Read the Spanish version here.
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.
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.
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.
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 have its UK premiere at the University of Bristol on 31 January 2024.
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 is published this month 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 now with a 30% discount using the code UTXM30 by ordering online in the UK and Europe and in the US and Latin America.
Further MMB blogposts about domestic workers in Latin America include Rachel’s post on ‘Domestic workers and COVID-19: Brazil’s legacy of slavery lives on,’ and ‘The dangers of staying home: lockdown deepens inequalities in Brazil,’ by Fernanda Mallak, Isabela Vianna Pinho and Thalles Vichiato Breda.