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‘Sovereign Parenting’ in Affluent Latin American Neighbourhoods: Race and the Politics of Childcare in Ipanema (Brazil) and El Condado (Puerto Rico)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 February 2019

Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas*
Professor of American Studies, Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration, Yale University
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


Drawing on ethnographic research conducted among parents living in the affluent neighbourhoods of Ipanema, Brazil, and El Condado, Puerto Rico, I examine how urban Latin American elites deployed their parenting practices as moral justification for their racial and class privilege (what I call ‘sovereign parenting’). One way in which they do this is by producing particular forms of affective relationships with their nannies. The women these upper-class parents hired were largely dark-skinned immigrants: from the Dominican Republic, to work in El Condado, and from the Brazilian Northeast, to work in Ipanema. I demonstrate how elites cultivated a form of ‘informality’ and expressions of care in relation to childcare workers in ways that not only produced whiteness as a pillar of Latin American liberalism, but also associated whiteness with the world of interiority and personal growth.

Spanish abstract

A partir de una investigación etnográfica realizada entre padres viviendo en los vecindarios altos ingresos de Ipanema, Brasil, y El Condado, en Puerto Rico, examino cómo las élites urbanas latinoamericanas desplegaron sus prácticas de paternidad como justificación moral de su privilegio racial y de clase (lo que llamo ‘crianza soberana’). Una forma de hacerlo es a través de formas particulares de relaciones afectivas con sus niñeras. Las mujeres contratadas por estos padres de clase alta eran en gran parte inmigrantes de piel oscura de la República Dominicana, en el Condado, y del nordeste brasileño, en el caso de Ipanema. Demuestro cómo las élites cultivaron una forma de ‘informalidad’ y expresiones de atención hacia las trabajadoras a cargo de niños de maneras que no solo producen blanquitud como un pilar del liberalismo latinoamericano, sino que contribuyen a vincular la blancura con el mundo de la interioridad y el crecimiento personal.

Portuguese abstract

Baseado em pesquisa etnográfica com pais e mães vivendo em Ipanema, Brasil e El Condado em Porto Rico, quais são bairros afluentes, examino como as elites urbanas da América Latina mobilizam suas práticas parentais como justificação moral pelos seus privilégios raciais e de classe (o que defino de ‘soberania parental’). Uma das maneiras com que realizam tais práticas é através do desenvolvimento de um tipo de relacionamento afetivo com suas babás. As mulheres contratadas pelos pais e mães da alta-classe são em sua maioria imigrantes de pele escura oriundas da República Dominicana no caso de El Condado ou do Nordeste do Brasil no caso de Ipanema. Demonstro como as elites cultivaram uma forma de ‘informalidade’ e expressões que denotam carinho no relacionamento com essas babás, de maneira que não somente estabelece a branquitude como o pilar do liberalismo Latino Americano, mas que também associa a branquitude com interiorização e crescimento pessoal.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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1 Puerto Rico and Brazil are vastly different, in the size of their terrain, population and economy; they are different in colonial history, political influence and status, global presence (or absence), and even language, which probably accounted for the puzzled reactions I got whenever I described my choice of fieldsites. Brazil, a Portuguese-speaking country, has the fifth largest population and eighth largest economy in the world, while Puerto Rico, a US colony where Spanish is the main language, lacks international presence. Despite these differences, both countries made international news during the time of my research. Towards the latter part of my fieldwork, each country shared a national mood of bewildered anxiety about their respective political and economic futures, austerity policies and governmental corruption. Distrust of the government, fears related to economic insecurity and crime, a turn to austerity politics, fiscal debt crises, widespread political corruption and US economic or imperial influence figured prominently in everyday conversations. For more on Brazil, see Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Fishman and David Miranda, ‘Brazil Is Engulfed by Ruling Class Corruption – and a Dangerous Subversion of Democracy’, The Intercept, 18 March 2016. For Puerto Rico, see Argeo T. Quiñones-Pérez and Ian J. Seda-Irizarry, ‘Wealth Extraction, Governmental Servitude, and Social Disintegration in Colonial Puerto Rico’, New Politics, 16: 2 (2016), pp. 91–8.

