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The working class rises up across Latin America

Maids, parking valets, and other domestic workers push back against ill treatment in 'the world's most unequal region.'

By Staff writer, Steven BodzinCorrespondent / January 28, 2012

A maid walks a pair of golden retriever puppies along Oscar Freire Street in São Paulo – Brazil’s version of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Increasingly educated workers in a booming economy are less tolerant of low pay and disrespect.

Bruno Miranda/Reuters/File

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Mexico city; and Santiago, chile

When parking attendant Hugo Enrique Vera was beaten by a wealthy client in Mexico, allegedly for refusing to show the man where to find the jack in his car, the surveillance camera captured a stereotype dating to colonial times: The wealthy resident asserts authoritarian control over the worker, who takes the beating without question.

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But there was a twist: Mr. Vera filed a criminal complaint and condemned his perpetrator on national news, unleashing a charged debate about callousness toward the working class.

For two decades, social movements in Latin America have centered on indigenous rights. Today the indigenous have earned new political representation, and open mistreatment will draw complaints.

Yet daily life across Latin America is replete with symbols of stubborn class inequality that go unchallenged, such as condominium buildings that have separate elevators for domestic workers.

Such constant reinforcement of status differences helps to cement class privileges in what the United Nations has said is the world's most unequal region.

While maids in crisp uniforms and parking valets at every urban venue aren't about to disappear, they and other la-borers are increasingly better-educated and aspire to move into the middle class.

Less tolerant of abuse and discrimination, these maids and nannies, doormen and gardeners are demanding more pay and benefits and a baseline of respect.

"There's democratization in the political arena, participation, and citizenship rights ... [and] moderate economic development. So in this context, citizens start feeling they have the right to be seen as what they are – citizens," says Florencia Torche, a sociology professor at New York University and Catholic University in Santiago, Chile.

An apology is offered

The parking attendant controversy, which went viral on YouTube and drew a public apology by perpetrator Miguel Sacal, wasn't an isolated event. Last summer, Mexicans were outraged after two upper-middle-class women in a rich district of Mexico City were caught on video calling a police officer a "crappy wage slave." The daughter of the leading presidential candidate caused an uproar in December after retweeting a message calling her father's opponents "a bunch of idiots who are part of the prole," a reference to the proletariat, or poor people.

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