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Janitor Power 

The new womens’ movement

Wednesday, Apr 26 2000
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Daisy Cabrera was one of the thousands of janitors who won more money this week from some of America’s wealthiest building owners. It was her latest triumph, and one she came upon almost by accident.

Just a few years ago, the Salvadoran-born Cabrera, mother of three, was far out of touch with the laws and ways of L.A.’s political system. Like many traditional Latino women from Mexico and Central America who immigrate to this country, the 26-year-old South-Central resident was more in tune with house chores than with City Hall.

But ironically, Cabrera said, her job as a janitor taught her much more than the correct use of bathroom solvents: She became a community activist, and joined a movement that garnered nationwide attention and almost brought the city to its knees.

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“Before, I didn’t know who my councilman was or who the mayor was,” said Cabrera, celebrating her wage increase of 70 cents an hour with thousands of other members of the Service Employees International Union for Justice for Janitors.

The three-week strike brought the local SEIU into the national limelight. It showed that the once-ignored janitors — mostly made up of immigrant women — are a social and political force to be reckoned with.

More than half the SEIU janitors are women from Mexico and Central America, union spokeswoman Blanca Gallegos said. Many are single mothers; for some, it is their first job.

This phenomenon led Senator Ted Kennedy, who addressed a rally earlier this month, to remark that the janitors’ strike was not only a labor movement, but a “women’s movement.” City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who was arrested during one of the marches, said that the strike was about much more than bringing fairer wages to the janitors. Goldberg said the janitors are now a political force in their own right, even more so than soccer moms. “Not to disparage soccer moms,” she said, “but they [the women janitors] will get involved in their schools and make sure that their neighborhoods are safe.”

The women janitors display a unique brand of grassroots feminism in a community traditionally dominated by men, said state Assembly Speaker Emeritus Antonio Villaraigosa. The janitors — the women in particular — show a true-grit ä determination in the way they sustain their families on near-minimum wages, much as immigrants from the old world have before them.

Brought up in East Los Angeles by a single mother, Villaraigosa said that he sympathizes with the women janitors: “They are just like my mother. They have an incredible fighting spirit.”

For Maria Quintanilla, a 37-year-old, soft-spoken janitor and mother of two sons, fighting has been a way of life. She left war-torn El Salvador 20 years ago in search of a better life. Alone and inexperienced, she illegally crossed three borders and was imprisoned in a Texas INS detention center before she reached Los Angeles. Once here, she held many factory jobs before she picked up a mop and became a janitor in one of L.A.’s high rises.

There, during long nights of emptying wastebaskets and vacuuming carpets, she met a young man from El Salvador who would become her husband. They had two children before divorcing seven years ago.

Quintanilla has labored for 15 years in the same Hope Street high-rise for contracting company One Source. She wanted to become a teacher’s assistant and took classes at UCLA extension on the weekends, but hasn’t been able to amass the necessary credits. “Janitorial work is not what I wanted to do, but I have managed to sustain my children,” said Quintanilla, who lives in Koreatown. “I tell my children that there is no reason to be ashamed of being a janitor. It is not a shameful trade like stealing or prostitution.”

For Rosa Ayala, a 56-year-old native of El Salvador who cleans office buildings for ABM, being a union janitor has been a kind of calling, she said. She has been with SEIU for 11 years and has learned along the way to become politically active in her community.

Like Quintanilla and Cabrera, Ayala helps the SEIU to gather signatures or votes for elected officials it believes will help it in its cause. This also helps them learn the political ropes they will need to assure that politicians will help them in matters such as immigration and other community issues.

Latinas are known for being good homemakers and dedicated to their families, said Ayala, who is a mother of two and supports her disabled husband. But, she added, they can also be like the Adelitas, the women soldiers who fought during the Mexican Revolution.

“We Latinas have always been seen as submissive women,” Ayala said. “Not anymore.”

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