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The Cleaning Lady

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Only here can you find a San Diego artist who dresses up as a “cleaning lady” to force a conversation about immigrant women.

Show transcript

Think about this for a second: How often do you stop to have a conversation or even to say hello to the people who clean your home or office?

Some people do make an effort to connect and say hi.

But a lot of folks avoid eye contact and say nothing at all.

The interaction can feel awkward. Because in those moments, privilege, power and class are right there on display.

Claudia Cleaning Second Clip 1 [05:18 - 5:27]
Claudia: It's uncomfortable to look at ….. To be aware of somebody else cleaning your, your dirt.

That’s Claudia Cano. She’s all about making people feel uncomfortable.

She’s a performance artist who created an alter ego -- a cleaning lady named Rosa Hernandez.

Rosa fits all the stereotypes - she’s Latina, speaks only Spanish and wears a light pink maid’s uniform with a white apron. She’s rarely seen without a broom or a rag.

And instead of cleaning homes or offices, Rosa cleans public parks, art galleries and libraries.

She’s literally swept a pier in Oceanside, mopped an art gallery in Los Angeles and cleaned a picnic area at a park at the border fence.

Claudia invented Rosa after she had a hard time transitioning from her life in Mexico to life in the U.S. She eventually found her way here as a contemporary artist with a graduate degree in fine arts. But she thinks too many Latina immigrants like her are too often ending up as childcare providers or housekeepers. Rosa is Claudia’s way of tackling that thorny topic.

Claudia hopes Rosa makes people stop and think about their relationship with the women they pay to clean up after them. She wants people to consider these women’s lives and personal struggles -- even if just for a minute.

I’m Alan Lilienthal, and you’re listening to Only Here, a KPBS podcast about the place where San Diego and Tijuana meet.

Today, KPBS podcast producer Kinsee Morlan has a story about one artist’s effort to bring attention to the lives of thousands of immigrant women cleaning homes here in the U.S., plus the artist’s own search for a real-life identity along the way.

Only here can you find an artist who dresses up as a “cleaning lady” to create a conversation.

More after the break.

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With her cleaning lady alter ego, San Diego artist Claudia Cano wants to start a conversation about racial and gender disparities experienced by Latina domestic workers in California. The maid costume she wears when she performs as Rosa -- she sees it as a visual symbol of oppression and sexism. Here’s KPBS’ Kinsee Morlan with the story.

When Claudia Cano puts on her maid uniform and heads out to perform in public places, she becomes Rosa Hernandez.

Seriously, for the duration of her performance, she speaks only spanish, keeps her head down and focuses only on cleaning up any messes she comes across.

When she’s performing as Rosa outdoors, it’s more of a spectacle because she’s just soooo out of place. Some people get curious and ask her questions, but she refuses to break character. She maintains her persona as a very submissive cleaner who’s too busy cleaning to talk.

Most people who see her are unaware that Rosa isn’t a real quote on quote ‘cleaning lady.’

Rosa is actually a work of art.

[nat sounds from Embarcadero performance]?

At a recent performance at the embarcadero in downtown San Diego, Claudia, performing as Rosa, went to work sweeping a stretch of sidewalk that winds alongside the San Diego Bay.

Two teenagers on their iphones mechanically lifted their feet when Rosa signaled that she wanted to sweep under the bench they were sitting on.

Claudia Reaction Tape Clip TK (04:50 - 5:08)
Did you think that that was strange to have a lady sweeping up here? I just like accepted. I was like, I like, like she's doing something good. Like okay. Yeah, exactly. And the outfit helped. I was like, okay, sweet. Exactly.

Like the teens, some people were pretty baffled by Rosa’s presence.

Claudia Reaction Tape Clip TK (06:52 - 7:26)
I was just wondering if I could get your thoughts on the cleaning lady right there. I have no, I was just looking at her. I have no idea who she is and what she's doing. What do you think? Say what is your best guess? Well she, I really, I'm gobsmacked. I really don't know. I was going to go ask them at first I thought she might be connected to the ambulance, but I don't really know if she is. She want people to come up and ask her if she's a maid. I don't know. I don't know. I'm so sorry.

When Rosa performs in galleries, it’s a little less of a spectacle. People often think she’s an actual janitorial employee.

And that’s key, actually, since she uses her art project as a way to examine the social interactions between a Latina immigrant and a mainly white audience.

Sometimes the way people treat Rosa can be pretty terrible.

