Just north of tony Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, within breathing distance of the ocean, an interview with a LA Times reporter was taking place in an elegant old Spanish hacienda home.
The lifestyle reporter, Liza Palazzo, sat in the living room of Margarita Lopez-Camilla, a Santa Monica film producer. They were talking about Margarita’s friend and housekeeper, Carmelita Sanchez. The Columbian born domestic worker was the founder of a successful health care program begun at one of LA’s poorest clinics.
“How does Carmelita feel about being honored tonight at the Biltmore Hotel for her work at the Crenshaw Clinic?”
The aristocratic Margarita put her teacup down on the glass coffee table. 46 years old, also a native of Columbia, she was born in privilege to the head of a coffee plantation. She studied film at UCLA 25 years ago and decided to stay in the City of Angels. She was now head of Caustic Productions, a film making company here in Santa Monica.
“Oh, it’s the highlight of her life. She is absolutely thrilled to be honored. Only 10 years ago in the little mountain village of Ciudad Sana, she started “La Flora” and look at what has been accomplished,” said Margarita.
Carmelita, the nueva Americana, worked for Lopez-Camilla as a maid, nanny, housekeeper, cook and chauffeur. Carmelita, the Columbian had trained as a nurse, and in Ciudad Sana she had started a health clinic financed by the sale of coffee, a tax paid by the growers to finance the hospitalization and medical care of their workers.
“May I ask Carmelita a question?” asked the reporter, a solicitous and still young acting girl of 33. Palazzo, with red hair, faded jeans, 70’s sneakers and fashionably quirky gelled hair tousled in every direction emitted the very essence of hip in contrast to Margarita’s patrician being.
“Of course. Carmelita, can you come in here?” Lopez Camilla yelled .
The French doors, which led out into the lavender bush and lemon tree garden, burst open and five year old Zoe ran in with Abraham, a lethargic Basset hound. “Mommy, mommy Carmelita is going to take me to get ice cream!” Carmelita ran behind the child, breathless. “Sinõra, I told her no. But she wants to go.”
The reporter smiled at the child, a courtesy so often extended without sincerity, to impress a parent. “What’s your favorite flavor Zoe?” the reporter asked as if the question were of supreme philosophical import. “I don’t know” Zoe answered.
“That’s not very nice Zoe.” Lopez Camilla instructed. “You like Rocky road. Tell Ms. Palazzo that’s what you like.”
“I don’t know if this is a good time for your Carmelita,” said Palazzo.
“It’s a fine time for her. She doesn’t start dinner until 5.30,” said Margarita. “Zoe–Go play with your Barbie dolls honey. You cannot have ice cream before dinner. Let the grown ups have some private time.” Zoe nodded in compliance with the request and walked out sucking her index finger and dragging a pink security blanket.
Carmelita was sweating and felt embarrassed. She entered the high sanctuary of the living room with its tea service, high-beamed ceiling, floral sofas, and symmetry in a filthy t-shirt and dusty jeans. She grabbed a napkin and wiped her face and poured herself a glass of water. There were parcels stacked atop a rigid high back chair against the wall. Margarita removed them and sat down. “Yes ma’am. What would you like to know?” Carmelita asked.
“How long have you worked with the clinic?” the reporter asked.
“Oh, let’s see. I think five years,” she answered.
“No dear,” Lopez-Camilla interrupted. “You came to the US in 1993 and you worked there only six months when I met you.”
“Oh, you’re right Madam. It’s over eight years.”
Palazzo wrote down Carmelita’s answer. “How did you approach Councilwoman Herrera and convince her to enact “La Flora” in that community?”
“I introduced her to Councilwoman Herrera.” Lopez-Camilla answered.
“So next Friday you and the Councilwoman and the entire clinic are going to be honored at the Biltmore and you will receive an award for outstanding community service. How does that feel?”
“An honor. I feel not so big for so great a recommendation,” Carmelita said.
A child’s piercing scream filled the room. Carmelita bolted from the room and ran to find Zoe while the mother sat calmly. She came back holding Zoe who was crying and holding her nanny tightly. “I’m sorry. She fell down and hurt her knee. I have to go put band-aid on it. Don’t cry honey. Don’t cry my little Zoe!” Nanny and child left the room while Lopez-Camilla poured honey into a fresh cup of Earl Gray. “More tea Liza?”
“Oh, no thank you. I feel like I’m here on the worst day of your life!” the reporter said.
“You’re almost right! First my husband smashed his new Audi as he was pulling out of the driveway. He was on his way to a meeting with Arturo Herrera to discuss a new Angelina Jolie project. Of course, he missed the meeting. He was so upset. Now I have an injured daughter. Can you forgive me?”
