Photo Exhibit Captures Struggles of Durham’s Housecleaners

The exhibition grew out a class that paired Duke students with local Latina housecleaners

housecleaner project

Last fall, 15 Latina women who clean houses in Durham shared their stories of struggle with 15 Duke students in a class called “The Housecleaner Project.”To be eligible for the class, each student had to speak fluent Spanish. Students were then paired with housekeepers, recording the life histories of the women through photographs and other media. The women -- many of whom are undocumented -- also took photos of themselves at work and home.The photographs are now being exhibited at Perkins Library. A reception, expected to be attended by many of the housecleaners, will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday on the first floor of Perkins, near the help desk, and the public is invited to attend.Orin Starn, professor of cultural anthropology and history, says this collaborative project was designed to draw attention to the many worrisome issues faced by the housecleaners, including job insecurity, low wages, language barriers, gender equity, occasional discrimination and the threat of deportation. “We estimated that as many as 500 Latina women in this area earn their livings as housecleaners,” says Starn, an organizer of the project. “Yet they are mostly invisible to many of us. We’d like their work and rights to be better recognized -- and, more broadly, to contribute to the debate about immigration.”Starn says most of these women have been in the U.S. for more than 10 years, pay taxes, work hard, and their children have been raised as Americans. “Theirs is the American dream,” he says. “These hard-working women deserve not to live in fear of being deported. They shouldn’t be branded as criminals for crossing a border to be able to feed their children.”The class is also timely, given the continued white-hot debate over immigration in the U.S. and the fact that Latinos now make up the largest minority in this country.“This is, of course, a country of immigrants. But a century ago, immigrants were welcome to this country, at least in theory,” Starn says. “Now Latino migrants face hostility no matter that they do the jobs that many Americans don’t want to do -- cleaning bathrooms, picking fruit, building houses.”Starn says the impetus for this collaborative project, funded by Duke’s Humanities Writ Large initiative, came from a chance encounter.“My children have gone to school in Durham with the children of a housecleaner from Durham, Elizabeth Perez,” Starn says. “It was her stories -- including going to work at 14 in a factory in Mexico City and, since coming to Durham almost 20 years ago, being separated from her parents back in Mexico City -- that led me to think more about the lives of housecleaners and the challenges they face.” Starn says Perez now serves as the project’s research coordinator, and that her contacts with a circle of area housecleaners -- from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Colombia -- made the project possible. Starn says the women have been enthusiastic about the project, and the chance to tell their story, adding, “We had to be careful not to show faces in the photographs and otherwise protect the identity of the women, even with President Obama’s recent announcement of a path towards legalization for some immigrants.”  Sophomore Sofia Caballero Stafford, a double major in global health and cultural anthropology, says the class has been the highlight of her Duke experience. “The opportunity to study cultural anthropology, use my fluency in Spanish, and most importantly, provide a story-telling platform for people in our own community who do not usually have the opportunity to share their journey and be celebrated was what first attracted me to the class,” says Stafford, who is from New York City. “The class far exceeded these expectations. I forged a long-lasting friendship with the housecleaner I was paired with and that has made Durham not only the place I go to school, but also made me feel more part of the Durham community.” Starn notes the students were impressed by the grit and determination of the women, and how much they have struggled to overcome.“In classic immigrant fashion, most have come to the U.S. and clean houses in hopes of better futures for their children, and for lack of opportunities in their home countries. Yet they’ve built new lives for themselves here against considerable odds, and most are proud of the work they do and what they’ve accomplished.”To find out more about the project, go to