wet nurses in the Courret Archive has been entirely virtual. As I scroll through the BNP website, I try to imagine what would be added to the experience when/if I do get to see these photos in person. Some photographs have illegible scribbles on the top corner, that get lost in their graininess. Many of them have been recomposed via a process of restoration, and the digital version still shows the visible scars of their wear and tear. The digital, however, adds to the photos a further layer of displacement, which I find curious to say the least. I’m in Bristol, sat at a café, and my gaze lingers on the first photograph of the two Aramburú babies, possibly my very far removed relatives.

Suddenly, it’s the 19th century. It could have been summer or winter (we only really feel two seasons in Lima). The day seems special, maybe the days surrounding the baby’s Christening, a big family event in Catholic Lima. The Aramburú family takes a trip to Fotografía Central, the studio managed by Courret, located in Calle Mercaderes. The baby wears a fancy white dress, with white shoes, and a chain around their neck, most likely their Christening medallion, made-to-order in one of Lima’s jewellers by the child’s godparents. The baby has an attentive facial gesture, as if someone was telling them “look over here, dear, over here”, trying to hold their gaze and attention while Eugenio Courret takes the picture. Placed at the centre of the frame, sat on what seems to be a covered stool, the baby smiles and wiggles one of their hands in the air, and holds onto the dress with the other one.

A baby sitting up on a raised platform wearing a christening dress and necklace.
Figure 5. Bebé de la familia Aramburú (Baby from the Aramburú family; source: BNP Library)

I drink a sip of my coffee and reassess my gaze. There seems to be something strange about the baby’s position on the stool — it seems that they could easily slide away, particularly when we remember that taking a portrait in the time of the Courret was no point-and-shoot — it took approximately half an hour, if not longer. Is there a wet nurse holding the baby in place, hiding behind the covered stool? It’s hard to know for sure, but the structural conditions seem to make it very plausible.

In this image, family relations are portrayed as within and beyond the frame. The social life of the photograph is as much that of the baby’s Christening as it is that which is violently hidden, for instance, the fact that most of the baby’s reproductive upbringing is done by a nanny — someone who is both within and beyond the family, within and beyond the frame.

The nurse does not count as a subject within this visual regime. Her absence enables the “individuality” and “self-sufficiency” of the baby — carrier of the nation’s futurity — to be emphasised. I end these reflections by quoting, once again, Campt, who poses some valuable questions about the matter of some images, and why it is crucial to interrogate what’s the matter with them:

“What happens when we linger on such images? What do they reveal and what do they simultaneously conceal in the very moment of revelation? What invisible forms of labor—domestic labor, semiotic labor, affective labor—do they make visible as practices of diasporic formation? And what are the technologies of vision, the politics of reading, and the sensual practices of archival creation, collection, and circulation that render this labor visible?” (Campt 2012: 41)


Andrea Aramburú Villavisencio
(Lima, 1989) is Research Associate on the project Affective and Immaterial Labour in Latin(x) American Culture. She holds a PhD in Latin American Studies from the University of Cambridge, an MA in Contemporary Literature, Culture and Theory from King’s College London and a BA in Hispanic Literature from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. Her research explores Latin American visual culture, including comics, photography and artists books through queer theory and decolonial feminisms.