Ms. Palazzo stood up. “No. I’ve been here too long. I think I’ve gotten enough. Thank you so much for your time. I know the Chandlers appreciate this. They really think the world of you.”
“I hope,” added Margarita, “that we’ll see you at the Hollywood Film Awards on Sunday. My husband is getting an award as well for ‘The New Hee Haw Show.’ Lopez Herrera could not resist the plug.
Ms. Palazzo slipped into her cardigan sweater. “That’s the funniest show on TV. I watch it all the time. What channel is on it again?
Carmelita always woke up first in the household. She could barely sleep past 5.30am, her dreams tortured with kidnappings, killings and other unspeakable horrors of her Colombian past. She had come to Los Angeles to escape that. Though her bedroom was above the garage, to Carmelita it was a palace. It was in the back of the property, and between her and the main house stood a yard with a pool, surrounded by lemons, oranges, olive trees, lavender, jasmine, palms, a brilliant red Bougainvillea and an always gurgling fountain. It was a Garden of Eden. A devout Catholic, she prayed just as the sun was rising and the first droplets of orange light freckled the lawn.
After she put the good book down, it was the beginning of a long day full of chores and busy work. She had to take Abraham for a walk. Then she fed the dog.
Carmelita fixed breakfast for the little girl, and attended to Zoe’s needs—like changing her from pajamas into clothes, cleaning her up in the bathroom. Lopez Camilla did not allow Zoe to wear clothing that had been in the dryer. She claimed that allergies from fabric softeners might harm the child. These were one of the many prohibitions the mistress of the home legislated.
Carmelita dodged a minefield of laws that made her role onerous at times. She cooked breakfast, for example, but could not microwave because that was “dangerous” to Lopez Camilla. Jorge, the husband, only drank filtered water, and Carmelita had to lug the enormous 5-gallon Sparkletts container from the curb to the dispenser. When the owners awoke, Carmelita had to again watch over Zoe as both Mr. and Mrs. exercised on step masters and watched Matt Laurer (an old friend from NBC) on the “Today” show. As Jorge showered, Carmelita had to lay out his freshly ironed suit, tie and dress shirt on the bed and slip quickly out of his room before the half-naked master emerged from the toilet.
In addition to the domestic routine, Carmelita worked three days a week at the Crenshaw clinic. Latina-American Congresswoman Hilde Herrera took a special interest in Crenshaw. Carmelita’s work with involved her in the politician’s rising career. The clinic had become a symbol of liberal complaints against so called Republican cuts in health care.
The Los Angeles Times had editorialized that the Crenshaw Health Clinic’s “La Flora” program was “perhaps the most promising vision of health care financing for poorer people enacted in the last decade.” The name was intoxicating, too, with its promise of fertility, hope and holistic lyricism. What Carmelita had given birth to in Columbia, had come to maturity in the Golden State. The powerful had quickly adopted this child whose true parentage was fast becoming vague.
“I don’t give a shit about her!” Margarita was screaming at Jorge just outside Whole Foods on Montana.
“Keep your voice down Margarita!” Jorge begged with clenched teeth. A red Lincoln Navigator swerved to avoid the feud in the back parking lot of the gourmet food store.
“I don’t have $45 to spend on a cake for her. How come she has a birthday and you remember and you forgot my birthday?” she asked.
That red SUV pulled up and a 35 ish blonde woman leaned out the window. “Hello Margarita!” she said with a perfectly capped smile.
Margarita broadcast an ear- to ear grin. “Hi Joanie! How ya doin’ kiddo?” Joanie waved a fingery good-bye and sped off. The argument continued.
“I just think we should treat her to a cake! What’s wrong with that?” Jorge asked.
“Isn’t it enough that she’s having a party at the Biltmore? My god. She’s lucky to live in our home. That’s how I look at it. I’m too god-damned busy to make nicey nice with her.”
The Park along the Palisades
Blocks from the Lopez-Camilla home, along the Palisades of Santa Monica, runs a sweeping park promenade that overlooks the Pacific. Carmelita would often take Zoe for walks along the palm lined, tree-shaded expanse with its sunset views, mountain vistas, joggers, strollers, and bicyclists. Despite the beauty, the carefully groomed vegetation, and the aura of groomed greenery, a sinister social illness plagued the paradise.
Scores of homeless slept on the grass, wandered the park. They pushed carts, muttering, lost, alcoholic, or in drug induced confusion. Who were these people she wondered? Where were they from? Had they once been young and loved and taken care of? How did they lose grip and fall out of society and how could they be saved? She thought of Jesus and his ministration. With mercy in her heart, Carmelita walked amongst the poor along these verdant paths at the edge of the American continent.
Walking in anger
Margarita walked home in anger. She would not ride back in the car with Jorge. He had made her very angry and to top it off, had taken his bruised Audi into the repair shop and had rented a white Toyota Celica. It was a cheap piece of crap, and she wondered if he had deliberately taken a poor man’s car to embarrass her.
