April 16, 2019


Immigrants Make Exodus, Then Find Struggle And New Start In Passover Cleaning (Ari Feldman, April 16, 2019, tHE fORWARD)

For twenty years, two very different communities have been meeting on the corner of Marcy and Division avenues in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Ultra-Orthodox Jews go there to find cleaning ladies; Latina immigrants to find work.

Gloria Puma, 35, is one of the latter, an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador. One morning almost exactly four years ago, her cousin, a cleaner in ultra-Orthodox homes, brought her to "la esquina" -- the corner.

After three hours, a woman approached Puma and offered her $11 an hour for seven hours of cleaning to help her family prepare for Pesach, or Passover, the Jewish festival that commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from enslavement in Egypt. The first day, she scrubbed the kitchen floor by hand, from her knees. The next, the woman asked her to clean her apartment's windows from the outside. Puma had to crouch in the window grate installed to keep children from falling out.

"I was really scared, because it wasn't a low house, it was on the seventh floor," Puma said.

Looking back, Puma said she feels the job she did that day was poorly paid, humiliating and even dangerous. Such conditions are the reasons why Latino domestic workers in Orthodox communities in New Jersey and New York are organizing into groups that are a bit like unions. They're educating one another and their employers about their rights, and seeking respect and the pay they deserve. The weeks leading up to the holiday shine a light on the importance of these groups, which have extracted concessions from the communities that employ them.

Cleaning for Passover, which starts Friday night, is commanded by Jewish law, and it can be a big, hard job. The ancient Israelites were in such a rush to leave Egypt that they couldn't wait for their bread to rise. Observant Jews refrain from leaven for eight days and eat cracker-like matzo instead. Some, including the ultra-Orthodox, also banish it from their lives completely by doing a spring cleaning on steroids.

Houses and apartments must be cleaned room by room, from corner to corner. Domestic workers are frequently asked to scrub tile grout, the gaps between floor boards and corners with a toothbrush, on their knees. Mattresses are flipped and bed frames are scrubbed down; closets and drawers are emptied for the same treatment. Bathrooms may get bleached from the floor tiles all the way up the walls. Refrigerators are emptied out; ovens are cleaned to the heating element.

This tends to be women's work. To do it right, and to save their sanity, many of those women hire domestic help like Puma.

Posted by at April 16, 2019 3:59 AM