2 My fieldwork consisted of eight months each in Ipanema and El Condado, spanning a period of five years. I attended extended family gatherings; parent-sponsored lectures in neighbourhood bookstores and private homes; and civic events in the interlocutors’ communities. I accompanied individuals to Pilates and Yoga and to children's sports events, and spent time in homes, work sites, the beach and restaurants. In Brazil, I interviewed and had an ongoing relationship with a total of 39 individuals, comprising eight fathers, 15 mothers, four grandparents, six private school staff, and six nannies. I conducted focus groups with several other individuals – mostly nannies – extended family members, and parents from areas outside of Ipanema. I attended monthly police briefings given to Ipanema residents. In Puerto Rico, I conducted repeated structured and semi-structured interviews with 30 main interlocutors: 12 mothers, ten fathers, three nannies, two private school teachers and three community activists. Most of the focus groups and interviews were conducted in Portuguese or Spanish. In between periods of being in the field, I maintained communication with key interlocutors through various social media sites, as well as by email, text and Skype.

3 The ‘nordestina/o’ category operated both as an actual geo-political referent and as a racialised category (independent of actual region of origin). Ipanema parents knew a great deal about ‘their’ babás’ personal backgrounds and intimate lives. When they used ‘nordestina’ in reference to their own babás, I felt there was compelling evidence to suggest that these workers were in fact from towns and cities in Northeastern states, even if they had been in Rio for many years. Upper-class white Ipanema parents often declared a preference for babás who were ‘non-cariocas’ (cariocas are inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro) and/or who didn't live in the nearby Ipanema favelas, fearing these individuals would ‘bring the favela into their homes’. Some excellent studies focus on domestic workers in Brazil and Latin America more broadly (see, for example, Miriam Raja Gabaglia Preuss, ‘Emprego doméstico: Um lugar de conflito’, Cadernos do CEAS, 128 (1990), pp. 41–5); however, here I examine the employers, as the materially powerful, dominant side of these complex power dynamics.

4 ‘Progressive’ was defined in terms of social dispositions (e.g. concern for the environment), not necessarily in relation to specific political party affiliations.

5 I subscribe to an ‘economies of affect’ perspective that considers affect as relational and inter-subjective, in contradistinction to the psychologically individualistic conception of ‘emotion’, and as a mediator of economic, material and historical transformations (cf. Analiese Richard and Daromir Rudnyckyj, ‘Economies of Affect’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 15: 1 (2009), pp. 57–77). By adopting this conceptual lens, affect remains a vital set of dynamic registers of everyday life, practices, experiences and economic imperatives under neoliberal globalisation. On the latter issue and on racialised affect, see Berg, Ulla and Ramos-Zayas, Ana Y., ‘Racializing Affect: A Theoretical Proposition’, Current Anthropology, 56: 5 (2015), pp. 654–77Google Scholar.

6 Jorge Folena, ‘III Simpósio SOS Brasil Soberano’, SOS Brasil Soberano: Enganaria, soberania e desenvolvimento, 8 June 2017:, last access 17 Oct. 2018.

7 Bonilla, Yarimar, Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. xiGoogle Scholar.

8 Scholars have generally used the terms ‘sovereign’ – and ‘sovereignty’ – primarily to describe conditions of political governance and nation-state autonomy. For Puerto Rico, see Castro, Elga, ‘Puerto Rico is Not the Only One: Politics and Disparity between the United Nations and the IOC Membership’, in Barney, Robert Knight et al. (eds.), The Global Nexus Engaged: Sixth International Symposium for Olympic Research (London, Ont.: International Centre for Olympic Studies, 2002), pp. 253–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Park, Stephen K. and Samples, Tim R., ‘Puerto Rico's Debt Dilemma and Pathways toward Sovereign Solvency’, American Business Law Journal, 54: 1 (2007), pp. 147CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For Brazil, see Penglase, B., ‘States of Insecurity: Everyday Emergencies, Public Secrets, and Drug Trafficker Power in a Brazilian Favela’, PoLAR: The Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 32: 1 (May 2009), pp. 4763CrossRefGoogle Scholar. These authors, while acknowledging everyday and cultural practices intended to yield national unity, generally consider sovereignty in a very different sense from what I am proposing here. They deal with sovereignty in order to think about conditions of governance and long-standing formal–informal distinctions. I view the concept to encompass, primarily, the affective and supposedly ‘intimate’ relations that sovereignty, and claims to belonging and ownership, enable and foster (that are nonetheless public). In particular, I argue that sovereignty in Latin America and the Caribbean, and perhaps elsewhere, are crucial to practices of whiteness, and that parenting provides the means through which such practices are communicated, validated and reproduced. The concept of sovereign parenting, therefore, brings together the discussion on sovereignty with whiteness, affect and the politics of parenting, which I see as my main intervention into the sovereignty scholarship.