Party in Hancock Park
A few nights after the fight in the parking lot, the Herreras held an invitation only party at their home in Hancock Park. It was an affair with black tie and valet parking, caterers, cocktails and scented candles. A backyard pool glowed with blue underwater lights and a pianist on the veranda played Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture.”
Margarita was bi-polar about parties. On the one hand, she could get drunk, dress up and forget her regular cares as she slipped in and out of banalities and polite talk with the hoi polloi of Los Angeles. On the other hand, it was deadly serious work, making friends and alliances with producers who could finance her films, and make things happen. Then there was the necessary work of pretending to care about causes, about the less fortunate, which earned her added respect in the community and increased her stature.
Margarita stood in the middle of a speeding intersection of political power desperate to catch a ride to the top. Scanning the room, she could see Nicole Kidman and Cardinal Mahoney, Mayor Hahn and Jennifer Lopez. Dolly Parton was flirtatiously conversing with UCLA’s Dr. Harvey Fishbein, who perfected cosmetic surgery for transsexuals in the late 1960’s.
Jorge walked up to his legal wife. “I just spoke to Hilde. She’s said KCAL wants to do a story with Carmelita.”
“Carmelita? Why would they want to talk to her?” she asked with one eye on the chopped liver and Michael Eisner spreading it on a cracker.
“Stop looking at him,” Jorge said. “Listen to me. Carmelita is the reason La Flora is working. Do you want to deny her that?”
“I’m not listening to you. You want to start up trouble here? You’re not gonna get me into a fucking argument.” She walked away and went over to shake the hand of Michael Eisner. She then segued into a conversation between Councilwoman Herrera and the head of the Crenshaw Clinic, Glen Kirsch.
“Hi there Margarita,” Glen said. “ How is Caustic? I read in Variety that you may get Salma Hayek for a project next year?”
She stuffed an olive tapenade topped wheat cracker into her mouth. “You read Variety? The head of a health clinic reads Variety? Ridiculous. Only in LA!”
He didn’t seem offended. “Of course I read it. Do you know before I ran the clinic I was a screenwriter? I think I have about six screenplays in my closet in West Hollywood. I would love to show you one sometime. I mean maybe when we all meet next week at the Biltmore.”
“I was just kidding,” Margarita answered. “ I’d love to read them. Why don’t you send them over to my assistant Jenny? We’re right on the Sony lot.”
“Did you hear that KCAL wants to do a story on Carmelita?” he asked. “Isn’t that fantastic! The clinic needs the publicity.”
“Why don’t you write a screenplay about a big phony social climber who uses your health clinic to seize political power and make a name for herself!” she said with drunken abandon.
“I don’t understand what you mean.” He said.
“I don’t either!” she said laughing and walked away.
On the day of the party at the Biltmore, Margarita Lopez Camilla had a million things to do. She could only think of her hair, her shoes, her nails and her aching shoulders. She needed to get a massage, but then she had to be at Caustic because the editor was working on a 7-minute short film about Carmelita and “La Flora” and Councilwoman Herrera was the narrator. Editorial changes were made at the last minute. Margarita told the Councilwoman that the politician who was the adopted mother of “La Flora” should be the star of the film. The poor housekeeper would now be demoted on-screen to supporting player.
That day Carmelita was her usual happy and calm self. She barely thought about her impending moment of fame on the stage that night.
Other domestic crises occupied her. The dog had shit on the leather sofa in the library. Carmelita was rushed to clean it up and spray disinfectant on the stain.
At 4 pm, Lopez-Camilla called from the 405 freeway and asked Carmelita to run out to the drugstore to buy a Lancome powder. At 5.30pm they all were supposed to leave to go downtown to the ceremony, and time was running out. Carmelita carried the cell phone with her and got into the car to drive over to buy the missing make up. As she pulled into the parking lot, the phone rang again and Lopez-Camilla said Carmelita would have to stop off at a shoe repair shop to retrieve Madam’s shoes and then to the dry cleaners to pick up the freshly cleaned gown. All of these orders came in the final hours. and Carmelita would have almost no time and preparation for her own night of honor.
A Little Bowl of Soup
As Margarita Lopez-Camilla dressed, Carmelita heated up some vegetable soup in the kitchen. Little Zoe was with Daddy in the den. The aroma of food soon filled the house. Carmelita eagerly poured herself a bowl and sat down to hurriedly ingest a few spoonfuls. It was the first time she had eaten all day.
Lopez-Camilla emerged in an exquisite black sequined gown, her red glossy lips contrasting with slicked back hair and a powdery face. She sniffed the air. “What are you doing Carmelita?”
