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In a new podcast, Boston’s Brazilian house cleaners share stories ‘swept under the rug’

Heloiza Barbosa in the studio to record a recent episode of the "Faxina" podcast.
Heloiza Barbosa in the studio to record a recent episode of the “Faxina” podcast.Courtesy Faxina Podcast

In the 1990s, Brazil native Heloiza Barbosa was working toward her doctorate in education at Boston University when she took a job as a housekeeper on Martha’s Vineyard. One evening, her employer offered extra hours working a special event. Barbosa arrived to find the guest of honor was Salman Rushdie. “I read his work!” Barbosa told the owner. “Shhhh! Don’t Speak! Work!” was the response. In March 2020, this was the first of many stories featured on the “Faxina” podcast. The show, created and hosted by Barbosa, is focused on the experiences of Boston-area Brazilian house cleaners. Reached via phone at her home in Brookline, Barbosa spoke about the podcast’s origins and its multilingual reach.

Q. What motivated you to start a podcast?

A. About two years ago I was thinking about publishing a collection of short stories I was writing in Portuguese. Beyond the book, I intended to interview a former professor of mine who was a victim of torture during Brazil’s military dictatorship [1964-85]. So when I went to see her in my hometown of Belém, I began to chat with anyone in the street out of a sense of nostalgia. I was shocked by how unaware people were of Brazil’s recent history, especially young people. The youth did not even believe there was ever a military dictatorship. That helped in the election of [Jair] Bolsonaro, a man who once paid homage to a torturer from the military era in the halls of [Brazil’s] congress.

When Bolsonaro was elected I moved away from the book idea. Not everyone in Brazil has access to them; they’re very expensive there. So that’s when I decided to do a podcast because it’s a format with greater reach in Brazil. While initially it was going to be about life under the dictatorship, a conversation with a friend changed that. She’s a house cleaner [the Brazilian Portuguese word for house cleaning as a service is “faxina”], and after hearing her story, I thought: “My God! People need to hear this.” That was when I realized how many great stories there were under my nose. That was how “Faxina” was born, with the goal of telling people stories previously swept under the rug.

Q. What do you think kept these stories hidden before?

A. The reasons vary but often mirror people’s motives for leaving Brazil. Many left to escape poverty. Others fled from domestic violence. Others from homophobia because Brazil is an extremely homophobic and racist country. So, recording these stories truly means bringing them out of the shadows.

When we began making “Faxina,” I had no idea what it would become. I thought we’d only interview people about what it’s like working in the US. But as I heard more stories, I realized that we are sitting on a treasure trove of stories of resilience, stories about overcoming adversity and that give people back some aspect of their humanity. It’s also, sort of a way to connect ourselves with Brazil’s history and to reclaim a little bit of that history.

Q. Is there anything else you are hoping to accomplish with “Faxina”? Are you looking to include perhaps non-Portuguese-speaking audiences?

A. We are actually looking to expand to other Portuguese-speaking populations that aren’t Brazilian. It’s not just Brazilians here but there are also European Portuguese, Angolans, Mozambicans, and Caboverdians. We are looking to branch out to include these groups. To tell their stories, too.

In terms of English speakers, we are actually the only podcast out there that is done in both Portuguese and English. We have it subtitled on YouTube so that it’s not just for Americans but even people learning English can follow along by reading the captions.

“Faxina” is available on Apple Podcasts. Find a subtitled version at www.youtube.com.

Interview was translated from Portuguese and edited for clarity.

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