Cuarto a Cuarto en la Casa
(Room to Room in the House)
By Margaret Sloan
Speaking Household Spanish with the Household Help
Do you have telarañas (spider webs) in the corners? Las migas (crumbs) in el comedor (dining room)? Polvo(dust) coating all horizontal surfaces? For those of us, living in Mexico, there is an answer we can afford: hire some help.
El servicio doméstico is a time honored tradition in many Mexican households (anyone who can afford it has at least one muchacha (girl) in the house). Often she may become like part of the family. For us gringos, the muchacha or mujer (woman) we hire might be our first contact with the Mexican culture, as well as an intimate chance to practice applied Spanish. You only need a few words and expressions to get started.
You’ll need to practice housecleaning verbs. Limpiar (to clean), lavar (to wash), barrer (to sweep). The command forms? Limpie, lave, barra. And don’t forget, even when using the command form, as in planche los vestidos (iron the dresses) to say por favor (please). Mueve los muebles (Move the furniture) Use la aspiradora (use the vacuum cleaner) Recoge los juguetes. Pick up the toys. Por favor.
Quiero que is the softer way to say I want you to do something. Just couple it with the correct form of any verb. Por ejemplo (for example): Quiero que barras el patio. (I want you to sweep the patio.) Quiero que bañes a mi hija. (I want you to bathe my daughter.) Quiero que laves los trastes. (I want you to wash the dishes.) And don’t forget to say por favor!
With these few verbs you can start a list of jobs for the ayudante. (My mother always said it’s hard for two women to share one house -and don’t think the trabajadora won’t have her own ideas about priorities.) En mi casa, primero, lave la ropa (first, wash the clothes) and then la cuelga en el tendedero (hang them on the clothesline). If you have una lavadora (a washing machine), make sure she knows how to use it. Llénela hasta aqui con la ropa. Fill it up to here with the clothes. Póngala en means set it at; fría (cold), caliente (hot), delicado (delicate), planchado permanente (permanentpress). If you have una secadora (a dryer), póngala en bajo (low), llama baja (low heat), mediano (medium), or planchado permanente (permanent press).
I always ask her to cambie las camas (change the beds), so she can wash las sábanas (sheets) and las fundas (pillow cases). Our coastal climate is muy húmedo (very humid); things get mohoso, or enmohecido (musty) in a hurry, so every so often we put the almohadas (pillows) en el sol (in the sun) to freshen them. El sol es un desinfectante muy fuerte (the sun is a very strong disinfectant), and after an afternoon in el sol tropical, las almohadas huelen muy dulce (the pillows smell very sweet). Occasionally even los colchones (the mattresses) are lugged outside for a natural “dry cleaning.”
Segundo, limpie la cocina. (Second, clean the kitchen.) In the tropics it’s very important to keep this room as spotless as can be, as to cut down on leggy little visitors like the monstrous tropical cucarachas and hormigas. (Okay, okay, so bugs are a fact of life.) Once a month or so I have my ayudante limpie todos los gabinetes: Saque todo (take everything out, lave los gabinetes, (wash the cabinets), and busque los huevos de los insectos. (Shiny brown Cucuracha casings are easy to spot; about 1/4” long, they are oblong and usually stuck to the undersides of things.) I then have her sprinkle a light coating of acido bórico (boric acid), or, as she calls it, el polvo azul (it’s blue powder, alright), along all the cracks in los gabinetes. This workslike a charm; I am rarely bothered by insectos.
Sometimes she cleans el refrigerador, and defrosts it (descongela) as well. You will want to make sure she doesn’t take un picador de hielo (ice pick) to the built up hielo. (This is not a joke; it really happened to my mother-in-law’s freezer.) You probably won’t have to tell her to friegue los mostradores (scrub the counters), but make sure she knows you expect her to limpie el horno (clean the oven).
Tercero, los sanitarios. (Third, bathrooms.) Use una esponja en el lavamanos (or lavabo). (Use a sponge on the sink.) Limpie el excusado con blanqueador. (Clean the toilet with bleach.) Friegue la loceta en la ducha (o la regadera) bien. (Scrub the tile in the shower well.) Luego, quiero que cambies las toallas.(Later, I want you to change the towels.) She may ask for guantes de hule (rubber gloves) when she has to work with harsh cleaning chemicals. Get them for her; after all a woman’s got to keep lasmanos looking presentable.
Cuarto, Desempolva los muebles– (Fourth, dust the furniture.) Desempolvar is an easy verb to remember-polvo is nothing more than a little dust (I remember polver means dust because it sounds like pulverized.), and when you desempolver-ize something, you’re just undusting. “Desempolve los adornos, por favor” means dust the knick knacks, pIease. Tenga mucho cuidado (please be very careful) around the fragile clay tigres from Chiapas, and the old family china. The last mujer who worked for me took great delight in arreglando (arranging) all my adornos, and truthfully she did a better job than I ever did.
Por favor, quiero que muevas todos los libros de los libreros y desempolves cada uno. The first time I asked to la ayudante to take all the books off the shelves and dust each one, I thought l’d be looking for a new trabajadora that very day. Cleaning the biblioteca (library) is a time- consuming job (we have quite a large book collection). I also asked her to quiero que busques insectos y los huevos, as las cucurachas and hormigas (ants) can make quick work of any library in the semi-tropics.
By the end of the day my libreros (bookshelves) were clean and in order. Only problem was, they were in her order. I had failed to realize that although she could read, she couldn’t read English. She had re-arranged them all by size and not (as I had arranged them) by subject. Medical books were next to travelogues, and fiction was intermingled with history, philosophy with gardening. I have to admit, although I couldn’t find anything, the library looked great.
Barre toda la casa (sweep the whole house.) Barre la sala (the living room), las recámaras (bedrooms), la cocina (the kitchen), el comedor (the dining room). Remember the word broom by that sweeping sound it makes in Spanish: la escoba Can you hear the slide of the straw over the floor?
As the last tarea (chore) of the day, she takes un trapo (rag) and una cubeta (bucket) and cleans el piso.
If she finishes early, we might have something cold to drink and a little chat before she goes home. I ask her questions and she corrects my grammar, puts into order my confused conjugations, directs my indirect objects. After all, as I told her when I hired her, part of her job is to help me with my Spanish.