At a performance at a museum in Los Angeles, Rosa told a woman to be careful of the wet floors. She said it in Spanish and the woman yelled at her, saying she didn’t understand what Rosa was saying and that she should learn how to speak English and get out of the way.

And that was just one of the negative reactions that night.

Claudia Cleaning Lady First (04:27)
Claudia: at the same performance there were women complaining at the front desk. Why was that lady mopping the floor? It was a hazard in someone was going to cover next event. So yeah, it's, it's, uh, the, those moments that I'm, I'm waiting to trigger the real character of the people and they're like very few instances. But for me that's gratifying.

[nat sounds from Embarcadero performance]?

Back at Rosa’s recent appearance along the bay, most people actually straight-up ignored or just didn’t notice her.

Claudia Reaction Tape Clip TK (12:48 - 12:53)
there's people cleaning up all the time and you just, they're kind of part of this, the environment in some ways,

Lots of people walked right past her without saying a word. Claudia says that’s what happens at most Rosa performances -- she says people even go out of their way to avoid her.

But she knows they see her. And she hopes her presence makes them think, even just for a minute or two, about the role of Latina immigrant women.

Music bump

Listen, if your skin crawls a little when you think about an artist using a cleaning woman character in her work, you’re not alone. There’s just something inherently icky about it. It feels a little classist, or even racist.

But Claudia, a latina immigrant herself, embraces that ickiness. That feeling is exactly one of the things she wants to evoke with her public performances as Rosa.

Claudia sees her art as a way to advocate for latina immigrant women who work as cleaners. She gets to give them a voice and speak directly to the art world -- which is often very white and affluent.

Claudia sees Rosa as a way of standing up for women who clean for a living. She marched as Rosa in the historic Women’s March in downtown San Diego a few years back. She wanted immigrant women and the work they often do to be seen and considered.

She also used Rosa for her thesis at San Diego State University and did a ton of research about racial disparities and how families in wealthy nations rely on women from poor nations to do their dirty domestic work.

She says Rosa’s role is to elevate the cleaning lady, a person a lot of people habitually ignore.

Claudia Cleaning Second Clip 2 [05:27 - 5:48]
You know, I have a, I have a slogan that I, I've actually, it's a painting that I had over there that print that says “limpiar tu mierda”, you know, it's uncomfortable to see that somebody else is cleaning what you can't, what you don't want to clean. And it's, it's a, it's a position of privilege.

A few woke folks who’ve crossed Rosa’s path during a performance have thanked her for her work. They see someone picking up dirt and trash and they appreciate it.

But sometimes, Claudia says racism rears its head.

Claudia Cleaning Second Clip 3 [02:21 - 3:08]
Edit down…... Some of the reactions of the most hurtful reactions are the ones that I remember and I write about them.

And Claudia talks about those reactions to Rosa, too. She’s given talks to big crowds in San Diego.

Creativemornings video audio clip

And in those talks, she’s really discussing all the challenges faced by lots of immigrant women cleaning Americans’ homes.

Music bump

The relationship between families and the women who clean up after them is both intimate and awkward.

When it’s an immigrant woman cleaning a home here in the U.S., often the two sides don’t speak the same language. Any communication at all is difficult. The inability to connect with clients leaves lots of women who clean homes feeling isolated and powerless.

In creating Rosa, Claudia interviewed many immigrant women who clean homes in San Diego. She says most won’t complain at all about their jobs. They say they’re grateful and they make good money -- more money than they could make if they didn’t immigrate to the United States.

But Claudia is willing to do the complaining for them. She says most of them work waaaay too much -- six or seven days a week, often more than eight hours a day. And the job is physical -- hard on their bodies.

Most don’t get paid sick and vacation days or any other benefits. They’re often self employed or paid illegally under the table depending on their immigration status. And their immigration status is often held over their heads, used as a tool to pay them less or take advantage of them in other ways.

But Claudia says one of the biggest challenges is the alienation. She says she’s heard from many of the women about the disconnect between them and many of their clients. Sometimes, the relationship is great. But more commonly, it’s nonexistent.

She hopes Rosa might inspire people to make more of an effort to get to know the people who clean up their messes.

Claudia Cleaning Second Clip 4 [13:49 - 14:37]
Do you know their name? It's not only, you know, the service that maintenance people provide at home. They are also, as you said, you're not in your job. What are their names? Just their simple question, name, last name, you know, it makes a big difference to them.

[music bump]

Time for a quick break. When we come back, how Rosa was born.

