The invisible women at the head of the San Diego Women's March
They are the women no one ever sees, but at last weekend’s Women’s March San Diego, members of the local janitors union were front and center. Also loud, proud and invaluable.
When the massive march kicked off at Waterfront Park last Saturday, the procession was led by women from Service Employees International Union United Services Workers West, the union that represents janitors, security officers, airport service workers and other property service workers.
As members of the march’s marshals’ group, the women were responsible for security and crowd control. These veterans of labor marches and the 2017 San Diego Women’s March got there early, stayed late and had the time of their lives.
“It was actually one of the most unforgettable moments for me. I will cherish it forever,” janitor Marisol Castañeda said through a translator earlier this week.
“My role went beyond being a union member or a janitor. I was there at 7 a.m. setting up and getting people information. I was a key point of contact. I felt more respected than (I have) on any other day. I was not just there representing myself. I was there to represent the millions of women who are in the same position.”
And when you are a female janitor working alone at night in an office building, that position can leave you vulnerable to the kind of harassment and assaults that fueled the 2017 and 2018 Women’s Marches and inspired so many women to join the #MeToo movement.
That danger and vulnerability was the subject of “Rape on the Night Shift,” a joint investigation series done by KQED, the UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting program, “Frontline” and the Univision network.
The project — which included a documentary and radio series that were released in 2015 — focused on the dangers faced by female janitors, many of whom are in the country illegally, which makes it even harder for them to speak out.
Mobilized by that report, many of the women worked with rape crisis groups and other women’s organizations to act as trainers and advocates for fellow janitors.
The report also inspired San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez to author Assembly Bill 1978, which established janitorial workforce protections against sexual harassment.
In the fall of 2016, a group of janitors launched a hunger strike at the state Capitol in Sacramento to spur Gov. Jerry Brown to sign the bill. Three days later, he did.
“These are the strongest women I have ever met, and they are the most hard-working,” said Genoveva Aguilar, San Diego coordinator for SEIU-USWW.
“Even before the #MeToo movement, our janitors did the San Diego International Women’s Day March in 2016. They went on a hunger strike. Our women have been marching a lot. We are no longer invisible.”
As a member of the Women’s March San Diego’s executive board, Aguilar brought her organizing know-how to an event that was still finding its footing.
Aguilar also worked to make sure that the female janitors were not the only women bringing some diversity to the march, which — like the whole #MeToo movement — has been criticized for being too white and too privileged. The janitors were at the front of that line, too.
“Genoveva made sure we had a bus that we could send out to underserved communities to give them transportation to the march. That was absolutely critical,” said Amy Swazey, who led the logistics, accessibility and security team for Women’s March San Diego.
“Last year, the janitors were represented, but they were very much alone. These women represent San Diego. They are part of San Diego. They are who we are looking to represent and uplift.”
With a combined crowd count of more than 37,000, the Women’s Marches in San Diego and San Marcos were a huge success. For the female janitors, it was a personal triumph they hope will have a universal impact.
The march is over. These marchers are just getting started.
“I was important that day. I went beyond just being a janitor. I went beyond just vacuuming skyscrapers,” Violeta Ortiz said through a translator.
“Working at night keeps us in the shadow of everything else and everyone else. As people drive up the 5 freeway, they don’t realize that the lights are on in that building because someone is in there cleaning it. We were there to march for better protection for ourselves and our families and to become more visible within the community.”