9 Ana Ramos-Zayas, Sovereign Parenting: The Moral Economy of Space, Privilege, and Austerity in Brazil and Puerto Rico (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, in press).

10 McIntosh, Janet, ‘Structural Oblivion and Perspectivism: Land and Belonging among Contemporary White Kenyans’, in African Dynamics in a Multipolar World: 5th European Conference on African Studies – Conference Proceedings (Lisbon: Centro de Estudos Internacionais do Instituto Universitário de Lisboa, 2014), pp. 1277–99Google Scholar.

11 Ehrenreich, Barbara and Hochschild, Arlie, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy (New York: Henry Holt, 2003)Google Scholar.

12 Goldstein, Donna, Laughter Out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Berg and Ramos-Zayas, ‘Racializing Affect’.

13 Filho, Alfredo Saad, ‘Salários e exploração na teoria marxista do valor’, Economia e Sociedade, 10: 1 (2016), pp. 2742Google Scholar; Greenwald et al., ‘We are Repulsed by this Government’.

14 de Santana Pinho, Patricia and Silva, Elisabeth, ‘Domestic Relations in Brazil: Legacies and Horizons’, Latin American Research Review, 45: 2 (2010), pp. 90113Google Scholar.

15 Amorim, Celso, ‘Brazilian Foreign Policy under President Lula (2003–2010): An Overview’, Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 53: 1 (2010), pp 214–40Google Scholar.

16 International Labour Organization, World of Work Report, 2010 (Geneva: International Institute for Labour Studies, 2010)Google Scholar.

17 de Santana Pinho, Patricia, ‘The Dirty Body that Cleans: Representations of Domestic Workers in Brazilian Common Sense’, Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, 13:1 (2015), pp. 103–28Google Scholar; Natalia Mori et al. (eds.), Tensões e experiências: Um retrato das trabalhadoras domésticas de Brasília e Salvador (Brasília: CFEMEA, 2011).

18 Santana Pinho, ‘The Dirty Body that Cleans’, p. 107.

19 The law, EC 72/2013, was passed in April 2013. Details can be found in Edson Paulo Domingues and Kênia Barreiro de Souza, The Welfare Impacts of Changes in the Brazilian Domestic Work Market (Brasilia: International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth, UNDP, 2012), on line at, last access 9 Oct. 2018.

20 Lawler, Stephanie, ‘Disgusted Subjects: The Making of Middle-Class Identities’, The Sociological Review, 53: 3 (2005), pp. 429–46Google ScholarPubMed.

21 Skeggs, Beverley, Class, Self, Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Graham, Carol and Felton, Andrew, ‘Inequality and Happiness: Insights from Latin America’, Journal of Economic Inequality, 4: 1 (2006), pp. 15691721Google Scholar.

23 Sociologists Zaire Dinzey-Flores and Jaime Alves empirically demonstrate this, respectively, in the case of the experience and spatial distribution of inequality in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the examination of ‘necropolitical governance’ in São Paulo, Brazil. Jaime Alves, ‘From Necropolis to Blackpolis: Necropolitical Governance and Black Spatial Practice in São Paulo, Brazil’, Antipodes, 46: 2 (2014), pp. 323–39; Dinzey-Flores, Zaire Z., ‘Spatially Polarized Landscapes and a New Approach to Urban Inequality’, Latin American Research Review, 52: 2 (2017), pp. 241–52Google Scholar.

