If Orange County has a dark stereotype, it's the housecleaner, the tired woman shuffling from high-income household to high-income household, spray cleaner and rags in a bucket in her hand, the Lupes of Orange Countyand Arrested Development, the Rosie of The O.C., the nameless and faceless mujeres who clean out the Sub-Zero refrigerator, polish the Dacor stainless steel double oven, like black-clad stagehands who allow the slim cast of The Real Housewives of Orange Countyand Laguna Beach: The Real O.C. to resolve the complexities of lives brimming with foreplay.
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It's easy to weep for the housecleaners, and the just-released Orange County Housecleanerswould seem primed to relate tales of pity in paradise. But it doesn't. Originally a documentary photography project launched by UC Irvine anthropology professor Frank Cancian in the spring of 2000, Housecleaners goes beyond clichs to record the personal stories of seven local housecleaners. After a brief introduction, Cancian steps backs and allows his subjects to describe their lives in the oral-history tradition of Studs Terkel.
The photographs themselves are worth the purchase—dignified black-and-white shots of the women at work, at play or in portrait. Their words shine. You expect the anecdotes of personal hardship (nearly all suffered infidelity at the hands of abusive husbands), redemption and hard, hard work. But you're surprised, too, maybe. Cancian finds two white women who clean houses in a county where nearly 86 percent of domestic workers are Latinas. When asked why she doesn't get her GED, Tina Parker responds, "When? Would that be after I get home at six o'clock and I've made dinner and did the bath and did the story time and put my son to bed at eight? Exactly when would I be going back to school?" By contrast, Leida Mejia, a Guatemalan immigrant, enrolled in a cosmetology program at Santa Ana College while cleaning houses and raising a daughter by herself.
Each has a particular response to the labor of cleaning up after someone else. And in that, Orange County Housecleanersreminds those who need reminding that Maria—or Ana or Luisa—has a life beyond the dramatic recessed lights and wall sconces of our high-end kitchens.
ORANGE COUNTY HOUSECLEANERS BY FRANK CANCIAN; UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO. PAPERBACK, 116 PAGES, $22.95.