Plus, Kinsee talks to an actual immigrant woman who cleans houses in San Diego.
Hear what she has to say about her experiences when we come back.

Midroll Ad

Artist Claudia Cano had a hard time adjusting to life in the U.S. As an immigrant from Mexico, she’s struggled to find her place here in San Diego. But her alter ego Rosa has helped. Here’s Kinsee again.

When I went to interview Claudia at her home, I got a little lost.

At first, I pulled into the wrong driveway where a man in an american flag vest and an american flag cowboy hat with an american flag hanging above his garage glared at me.

Claudia lives in a quiet, well-off private community in the hills of La Jolla. I eventually figured out that Claudia lives right next door to the patriotic man.

When I got inside, I told Claudia how I initially thought I must be in the wrong place. It just didn’t feel like the kind of neighborhood where a contemporary Latina artist doing the kind of work she’s doing would live.

Claudia Cleaning First Clip 5 [02:14 - 2:17]
Claudia: yeah, that's how I feel all the time.

In many ways, Claudia has felt out of place since she first moved to the United States nearly two decades ago.

Her first job here was as a nanny. She watched a family’s kids and cleaned up after them, too.

It was during that job that she first took note of the very different relationship between domestic workers and their bosses in the U.S. versus in Mexico.

In Mexico, she says, the relationship between the women who clean homes and watch children tends to be closer. They’re treated more like family than employees.
Clauda Cleaning Second Clip 7 [00:48 - 1:23]
Claudia: they play an intimate role in the family. They are not the difference between this culture and Mexico. In Mexico, they are not just in the back, the, they watch TV with you, they put you to bed. They. There's an emotional connection. It's a weird but doesn’t exist here. We don't know where they live, how their conditions are. They just come clean and leave. See, that's a big difference.

It’s a complex connection that was recently explored in the Netflix film “Roma.” The movie is a cinematic meditation on the life of an indigenous nanny living with a middle class family in Mexico City.

Clip 8 - from Roma (I suggest the part where she’s tucking kids in and saying goodnight, something that communicates closeness, it’s all in Spanish): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BS27ngZtxg

Claudia eventually married an American man and moved with her kids from a previous marriage permanently to the U.S.

She had built a solid career in media in Mexico. But her journalism skills didn’t transfer over to the U.S. very well. She says she still struggles with her English, and she had a hard time finding a job here.
Claudia Cleaning First Clip 9 [08:19 - 8:21]
so i gave up a lot of my personal professional life
Claudia Cleaning Fi rst Clip 10 [08:11 - 9:02]
But when I moved here, the kids joined school. I help them to adapt. They were partially a fluent in English because they were go ing to a bilingual school. Everybody, you know, it's um, so anyways, everybody was getting used to. But like where do I go? What do I do?
Claudia Cleaning First Clip 11 [06:47 - 6:50]
I don't have a job, couldn't find a job.

She started looking for her new place in the world. In a new country where she knew no one. But she couldn’t find it.

She got a job as a receptionist at a museum in San Diego, but she knew she was capable of more. So she went back to school and eventually graduated with her Masters in Fine Arts from San Diego State University.

Rosa was born during her time at SDSU.

It began as a photography project. Inspired by Cindy Sherman -- the famed photographer known for her series of self-portraits dressed up as various characters -- Claudia started taking photos of herself as various characters she was developing.

Claudia initially had several alter egos, not just Rosa. She tried performing as a wealthy mexican women, but axed it after some time. She says she just couldn’t connect to the character.

Then she experimented with being a chef. But she eventually cut that character, too. She thought about being a gardener or a nanny.

For every character she tried on, she did intense real-world research. She interviewed women who were like the character she wanted to play.

But she ended up falling in love with Rosa. Most of the women Claudia interviewed for the character were mothers working hard to support their children. As a mother of three, Claudia could relate to that. She admired the women’s dedication to their kids.

Clauda Cleaning Second Clip 11_5 [01:15 - 1:39]
Claudia: So for me, there's an intimate connection with that woman that does exist and it's here and she's providing for her children. I've known many of them that they left the country, not only Mexico, but Guatamala, El Salvador, and they don't see their kids. They are down there in, they're just sending money.
[47:08 -47:42 ] Claudia: but the sacrifices that they do, those women, because they, some of them, they rent small rooms so they can build their houses in their own countries or they can pay for their kid's college or they get, there's a lot of sacrifice and in that way there's a connection because I'm a mother, you're a mother, so I connect with that. I know what it is to, you know, even your meal to get up and take care of all of those things. So there's a, there's more than most of the women that I have had conversations with or relationships with are mothers.

