Laundry | Mexico | Living in Mexico


Years ago, we came to San Miguel de Allende for a two-month visit. We had rented an eight-bedroom villa a block from the Jardin—the main square—that belonged to a wealthy Mexico City aristocrat known to us as Doña Tita. The rent was less than what we would have paid for a two-bedroom house in a less-desirable neighborhood, because it had not been "gringo-ized." It had the faintly decayed look you see in so many Mexican houses. The kitchen and bathroom facilities were antiquated and worn. Here and there, plaster was crumbling. But it was romantic. And it came with a staff of two women who cooked and cleaned.

One day, exploring, I climbed a narrow, rickety stairway to the flat rooftop. There, under the eaves, was a bench bearing a washtub and a washboard. A clothesline was stretched between two rooftop bodegas (storerooms) on which hung the sheets that had been on our bed the day before.

I had trouble registering the scene. I was standing on the roof of the elegant mansion of a rich woman, looking at a third-world laundry facility.

In 1944, when I was three, my impecunious parents bought a used wringer-style washing machine. Sixty years later, these poor women still didn't even have that.

Later, I discovered that they were lucky. At least their laundry facility was inside (well—on top of) the house.


Lavanderia publica.

For those who have no laundry facilities in their houses, there's the public laundry—a row of square concrete tanks lined up against the wall of a pleasant little plaza. When I first saw it, no one was there. I figured it was a historical vestige preserved to enhance local color. Surely nobody still used it!

Once, while riding the bus through the countryside to Guanajuato, I saw a group of women squatting by a muddy stream, their laundry piled on rocks beside them. That image was less surprising than to see people in the city using the public laundry. City dwellers are supposed to be more affluent, more technologically hip. We got cable TV. We got Wi-Fi hot spots.

But we also got goatherds. We got burros pulling carts laden with scavenged cornstalks. Parts of Mexico remain firmly in the Third World.

The scene at the public laundry is a study in contrasts. People who don't have the resources to do their laundry at home are working, backs bowed, in the shadows of homes that are worth more than a million dollars.