DOCE Engaged Faculty Fellow: Orin Starn

Professor Starn was successfully nominated to receive the DOCE’s 2015 Engaged Faculty Fellowship to support his research on Latina housecleaners in Durham, NC.  In this post he writes about a recent community meeting that he organized as part of this project.


Most housecleaners in Durham are now women from Latin America, mainly Mexico and Central America.   These women are invisible heroines of our local economy.   They mop floors and scrub bathrooms and kitchens for modest wages in a city thousands of miles away from their native countries.  Many have been here for more than a decade; they pay taxes, send their children to local schools, belong to neighborhood churches, and now call Durham home. Yet they face many challenges.   Cleaning houses is physically demanding, with long hours and no job security or benefits. These working women also face language barriers, and, despite all they do, they have often lived in the shadows for fear of deportation even while missing children and parents who have had to remain behind in Latin America.

The Housecleaner Project is a civic engagement initiative that brings together Durham housecleaners with Duke faculty and students. It began last year, and has included a Cultural Anthropology seminar dedicated to the housecleaners and the themes of immigration, gender, and work; a collaborative exhibit at Perkins Library put together by students and housecleaners(which can be viewed online here); student-produced videos about Doris Garcia and Claudia Mendez, two women involved in the project; and outreach to local media, including a special show on WUNC’s State of Things.    We seek to document the lives of housecleaners and to promote greater recognition for their rights and contribution to our community.

Our most recent event, held this past Saturday, brought two immigration lawyers — Jennifer Doyle and Madhavi Pataki — to speak to women and their friends and family about the latest developments in immigration law. These include, perhaps most importantly, President Obama’s initiative to legalize some long-time residents.   This executive order would allow many of the women in our project to get a Social Security card and other basic rights, but it has become bogged down in the courts.   Many housecleaners, despite years of hard work in this country, have little prospect of gaining a green card much less citizenship anytime soon.

The situation of the housecleaners underscores that immigration reform remains among the most urgent needs facing us as a country.   America would shut down if it weren’t for the efforts of Latino immigrants — picking fruit, building houses, cleaning houses.   It’s simply wrong that we keep these hard-working members of our community in a permanent limbo of disenfranchised invisibility, and sometime targets of resentment and nativist spite. And it’s more than time that we did better as a society by all those who have come here, in the great American tradition, in search of a better life for themselves and their children.

Click the links below to see in-depth interviews with Doris and Claudia, two Durham housecleaners:

Doris G.

Claudia M.