Rosa became Claudia’s main focus, but at first she was just shooting still photographs of the character.

She slowly began experimenting with public performances with Rosa.

Then, one experience at the Friendship Park, the park where the fence runs into the ocean at the San Diego-Tijuana border, convinced her that doing public performances as Rosa would be her thing.

Clauda Cleaning First Clip 12 [23:13 - 24:35]
Claudia: And the one that is the most important in that shift, my, my career was when I went to the friendship park. We went, I took Rosa and I took the camera. Rosa, she was with the broom. And um, I don't know if you're aware that you have to work, you have to have a passport or a valid id in order for you to be there. And now it's worse than ever. But um, I went when the park was close so we had to walk all the way. I left my cell phon when I told my husband I'm, I'm going there if you don't hear from me, find me. So anyways, uh, Rosa started sweeping the park and um, you know, um, how do you see, I forgot, la migra... Immigration. They started to appear in. All of a sudden I had five officers asking Rosa. They were curious to know what she was doing. She was sweeping just the, there's a little sidewalk, very close to the fense and I need to take more photos of Rosa so it takes time. And um, I had a group of officers, they were comfortable enough to know that it was art.
Clauda Cleaning First Clip 13 [25:00 - 25:41]
Claudia: when they all left, there was one that came back from the group because I wanted to pose. I wanted them to pose with roadside and of course they, I scare them by saying that. So they, like now we have to go. And one of them came back and said in Spanish, my mom has been cleaning houses for a living and now she's legal. So to me that was my, my, how can I put it? The, the light went off, went on and I decided that, you know, I should do performances, i should not stay with, stills…

That was in 2013. Rosa has been alive now for 6 years and in that time has earned Claudia a glowing review by an art critic for the Los Angeles Times, several exhibitions in and around San Diego and a decent grant that allowed her to develop Rosa through several provocative public performances in Oceanside.

Claudia does painting, photography and other mixed-media work, too, but Rosa has been the thing that people have been paying the most attention to.

Claudia continues to do interviews with real-life cleaning ladies in the region. She exchanges cleaning rags with them, and those rags have been shown in a few of her exhibitions. She also recently hooked up with a cleaning lady in Tijuana who’s organizing workers in an effort to get better pay and other benefits.

Claudia says Rosa and all the real women the character is based on have taught her a lot.

Mostly, she says Rosa has given her purpose and a place in this country. She says Rosa has helped her develop a real-world identity of her own as a Latina artist doing work people care about.

Claudia Cleaning Second Clip 14 [31:17 - 32:16]
Claudia: I will always be seen as a brown woman, Latina. Right. But when I become Rosa, that is empowerment to me, they can do the, the position is completely different. So, um, one time in the recent lecture that I did, someone asks, have you changed something from Rosa? It's all the way around. Rosa has changed me. Rosa has given me the opportunity to place myself in the art world, for instance, who had thought that a cleaning lady was going to be interviewed. Right?

She says Rosa has also taught her to be braver in the face of racism.

Claudia Cleaning Second Clip 15 [33:24 - 34:27]
Claudia: That's why, again, you know, the characters so powerful for me since I m ock in a way what happens and You know it's ironical. And when I, uh, I've been asked by people, what do you do? I'm a performance artist. And what is it that you do? I have an alter ego and she's a cleaning lady. People laugh and that's when it's like, oh, I got, you know, like there is a level of racism there still. So to me, like it doesn't hurt and see what it means. It's so ironic. It doesn't hurt me anymore. It used to be before Rosa existed, it was painful when I was discriminated against or when my kids were placed in the like less you know, in, in a group that were less advanced or when yo u know, you, you know what I mean? It's like all those little moments when having an accent or a skin color means something else. Now I can, I can do something with it.
Claudia Cleaning Second Clip 16 [31:17 - 32:16]
….just the idea of being present when someone does a racist comments and being able to listen to them and talk to an audience about what happens and it's real, you know, like, or all of those things are, are great for me.
Claudia Cleaning Second Clip 17 [32:58 - 33:03]
claudia: So that has taught me to be a better person. Being Rosa. Yeah. To be more compelling.
Claudia Cleaning Second Clip 18 [48:58 - 49:40]
Claudia: the, the idea of creating Rosa was trying to draw attention to the invisible women that exists to the invisible artists also that exist. And by having this interview, it makes me very happy to think that the, there's a, there's a, an eye there's an ear andr, there is an audience and there is hope of continue performing, continue working. Um, my, that's pretty much it. Um, I feel lucky. Rosa has made me feel lucky.

