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Linda Wolf's Tell-a-Maid Phrasebook May Be a Hit with Householders, but It's a Slap in the Face to Some Hispanics

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For years her well-to-do San Fernando Valley neighbors relied on Linda Wolf to help them out of language jams with their Spanish-speaking domestics. “They would call and say, ‘Please tell Maria that we’d like her to come Thursdays instead of Tuesdays,’ ” recalls Wolf, 32, a foreign language teacher at Beverly Hills High School. Now the enterprising and multilingual Wolf, who holds a master’s degree in Spanish from UCLA, has parlayed her language prowess into Tell-a-Maid, a 28-page memo pad of key phrases and clip-out printed memos in Spanish and English for communicating with the estimated 100,000 Hispanic domestics in the Los Angeles area. As top-selling how-to books go, Tell-a-Maid may never rank with the likes of How to Make Love to a Man. Still, 15,000 of the notebooks have been peddled at $2.50 each, and they are the rage among many Los Angeles residents, especially those not at home while the domestics are on the job.

Wolf, whose two-bedroom Valley condo is serviced twice a month by a Mexican woman, says horrendous mistakes based on misunderstanding abound, hence the popularity of her product. There was the maid who threw a $400 cashmere sweater in the washer and dryer, another who used toilet bowl cleaner to scrub hardwood floors. But what Wolf calls an innocent attempt to bridge the language gap has caused a furor among some Hispanic leaders in Los Angeles, who denounce Tell-a-Maid (and its companion, Tell-a-Gardener) as insulting, demeaning and racist. Among their complaints is the commanding tone of the memos, which contain instructions like “Lave los platos” (Wash the dishes) and “Por favor…iesto no lo toque!”(Please…don’t touch this!) Tell-a-Gardener contains memos with Spanish requests, such as “Trim around the sprinklers” and “Wash down the patio.” Critics say the memos are dehumanizing. “I know it is a means of communication, but it eliminates that human contact and creates little robots,” says State Assemblywoman Gloria Molina, whose L.A. district is heavily Hispanic. The memos, she complains, are “just like snapping at somebody.” Counters Wolf: “I wanted to put ‘please’ before every single instruction, but I didn’t have the room. I do write ‘por favor’ (please) on most pages.”

Such little pleasantries hardly appease the opposition. Sophia Esparza of the Chicana Service Action Center, an organization aiding Hispanic women, things Tell-a-Maid is “a slap in the face” to domestics. “It’s ironic that in many of the homes where Tell-a-Maid is used, Poochie gets much better treatment than some of the maids and gardeners,” she says. Esparza and other foes of the books suggest that employers learn Spanish. “Anybody with half a brain would be able to learn repetitive statements,” Esparza says. “I don’t think for the amount of money they [employers] pay people, that they should require Rhodes scholars.”

Criticism of Wolf’s work is mild compared to the anger generated by a similar Spanish-English directive being used by farm owners in California. In much sterner language it tells Mexican farm hands, “You live like a pig.”

Wolf, who consulted with several domestics while writing the instructions, is surprised by the reaction to her memos and downplays charges that they stereotype all Hispanics as maids or gardeners. “It is not a secret that the majority of working maids and gardeners in this area are Spanish-speaking,” she says. An estimated 60 percent of domestics in Southern California are Hispanic, including some who entered the U.S. illegally, occasionally with the help of the wealthy, who then employ them in their homes. As for the memos, Wolf insists that they are a common business practice: “I’m not offended if someone leaves me a note.”

Wolf came up with the idea for Tell-a-Maid after a friend asked to borrow notes like “Please clean the refrigerator,” which Wolf left for her own domestic. Though laughed off by distributors when she first had the memos printed, Wolf eventually cajoled some 100 businesses—from car washes to pharmacies in swank neighborhoods—to display Tell-a-Maid.

Not all the reaction has been negative, even among domestics. “It’s very important to me,” says Alicia Orrego, 30, a Colombian domestic. “Sometimes it’s necessary to use because I forget the words.” Observes another immigrant: “Latins should not complain about it; it’s more employment.” But one store employee insists that customers don’t take the book seriously. “Most people buy it as a joke,” says Nancy Bradley, a Doubleday bookstore clerk. “I’ve never seen anyone admit they were buying it for themselves. Always for a friend.”

Wolf is undeterred by critics and hopes to market Tell-a-Maid in other cities with large Hispanic populations. She is finishing a Tell-a-Maid guide for domestics who take care of children and plans another for doctors and their patients. Wolf insists that the general public is behind her. “They know my basic intention is to help people.”