Monday, May 4, 2009

PROFILE STORY: Clean product making at the basement of a church in Somerville

At the basement of the Catholic Brazilian Church on Somerville Ave., in Somerville, 25 Brazilian house cleaners are gathered every Sunday afternoon to prepare cleaning products from water, vinegar, vegetable soap and essential oils.

Helen Sinzker, 32, a Brazilian journalist, sits in the middle keeping notes. Sinzker, the spokesperson for the Brazilian women's cooperative , is not assigned to cover the event. She organizes it. Her job is to offer weekly “green cleaning” workshops for Brazilian house cleaners around Boston.

Housecleaning challenges-Vida Verde Co-op from Katerina Voutsina on Vimeo.

The need for Vida Verde came out of the dangers Brazilian house cleaners face every day. “They often clean five to six houses a day,” says Sinzker. “Many of them suffer from skin infections or eye irritations, but most of them have respiratory problems, allergies and migraines resulting from exposure to cleaning products containing toxic chemicals,” she adds explaining why the existence of the Co-op is justified.

Sinzker was born and raised in a small village near Sao Paolo. She came in Boston in search of a better job in journalism and worked in several Brazilian media. After she got married to a Brazilian-American in 2006, Sinzker decided to join the Co-op organizing team. Since then she is constantly cooperating with Brazilians in the academia in order to produce data about the Brazilian population in Massachusetts. She says her love for her community is the one that fuels her interest in such research.

At the basement of the catholic Brazilian Church, Sinzker is surrounded by a dozen elementary school kids and their young frustrated mothers, who shout at them in Portuguese. She is almost ready to talk about removing mold and mildew, polishing mirrors, cleaning the foyer, scouring the sink and disinfecting the entire toilet in a “greener way.”

“Migration out of Brazil is a relatively new phenomenon,” says Sinzker reading from a survey booklet by the Mauricio Gastón Institute, in University of Massachusetts (UMass Boston), in which she contributed in 2007. “Brazil has become an emigrant country with more people leaving the country than coming,” she says.

Quoting from the 2000 U.S. Census, Sinzker says that Massachusetts is the second most popular destination for Brazilians coming to the U.S. after Florida, accounting for 17% of the total Brazilian population in this country. She explains that house cleaning was not the ideal job for Brazilian women, but it became a good compromise. “Most of our members in the Co-op,” says Sinzker “have a a high school diploma or even a bachelor’s degree. However, housecleaning is what they ended up doing for a leaving.”

The median age for Brazilian women in the housecleaning field is 33.7 years, says Sinzker. She adds that only about half of all them, speak English well and this is the main reason why most of them cannot usually communicate to their employers the cleaning practices they are used to follow in Brazil.

“It is in our tradition to clean with the windows open,” says Sinzker. “In the States, the home owners ask most of our women to clean with the windows closed while using heavy chemicals. The chemicals affect the health of the clients and the environment, but the cleaners are the ones who suffer the most,” she adds.

Lucimara Rodrigues, 31, who recently joined the Co-op left her career as a lawyer in Belo Horizonte following her husband in the U.S. However, Rodrigues, who doesn’t speak English, argues that the use of heavy chemicals has caused her problems during her first pregnancy. Her best friend lost her baby, says Rodrigues, because she was constantly inhaling toxic products as well.

The instruction is over. Sinzker who is 8-months pregnant looks really tired. She says she is going to offer her Sunday 15-minute sessions till she gives birth. “I love the Co-op she says and I want to keep these women protected whatever it takes.”


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