24 See also Duany, Jorge, ‘Dominican Migration to Puerto Rico’, CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, 17: 1 (2005), pp. 242–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Santana Pinho, ‘The Dirty Body that Cleans’; Jurandir Freire Costa, ‘Da cor ao corpo: A violência do racismo’, Preface to Neusa Souza, Tornar -se negro (Rio de Janeiro: Graal, 1983).

26 Clarke, Kamari Maxine and Thomas, Deborah A., Globalization and Race: Transformations in the Cultural Production of Blackness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006)Google Scholar.

27 As Jurema Brites notes in her ethnographic research (Brites, Jurema, ‘Afeto e Desigualdade: Gênero, geração e classe entre empregadas domésticas e seus empregadores’, Cadernos Pagu, 29 (2007), pp. 91109Google Scholar), while employers may not be as intimately linked to the cultural universe of domestic workers, the children often spent quite a bit of time listening to an empregada’s stories and the music they listened to, asking them personal questions, etc.

28 Mariana Sgarioni, ‘A criança terceirizada: As confissões das babás’, N Magazine: Para a Nova Geração de Pais, 6 March 2014.

29 Mariana della Barba, ‘Nannies de branco: Promotora vê conflito de interesse e pede anulação favorável a clubes’, BBC Brasil, 14 Jan. 2016, online:, last access 10 Oct. 2018.

30 Sgarioni, ‘A criança terceirizada’.

31Disque’ and ‘estábanos’ – viewed as mispronounced versions of ‘dice que’ (‘he says that’) and ‘estábamos’ (‘we were’), respectively – have come to serve as common references to Dominican speech in Puerto Rico, and are deployed as ‘evidence’ of ‘inferior’ Dominican levels of education.

32 Dinzey-Flores, ‘Spatially Polarized Landscapes’.

33 Roth-Gordon, Jennifer, Race and the Brazilian Body: Blackness, Whiteness, Everyday Language in Rio de Janeiro (Berkeley, LA: University of California Press, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Du Bois, W. E. B., Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007Google Scholar [original edn: New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1920]), p. 17.

35 Roth-Gordon noticed a financial anxiety among her informants which was due to the social mobility of the working and poor classes and the middle classes’ inability to distinguish themselves from those ‘below them’, who were presumably catching up. This context changed in the post-2015 years, as Dilma's impeachment also led to the dismantling of social welfare programmes.

36 Roth-Gordon, Race and the Brazilian Body, pp. 75–80.

37 Ipanema and El Condado elite also understood ‘proper’ Portuguese and ‘proper’ Spanish in relation to symbolic, imperial and colonial perspectives about the United States and the English language. ‘English’ was both a language that carried professional advantages, and one that was no longer exclusively associated with elite status, particularly in Puerto Rico. I discuss this at length in Ramos-Zayas, Sovereign Parenting.

38 Urciuoli, Bonnie, ‘The Political Topography of Spanish and English: The View from a New York Puerto Rican Neighborhood’, American Ethnologist, 18: 2 (1991), pp. 295310CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Translated as ‘the bad-mannered maid’, this was the title of a popular TV comedy sketch that ran in Puerto Rico from the 1960s to the 1980s. The main character was the iconic ‘Azucena’, a feisty maid who lacked formal education and manners, but was ‘street smart’ and ended up getting her way.

40 My perspective on ‘cultivated informality’ benefits from the works of Shamus Khan and Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, whose ethnographies of US elite boarding schools note how socialisation involves a process of appropriating cultural practices from those above and below oneself, and of being at ease in multiple contexts: Gaztambide-Fernández, Rubén, The Best of the Best (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Khan, Shamus, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. My perspective on cultivated informality pushes these constructions of ‘ease’ into a deeper affective realm, and foregrounds a form of white interiority particular to the wealthy populations in my study.

41 Teixeira, Juliana Cristina, Saraiva, Luiz Alex Silva and de Pádua Carrieri, Alexandre, ‘Os lugares das empregadas domesticas’, Organizações e Sociedade, 22: 72 (2015), p. 173Google Scholar.

