Saturday, September 1, 2007

Gay Latino Housecleaners

Andres Hoyos and Migdalia Santiago run support groups for recent LGBT
immigrants in Spanish and English at the LGBT Community Center.

The Secret Lives of Elves

"I'm not quite sure how it came to be," said Barbara Roche Fierman, the owner of The Little Elves of New York, a high-end house cleaning company. "Like our customers, our staff comes to us mainly by word of mouth. It's just something that's evolved over time."

The word of mouth route Fierman takes advantage of to find her workers isn't based on their expertise in cleaning apartments with valuable art collections, nor on the professional sang froid they bring to dusting in the homes of bold-faced Hamptons clients including Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Instead, she's referring to the unusual demographics of her staff, who are all recent Latino immigrants and almost exclusively gay.

The Little Elves turns out to be a boutique service in New York that oddly enough has a kind of boutique New York workforce as well. Named best cleaning service by New York magazine for the last two years in a row, The Little Elves is more than 80 percent staffed by gay Latinos, estimates Fierman. In the ongoing stream of new Americans who come to our city and find their way, these elves are a case study in resilience, mutual aid, and community building.

There are many jobs that are associated with recent immigrants, like busboys, deli workers, and maids, and there have traditionally been strong links between certain jobs and immigrants from specific places, like Irish cops in an earlier period in New York City's history, or nowadays, the fact that a random dogwalker you see being pulled down a Manhattan block by a drooling pack of canines is more likely than not Brazilian.

Certain occupations have also long been associated with gay people, of course, like hairdresser or florist. But The Little Elves define a rare hybrid, where multiple identities combine in a specific job, for a specific company. And that can make for a strong sense of camaraderie among the workers, who as recent transplants, may be particularly grateful for a sense of community, wherever they find it, even scrubbing floors.

"When I came to this country, I was very lonely," said Pietro, 38, a native of Peru who came to New York four years ago. "I worked in a kitchen at a restaurant, but I was very unhappy. I thought seriously about returning home."

Pietro, like many immigrants, first found his social network among other people from his native country who had already made a place for themselves in New York. This can be complicated for gay people, noted Debanuj DasGupta, the immigration policy analyst with Queers for Economic Justice, since sometimes the culture of their country, replicated here, is intensely homophobic.

"I didn't want to tell my Peruvian friends in my neighborhood in Queens that I was gay, so I just hid that part of myself while I tried to get a job and get settled," Pietro said. That's why finding Little Elves has worked out nicely for him so far.

A recent Saturday night found Pietro with several co-workers who have become friends, sharing a beer at Atlantis, one of the string of gay bars that line a stretch of Roosevelt Avenue under the elevated subway line in Jackson Heights, Queens. That night there was Sergio from Argentina, Alejandro from Costa Rica, Maurice from Colombia, and Dolores from the Dominican Republic, all talking at once about work, school, ambitions, and love affairs.

"I met Pietro and he didn't have immigration papers. We grew close very quickly and I decided to marry him to help, even though I have a girlfriend," said Dolores. (Names have been changed in this story out of concern for the immigration issues facing some of those mentioned.)

It's not uncommon for recent gay arrivals to get around immigration laws by making a marriage of convenience with an established resident who has legal status, said DasGupta. But sometimes, people make compromises that aren't so innocuous or pleasant.

"Among younger gay male immigrants there can be an over-reliance on jobs in the shadow economy," he said, "like being filmed having sex for cheap porn sites, prostituting themselves, erotic dancing." This may be particularly true of Latino men who are often objectified and sexualized in gay male culture, he noted."In these ways of making money there are no protections, people are putting bodies on the line, chancing sexually transmitted diseases and risk for HIV."

"You do things because you have to survive," said Javier, a former Little Elves worker who hustled on the streets of Paterson, New Jersey when he arrived from Colombia at 19. "It's not because you love it. If you are lucky, you move on," he said.

One enterprising young Latino gay man named Juan has combined housecleaning and his sex appeal by advertising online for nude housecleaning services."I have been offering professional nude housekeeping services for over four years," he said in an e-mail. "I am probably the first to really find that there is a market for this and people never knew they would be interested. I am different because I don't use it as a front for prostitution or escort services and do a thorough professional job."
Although some people regard a stint as a little elf merely a steppingstone on the way to a different sort of employment, the job does have its benefits. Rates for the workers charged to the client are $33 per hour, $45 per hour for a supervisor, which is mandatory on jobs requiring more than two people. The workers' pay ranges from $8 an hour to just over $14. Fierman has also paid for some workers to take English lessons and loaned money when times were tight.

But the elves work hard for their hourly rates. The job is physically intense and moves at a fast pace. Javier remembers lugging carpets from one floor to another with the help of that day's client, Julie Andrews, who wore a kerchief on her head and worked up quite a cleaning sweat of her own. (And, yes, she sings while she cleans, said the starstruck Javier.)
But there are also tensions working for customers of a certain social standing. Though widely divergent in terms of design and d├ęcor, almost all the homes of the ritzier clients have one thing in common, according to Pietro - cameras in every room, recording every workers' every move. That sense of having to watch their step is intensified for gay immigrants who may be trying to adjust to American mores - and also learning how to be gay for the first time in a much more open environment than they came from.

Tensions of this sort are often discussed at the support groups for gay immigrants run at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center each month. Andres Hoyos, a Colombian immigrant himself, works as the director of Center Care Recovery at the Center, where he initiated immigrant support groups in both English and Spanish.

"The goal of the groups is to build community," he said. "People are managing their sexuality, racial/ethnic identity, and their immigration status all at the same time, which can be very stressful. Identity is more complex than what people see on the outside. They are bringing their country of origin's way of relating to sexuality and race with them and adding that to their cultural context here in New York."

Daniel, who works independently as a housecleaner and is both undocumented and HIV-positive, said his choice of work makes for greater isolation than if he worked for a service but is safer for him than the risk of running afoul of immigration policy in a more structured work environment. "A lot of people are surprised to see guys cleaning instead of a cleaning lady," he said. "They don't necessarily know you are gay the first time you come, but they figure it out."

For Pietro and his friends hanging out at the Atlantis, working at Little Elves has provided a stable source of both income and community based on multiple shared identities."It's nice to know we're not alone," Pietro reflected at he enjoyed an evening beer. "We can work and relax together and know we all share a similar experience."

The LGBT Community Center's Center CARE program runs biweekly support groups for LGBT immigrants in Spanish and English as well as individial counseling in Spanish and free English classes. For fall starting dates and more information, call Migdalia Santiago at 212-620-7310 or e-mail msantiago@

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