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NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME? Lives of the Maids BY DEBBIE NATHAN El Paso IHAD THE TV on one night in the fall and all of a sudden I can’t believe it this new show comes on “I Married Dora” about an illegal alien maid. Dora’s boss, a beleaguered architect with two children, used to have a wife, but as you can imagine, she had some business in some place like Algeria and en route the plane got lost over the Bermuda Triangle or hijacked by terrorists or something. So as the series begins, Dora, the Guatemalan maid, has just learned that her application for amnesty didn’t come through, and she’s going to be deported, and she’s making jokes about what would be worse doing a marriage of convenience with the architect or facing a Central American death squad? Of course they get married, and this message flashes across the TV screen: something like “Warning, sham marriages are crimes under U.S. Code blah-blah” . . . just like those big nasty FBI warnings at the beginning of VCR movies, except this is a situation comedy. Well, I thought, this show certainly ought to play well in El Paso. After all, the INS says there are 20,000 maids here but everybody knows there’s even more than that. I wondered if the local immigration guys were mad about national TV making light of sham marriages and illegal aliens the stuff INS people are always pulling dour mouths about on the local evening news that precedes the sit coms. I called the El Paso’s ABC programming manager and she said no, nobody had called to say anything at all about “I Married Dora.” After a few episodes I decided it wasn’t so relevant after all, to El Paso or probably anywhere else. After all, a maid who used to be a med student? Who cracks jokes in perfect Norman Lear English? I wasn’t surprised when the series was canceled in January. Even so, I’ve been thinking ever since of scripts that would have been more thirtysomething-ish more realistic. I started thinking about all the maids I’ve known and came up with the following scenarios, all of which are true, with only names changed to protect the guilty: First of all, this show is set on the border because things just aren’t the same away from the Rio Grande. Sure, in any big city there will be some Mexican, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran women maybe a lot of them, even making other people’s beds Debbie Nathan is a writer in El Paso. GAIL WOODS and doing other people’s laundry. But a lot of those places are going to have black women, too. My cousin, who divides her profession and her marriage between Houston and Dallas, told me her yuppie friend’s little girl spied an equally yuppie black woman strolling her own daughter down the sidewalk and the delighted little white girl said, “Look mommy, a baby maid!” But we’ll omit that scene, because racism aside, at least the baby maid is a naturalborn, legal U.S. citizen and speaker of English, and even if worse comes to worse in her career, she’ll have a natural-born expectation that the architect boss is going to pay her minimum wage and probably something more. That’s the way it is in the interior. But this show is about the border. The series will open every week with a pan of El Paso’s “Placita,” the little park downtown where hundreds of maids wait every morning for city buses to take them to work, or for the patronas to drive by in station wagons. Here’s a bunch of ladies waiting on a bench, the bus is just pulling up, and uh-oh! here comes a Border Patrolman, walking right across the plaza! The women look like a little flock of worried city pigeons that some kid is following: they’re huddling and moving together at the same time. They scramble onto the bus, trying to look cool, while the Border Patrolman starts climbing the steps. Then, in a subtle piece of acting, he changes his mind. The chicano bus driver nods affably to him. The maids smile at each other. Fade into the first episode, about my friend Ann’s maid, Rufina. Ann’s mother dies of cancer and leaves her father, Bill, alone and desolate with grief after 40 good years together. During the last two, when Ann’s mom was wasting away, Ann shared Rufina with her parents on Tuesdays, and sometimes the mom would go into delirium and accuse Bill of having an affair with Rufina. Now that she’s gone, Bill, who’s 75 years old, knocks around the house lost in his grief. As it starts to lift, Bill starts making a few once-a-week passes at Rufina. Or maybe they’re just the confused overtures of a very lonely old man. But anyway, Ann, who is the same age as Rufina, flips out and starts thinking the maid is nothing but a gold-digging illegal alien out for a gringo boyfriend. Meanwhile, Rufina’s alcoholic husband in Juarez is chronically jealous, partly because she makes more money cleaning houses in El Paso than he does at his job at the Mexican post office. Rufina begs Ann not to tell her husband that Ann’s mother has been dead two months and that now she’s working in Bill’s house alone. Ann is filled with a power she’s never before felt. “I’ll keep quiet,” she tells Rufina, “but only if you return that fancy bra of mine that you stole!” “No, senora, I didn’t take your bra, I swear it!” Rufina answers desperately. Fade out. Next week’s episode will be titled “Big Houses,” a clever take on Casas Grandes, the northern Chihuahua city where Marta and all her girlfriends are from. Marta comes up to El Paso hoping to work in one of those big spreads up in the hills where all the doctors live with their wives and swimming pools, and where the real estate prospectuses always include a “maid’s room” in the blueprint of each new house. No such luck Marta soon finds that most El Paso families who need maids need them not so the lady of the house can go to Junior League meetings, but so she can go to her job as secretary or garment worker. The best Marta could do is land a job with Sharon, a $5 an hour medical transcriber and divorced mother of two little girls. Sharon can’t afford daycare it costs $80 a week; and she can barely afford Marta’s $50 a week salary. Sometimes Sharon gets food stamps; Marta uses them to buy tortillas, stew beef, and bake-in-its-own-pan apple spice cakemix, which Sharon likes to pig out on after a long day. Marta forgets her dreams of having her own room and color TV; she sleeps on a couch in the little girls’ room. When she gets together with her other Casas Grandes girlfriends they polish each others’ nails and bitch about how THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11