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

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Mum saves $770 by shunning cleaners and scrubbing her grimy grouting with a $22 gel from Bunnings

Mum saves $770 by scrubbing her grimy kitchen grouting with a $22 ‘miracle’ gel instead of hiring cleaners

  • A mother restored her grouting to perfect condition with $22 gel from Bunnings
  • She bought ‘Long Life Grout Cleaner’ after cleaners quoted $792 for the job
  • The liquid lifted stains in seconds when she scrubbed it with a brush
  • The mum said she couldn’t believe why she hadn’t tried the cleaner ‘years ago’

A mother who restored her grime-ridden grouting to perfect condition with a $22 gel from Bunnings has saved $770 by shunning cleaners and doing the job herself.

After professionals quoted $792 to clean the tiled floor of her Queensland home, the mum bought a two-litre bottle of ‘Long Life Grout Cleaner’ and got to work with a scrubbing brush. 

Photos posted in a Facebook cleaning group show the result of her efforts, with just a few seconds of scrubbing lifting the blackened dirt caked into the grouting between each tile.

‘Just finished four tiles and I cannot believe I didn’t do this years ago,’ she wrote in the caption. 

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Before: The grime-ridden grouting on the floor of a mother's Queensland home

After: The grouting after a few seconds of scrubbing with a $22 gel from Bunnings

A mother restored the grime-ridden grouting on the floor of her Queensland home (left) to perfect condition (right) with a $22 gel from Bunnings

She transformed her tiles with Long Life Grout Cleaner (pictured) from the hardware giant

She transformed her tiles with Long Life Grout Cleaner (pictured) from the hardware giant

The photos have drawn dozens of delighted responses since they were shared late on Sunday, with comments including ‘wow’, ‘great job’ and ‘looks fantastic’. 

‘You can definitely see the difference, even the tiles look brighter,’ one woman said.

A second who tried the gel on her own tiles confirmed it ‘always leaves them looking brand new’ and recommended covering freshly cleaned grouting with a sealant to prevent further stains.

‘I used this on the tiles in my laundry. It is brilliant. I couldn’t believe the difference afterwards,’ said a third. 

And it’s not the only affordable product capable of transforming grouting from grimy to gleaming in an instant.

Photos posted in a Facebook cleaning group show the result of her efforts, with just a few seconds of scrubbing lifting the blackened dirt caked into the grouting between each tile

Photos posted in a Facebook cleaning group show the result of her efforts, with just a few seconds of scrubbing lifting the blackened dirt caked into the grouting between each tile

Earlier in September, American actress Savannah Meyer posted a TikTok video which begins with a close-up of a tiled floor with grubby black stains running along the grouting.

The 28-year-old from Utah then pours a drop of Clorox toilet bowl cleaner onto the tiles, leaves it to soak for five minutes and scrubs it gently with a brush.

Dark discolouration lifts off easily, leaving the strips between each tile sparkling white.

‘Should I do my whole kitchen?’ Ms Meyer asked in the caption.

And many felt that she should.

‘Wow what a difference. I desperately need to do this in my kitchen but there are way too many tiles!’ one woman said.  

Before: American actress Savannah Meyer poured a drop of Clorox toilet bowl cleaner onto the grimy grouting of her kitchen floor

After: A quick scrub restored it to a sparkling white fish in seconds

American actress Savannah Meyer restored the grimy

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California house cleaners, nannies, caregivers could get new workplace protections

Anabel Garcia of Santa Rosa has cleaned houses for 19 years. She’s been instructed to use harsh chemicals that impacted her vision and breathing. She’s been hired through insurance companies after California wildfires to clean houses covered in ash, while smoke hung heavy in the air. With no protective gear, she had trouble breathing and developed allergies. She’s cleaned homes where she was not allowed to use the bathroom. Now she’s cleaning homes during a pandemic, uncertain if any of her clients might be carrying the coronavirus.

As she supports two children, a father-in-law and a husband diagnosed with cancer, Garcia feels forced to accept whatever conditions her employers impose.

California occupational law does not protect her and other domestic workers. House cleaners, nannies, caregivers and others who work inside private homes are not covered by state requirements to provide safe working environments.

They could get new workplace protections from the state with SB1257, the Health and Safety for All Workers Act, which the Legislature passed last month. It’s awaiting a signature by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has not yet announced his stance, according to his office.

The act would place domestic workers under the purview of Cal/OSHA, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, starting Jan. 1, 2022. Before then, it would require convening an advisory committee of both workers and employers to develop regulations. It would allow for state inspections of workplaces, and state investigations in response to complaints.

“Our members are not asking for anything special — just the same protections that the majority of California workers have under OSHA,” said Kimberly Alvarenga, director of the California Domestic Workers Coalition. “The heart and soul of the bill is to prevent hazards in the workplace and give dignity.”

While there was no formal opposition to the bill, which passed with bipartisan support, some Californians said they felt private homes should not be subject to the same types of workplace inspections as offices and factories.

Over 300,000 Californians work at 2 million private homes to clean, cook, tend gardens, and care for children, elders, and sick or disabled people. The indoor workers are largely low-income women, many of them immigrants, many undocumented. Often they are the primary breadwinners for their families.

Household workers are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation. They toil in solitude, behind closed doors. Cleaners and gardeners work with chemicals that can be dangerous. They’re susceptible to repetitive stress injuries. Health aides risk back strains and other conditions from having to lift people.

“Working in circumstances where you’re excluded from the law, you really suffer a lot,” said state Sen. María Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, the bill’s author. Her personal experience informs her knowledge: She grew up in a migrant farmworker family, toiling in the fields alongside her parents and siblings, with little protection from pesticides.

Cristina Ragas, a nanny, house cleaner and caregiver, hopes the governor will sign SB1257 into law.

After wildfires, learning that domestic workers were asked to clean without any protection from toxic ashes, “made me realize that they have really serious health and safety issues,” she said. “That

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