42 Ibid. Teixeira et al. document the non-monetary transactions between Brazilian domestic workers in Belo Horizonte and their employers, as a dominant moral code between criadas (maids) and patrões (bosses) that dated back to the turn of the twentieth century in Brazil. Employers were expected to provide protection, food, housing and clothing in exchange for the criada’s obedience and loyalty. Among many of the domestic workers interviewed, non-material aspects, like affection, tended to complicate evaluations of who was a ‘good employer’; notably, these assessments were often rooted in the empregada’s perception that she was not being ‘treated as empregada’, but as a member of the family. These relations often conditioned the worker's (in)ability to demand labour rights.


43 Ipanema and El Condado fathers were not required to interact with paid childcaring adults as much as the mothers were. These gender divisions of labour have been studied extensively and convincingly, e.g. in Ehrenreich and Hochschild, Global Woman.

44 Goldstein, Laughter Out of Place, p. 89; Freyre, Gilberto, Casa-grande e senzala: Formação da família brasileira sob o regime da economia patriarcal, vol. 1 (Rio de Janeiro: J. Olympio, 1933)Google Scholar.

45 Silveira, Liane, ‘“Eu sou os olhos dela”: As babás nas imagens, na praça ou uma etnografia do olhar’, Sociologia – Problemas e Práticas, 77 (2015), pp. 95111CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Silveira begins her ethnographic study of nannies at various Zona Sul squares by asking: ‘Who, among us, was exclusively raised by their parents?’ The ‘us’ in this question is obviously a fragment of the Brazilian middle and upper classes, including the academics most likely to be the audience for her article, and who may share her interest in understanding the life of ‘the most intimate stranger in a house: the nanny’.

46 Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010). For Ahmed, happiness is a form of world making and a political technology that produces social norms. People pursue and perform happiness as well as using happiness to justify ideological representations, and to distract and downplay inequalities in specific contexts. The family as the prime happy object lends positive affect to contexts around it such as relationships among individuals who participate in household and family work. Lauren Berlant uses the notion of ‘cruel optimism’ to discuss affect and unconscious fantasies in relation to ideologies of ‘the good life’ in the post-war economic bubble. As she states, ‘cruel optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a problematic object’ (Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 33; emphasis in original). Optimism persists because losing the object's promise carries the menace of destabilising hope entirely.

47 Sheriff, Robin E., Dreaming Equality: Color, Race, and Racism in Urban Brazil (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Although Sheriff highlights Brazilian hesitation about ‘race talk’ in her ethnographic study of a poor comunidade in Rio de Janeiro, Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman's examination of race in Bahia, conducted several years later (The Color of Love: Racial Features, Stigma, and Socialization in Black Brazilian Families (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2015)), noted that ‘contemporary developments, including growing research on racial inequality and the black movement in Brazil, have emphasized the social significance of race in society’ (p. 142). See also Vargas, João Costa, ‘Hyperconsciousness of Race and its Negation: The Dialectic of White Supremacy in Brazil’, Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, 11 (2004), pp. 443–70Google Scholar.

48 Hordge-Freeman, The Color of Love.

49 Roth-Gordon, Race and the Brazilian Body; Wirtz, Kristina, ‘Mobilizations of Race, Place, and History in Santiago de Cuba's Carnavalesque’, American Anthropologist, 119: 1 (2017), pp. 5872Google Scholar.

50 Godreau, Isar P., Scripts of Blackness: Race, Cultural Nationalism, and US Colonialism in Puerto Rico (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015)Google Scholar.

51 Ramos-Zayas, Sovereign Parenting.

52 Sherman, Rachel, ‘Conflicted Cultivation: Parenting, Privilege, and Moral Worth in Wealthy New York Families’, American Journal of Cultural Sociology, 5: 1–2 (2017), pp. 133CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Sherman's work on the anxiety of affluence shows how (white) upper-class parents in New York are conflicted over how much privilege to display, and the impact these explicit forms of wealth had on their children. Latin American elite parents had a more complicated understanding of merit and pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps, as narratives around meritocracy were not as foundational to the country's national mythology as is the case in the United States.

53 Hordge-Freeman, The Color of Love, p. 181.

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‘Sovereign Parenting’ in Affluent Latin American Neighbourhoods: Race and the Politics of Childcare in Ipanema (Brazil) and El Condado (Puerto Rico)
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