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Image of janitor Rubi Andazola, custodial lead at University of Colorado Boulder. Photograph by Cynthia Torres. 2021.
Rubi Andazola, custodial lead at University of Colorado Boulder, in 2021. Photograph by Cynthia Torres.

Custodians and Janitors: New Occupational Folklife Project Collection Launched!

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This is a guest post by AFC Senior Folklife Specialist, Nancy Groce. 

The voices of American workers in yet another under-documented occupation were recently added to the American Folklife Center’s archive and made available online when “Custodians and Janitors in Colorado,” a collection of 13 oral history interviews, was posted to AFC’s Occupational Folklife Project’s website.

This impressive new collection was created by documentarian Cynthia Torres, who received an AFC Archie Green Fellowship in 2021 to document the occupational culture and experiences of custodians and janitors in her home state of Colorado. Ms. Torres, who worked as a custodian herself for several years before training as a documentarian, was excited to interview workers in this “undervalued and unnoticed” profession. Her project created an opportunity for them “to tell their stories and their relationship to their work” with the hope that the general public will better appreciate their contributions.

Working at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Torres collaborated with Professor Jennifer Fluri (University of Colorado Boulder) and the Oral History Program at the Boulder Public Library on her interviews and also obtained the support of Colorado’s Local Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In mid-March, she shared her fieldwork experiences with me, in the interview below.

Image of Andrew Frank-Martin, custodian at Boulder’s Congregation Har Hashem, in 2021. Photograph by Cynthia Torres.
Andrew Frank-Martin, custodian at Boulder’s Congregation Har Hashem, in 2021. Photograph by Cynthia Torres.

How did you decide on this topic?

As a former custodian myself, I understood the profound significance of the work carried out by custodians and janitors. These individuals, often overlooked, are the backbone of cleanliness and order in our communities. Their stories deserved to be heard, and so I embarked on a mission to interview them and shed light on their remarkable contributions.

How did you find people to interview?

Finding interviewees wasn’t too challenging. Some were former colleagues from my custodial days, while others were referred to me through contacts made on the University of Colorado Boulder campus and via the janitors’ union, the Local Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Each person I approached was eager to share their experiences and perspectives.

You did the bulk of your fieldwork during the pandemic. How did that impact your interviews?

During the interviews, I was consistently surprised and impressed by the pride and dedication displayed by every custodian and janitor. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, they continued to show up to work, ensuring that their environments were safe and sanitized. Many expressed a sense of reassurance in their workplaces, knowing they had diligently disinfected the spaces.

The impact of COVID-19 on custodial trades was undeniable. Masks were worn during interviews, and precautions were taken to maintain safety. However, it was heartening to witness the confidence and comfort exhibited by interviewees in their workplaces, knowing that they played a crucial role in keeping them clean and protected.

English was not the first language for some of your interviewees. How did you handle language preferences for the project?

Conducting interviews in both Spanish and English added a layer of complexity, but it was essential to ensure that the narratives were accurately captured. Professional interpretation and transcription were crucial in preserving the authenticity of each individual’s story. With the help of my Aunt Lydia Olivares and an online service, I was able to seamlessly navigate between languages, ensuring that no detail was lost in translation.

What was your ‘take-away’ from the project?

Through these interviews, I gained a deeper appreciation for the resilience and dedication of custodians and janitors. Their stories serve as a testament to the invaluable contributions they make to our communities every day. They are truly unsung heroes, deserving of recognition and gratitude.

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To listen to interviews from Torres’ collection, visit “Custodians and Janitors in Colorado.” For information about the more than 1,200 interviews with other contemporary American workers now available online, visit the Occupational Folklife Project.

Comments (4)

  1. Hi Nancy,
    Hope this finds you well. Found this project of interest. By 1920, my County Clare born great Grandmother, Annie McMahon, was separated from her Clare born husband, John Ryan. Two of her 3 children, adults by then were still at home. She resided from at least 1910 until her death in 1944 at #7 Fourth Place in what is now called the Carroll Gardens section of Brooklyn. While the 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 censuses list no occupation for her, the 1940 census indicates that her apartment was rent free and her deat certificate lists her occupation as janitress. In my mother’s recollection her grandmother was indeed the janitress of #5,7, and 9 Fourth Place, at the time known as Gilvarry’s Flats. I’m not sure what an elderly woman’s tasks would have been but she certainly swept out the “aireyway”, mopped the hallways, and chased the children down from climbing the tree in front telling them in my mother’s recollection “Get down from there let ye!”

    • Thanks for sharing, Edward. I’m glad this post (and the collection) brought back memories of your own family.

  2. Wonderful work. Thank you for sharing these amazing people with us

    • Thank you for reading Folklife Today, Trish!

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