We recently relocated to the Washington, D.C. area and welcomed a neighbor's recommendation of two women who have been cleaning his home for years. Last week, Nelly and Jenny arrived and were preparing to get started when I offered them a cup of coffee. They both looked at me a little strangely, said no thank you, and set off up the stairs.
The other morning when they came by, I once again asked whether they'd like something to drink or eat, and received the same odd look, along with another decline.
As I stood in the kitchen thinking about the interaction and what I might have done or said to upset them, Nelly came to me with tears in her eyes and said that they were just surprised that I had offered them anything. No one- in their combined 40 years of cleaning houses- had ever done that.
Interestingly, back in New York I once had a similar discussion with our housekeeper Narcissa. She too had been shocked that we shared coffee, meals, and welcomed her children into our home to play with our son.
All three women are from Central America, yet as English speakers, language is not the barrier. Instead, it is a mixture of culture, comfort, classism and other prejudices that stands in the way of people offering not only coffee, but kindness as well.
Having grown up in the DC area, returning after decades away has given me a somewhat objective perspective on how much it has grown and changed. While I'm amazed by how many Latin men and women are now working here in virtually every shop and restaurant, what shocks me is how rarely the well-heeled customers of every ethnicity interact with or even acknowledge them.
Latin Americans aren't the only ones enduring this treatment. People from all nations and races are equally treated to varying degrees of social neglect, including full citizens like Nelly, Jenny, and Narcissa. Too often, they are overlooked and unappreciated; they are unseen as equals, unseen as family members, unseen as wise and good people who can offer anything beyond the often back breaking labor many of us feel we are too good for.
Our leafy suburb of Chevy Chase calls itself a town. Yet this term, given to so many communities like it across America, is in name only when we do not embrace every one of its members. Countless men and women work to clean our homes, take care of our houses, cook and deliver our food, and care for our children. We are bound up together more closely and intimately than we are with some of our friends and relatives, yet many of us don't honor these partners in our lives with the respect and goodness they deserve.
Regardless of what demographics might say, we are not distinct groups of people inhabiting the same space. We are a community of human beings sharing time together in our schools, our homes, our neighborhoods, and our workplaces. The quality of all of our lives depends on how willing we are to embrace this reality, and one another as equals, neighbors, and friends.
Our children are watching and learning from our example.