[Music bump]

After talking to Claudia, I wanted to check in with a real-world Rosa. So I asked the woman who cleans my house, Blanca Stovel, if she’d talked to me on tape.

And trust me, before you judge me, just know that I’m not rich. The way I convinced my husband to spend money on a house cleaner was by telling him to view it as cheaper than marriage counseling. We’re just happier people when we’re not fighting about chores all the time. And as two fulltime working parents with two very active young boys, the house cleaning stuff was really becoming a problem.

But honestly, I’m still not entirely comfortable with this whole situation. I was a live-in nanny once and it was weird and awkward to live with the people you work for and clean up after. The power dynamic is just strange, and you can’t help but feel less than the people who hold that kind of power over you.

Anyway, back to Blanca. She doesn’t speak much English, but she understands a lot of it. Her daughter Rosalie stepped in to help translate.

Blanca and Rosalie Clip 19 [00:40 - 1:19]
Rosalie: What’s your name and how many years have you worked (in Spanish)?
Blanca: Me amo Blanca y trabajar aquí en San Diego por vente cinco anos. First babysitting, them cleaning houses….
I work every day. Every day. Sunday to sunday. Seven days a week.
Kinsee: Really? Wow.

Clearly, Blanca works waaaaaaay too much - she says she works seven days a week, Sunday through Sunday. But she doesn’t complain about it. She says she loves her job.

She says one of the biggest complaints she does hear a lot from her friends who clean homes is how they never have conversations with clients. They jsut can’t seem to make connections.

But Blanca -- she’s unique. Even though she doesn’t speak a lot of English, she says she forces her clients to talk to her. She works hard to build real relationships with them.

Blanca and Rosalie Clip 20 [3:07 - ?]
Yes, all the time i have relationships with my clients….

Blanca says she has close relationships with every single one of her clients.

And as one of her clients, I can tell you that’s true.

Blanca and Rosalie have become family friends. We’ve eaten homemade tamales at their house. Blanca’s husband Elton taught both my kids how to swim at the pool at her home. Rosalie has watched our cat for us. We’ve run into them at birthday parties and were invited to Rosalie’s Quinceanera.

Blanca, by the way, has a home with a pool that’s much, much nicer than mine and many of her clients. Her hard work has paid off over the years.

Blanca says for the clients who refuse to talk to her. Or the ones who treat her like a servant and bark demands at her, she simply quits.

Blanca and Rosalie Clip 21 [21:37 - 22:33]
They think we’re robots….we’re not important to them...i worked for a man in scripps ranch who worked for the chargers and he wouldn’t talk to me at all…

Blanca says she just won’t work for people who aren’t friendly anymore. She says it’s not worth her time, or the money.

She says she just wishes her friends who clean houses didn’t have to put up with being ignored or treated badly.

I told her about Claudia and Rosa and how the project was meant to make people consider the lives and experiences of immigrant women like her and her friends.

Blanca says she likes the project.

Blanca and Rosalie Clip 22 [1125 - 11:38]
Sample som spanish from Blanca, then go to Rosa in English: She thinks it's nice that she's doing that that way a lot more people know our stories instead of just a lady who cleans the house.

Next episode teaser

Next time on the podcast….a look at a language that’s a hybrid of Spanish and English

Spanglish clip

Only here can you find a musician and composer who’s fallen in love with the sound of Spanglish.

Show credits

Most of the music you heard in today’s episode was by Claudia Cano’s son, Nacho Cano. When he’s making music, he goes by Harmless, and you can hear more of his music at yosoyharmless.com. Harmless’ new EP is out and it’s called “A Donde Te Vas.” You can hear it on Spotify.

Only Here is a KPBS podcast hosted by me Alan Lilienthal. It was written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the technical producer. Lisa Morrissette is operations manager and John Decker is the director of programming. Do us a favor, and, if you like the show, tell your friends and family to subscribe. Word of mouth is still the best way for people to find out about new podcasts. Thanks.

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Only Here

"Only Here" is a KPBS podcast about art, culture and life at the Western Hemisphere's busiest border crossing. Host Alan Lilienthal and producer Kinsee Morlan tell stories that could only come from a border town.