“Huh?” asked Carmelita.
“I asked WHAT- ARE- YOU- DOING!” she yelled. “It smells awful!”
Jorge came into the kitchen. “What’s wrong? Why are you yelling at her Margarita?” he asked.
“She is cooking! My clothes, your clothes, are all going to smell like soup! How can you be so STUPID to cook food when we are all dressed and ready to go to an event at the Biltmore! My god, when people kiss me they will smell god-damned food!”
“I’m sorry ma’am. I haven’t eaten a thing. I run around all day, and I’m hungry.” She said.
Margarita grabbed a dish-towel off the counter and shoved it into Carmelita’s nose. “That’s what you smell like. A cook in a kitchen! That’s what we all smell like.”
A hundred people were gathered in a mini-ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel. Some came from the clinic, working class Latinos, wearing glitzy dresses with big shoulder pads and enormous sparkling jewelry. There were also political people: Councilwoman Herrera and her husband, the Mayor and a couple of news people from TV and the print world. The esteemed publicist Gretchen Ungar was there. She had been hired by Margarita to promote “La Flora” and orchestrate a campaign to promote the Caustic Films and it’s pet cause—health care for the poor.
Later on, Councilwoman Herrera spoke of La Flora and the exciting new concept of financing health care clinics in Los Angeles and eventually in every state. “We are simply too poor in funding to continue our wasteful ways of the past and La Flora returns to the working people the care they so rightly deserve.” This line drew great applause from the crowd.
Margarita Lopez-Camilla addressed the audience. “My dear little friend Carmelita whose idea has now founded a movement to be led by the great Councilwoman Hilde Herrera.” She then introduced the short film with its quick cuts of Ciudad Sana. The audience viewed images of poor men and women of Columbia entering a health clinic, getting inoculated, filling prescriptions and smiling. A few remarked uncharitably that it looked like a propaganda piece.
At the end of the evening, Carmelita went to the rest room and emerged in a back hall behind the ballroom. Glen Kirsch ran up to her and kissed her. “You look beautiful tonight. You really deserve this honor. Thank you for what you’ve done.”
“Oh, Glen. My pleasure. I cannot take all the credit. You, the clinic and Ms. Herrera and Margarita; you all share in this honor,” she said.
“Did you like the film?” he asked.
“Oh, very much,” she answered. “Why do you ask?”
“I just thought they would talk more about you. I think most of it was about the Councilwoman,” he said. Glen patted Carmelita on the shoulder and walked back into the ballroom.
He went straight over to Margarita, sitting on the edge of the stage and smiling wearily into space.
“I just spoke to Carmelita”, he said. “I hope I’m not going to upset you. But I think she thought she should have been the star and that you didn’t feature enough of her in the movie. That’s what she thinks.”
Lopez-Camilla froze up. Her smile and tightly pressed lips went into defense mode. “Oh, I think she’s tired. She’s done so much for us. I wouldn’t worry about it. Where is she by the way?”
“I saw her back near the janitor’s area or the rest room,” he said.
Lopez-Camilla, poisoned with Glen’s indictment, went looking for Carmelita. The guests were now leaving, and Councilwoman Herrera stopped by to say good night. “I’m leaving Glen. Thank you for everything. Where’s my little Carmelita? I want to see her before I leave?” she said.
Glen answered, “She’s with Margarita back there.” Lopez-Camilla was indeed sighted talking to Carmelita. As Ms. Herrera drew closer she could sense unpleasantness.
Lopez Camilla yelled at Carmelita. “We’ll discuss it later! You’re not going to ruin my evening. I know what Glen told me so don’t lie to me!” Margarita grabbed Carmelita’s ear and pulled her against the cinder block wall.
“You’re hurting me! I don’t know what you’re talking about! Stop it!” Margarita maintained her sharp nailed hold on Carmelita’s lobe. In desperation to free herself, Carmelita took her rigid and powerful right hand and slapped Margarita across the face.
Margarita looked stunned and dropped her hand.
“May the Lord forgive me and have mercy on you. You are a fucking bitch. You will not treat me this way again,” said Carmelita. The shaken socialite almost lost her balance in the assault. Carmelita hit and ran out of the ballroom. The Councilwoman arrived just as the incident ended.
“What’s going on? Are you all right Margarita?” asked the Councilwoman.
“Yes, yes. It’s OK.” Margarita said. “I guess if you don’t make a film they like then you get a slap in the face. That’s how friends in Hollywood repay you. Well, we know what we’ve done for her and this is her moment of fame so I guess she feels entitled.”
Ms. Herrera took Margarita’s hand. “Oh, I’m sorry Margarita. Let’s talk in the morning. I spoke to David Geffen last night and he is very interested in La Flora. Let’s talk tomorrow.”