Cuban-born Fernando Mitjáns found a gap between the Latin American and British communities when he arrived in London from Brazil six years ago – so he decided to do something about it. He has since then become a filmmaker and currently works on raising awareness of the issues many Latin American people face when they move to London.
Arriving in London at the age of 24 to take a course on postcolonial culture and global policy, Fernando found the reality of the city to be very different than what he expected. Latin American media had portrayed the UK to be an Olympus full of opportunity and acceptance. That London was a city all others had to strive to be like. The city of the gods. What he encountered was instead a “...really rich, human city with a lot of bad things, as any human city.” He struggled with language and cultural borders that he hadn't expected as well. Not only did he have to learn English upon his arrival in London but he also had to learn all these cultural codes. Because of these barriers, Fernando has at times felt excluded from the London experience. “I, as Latin American, Spanish speaking, Cuban, I don’t think we feel that the society embraces us enough, integrates us enough.”
Seeing this sort of disconnection and miscommunication between the Latin American community and the English community, Fernando was inspired to start working on a piece that could bridge the gap between the two. His documentary film, Limpiadores, explores the lives of Latin American cleaners who are being subcontracted to work for universities around London. He saw that many of these had vast departments dedicated to the study of Latin American cultures and languages, however, right under their noses, Latin American workers were being mistreated and longing for equality. “... the contradiction of view is stunning in these amazing institutions. They have all these “Institute of Latin American Studies”, “Department of Latin American Studies”, but then you know the people that are cleaning the floors are Latin Americans and how can you not see that?” Once he started filming, Fernando noticed that the students in these universities were actually aware of the difficulties these cleaners were facing and were active in supporting workers’ campaigns such as the SOAS Justice for Cleaners and the 3 Cosas Campaign. However, he also noticed that many British and Latin American students saw themselves as being in a completely different social group from these workers and did not feel nearly as passionate about the situation.
The documentary focuses on the lives of the Latin American cleaners who are subcontracted to work in several London universities, and the difficulties they face as well as the campaigns they are running to improve their wages and working conditions, and to be hired directly by the universities rather than by profit-led outsourcing companies. It shows how the workers are being taken advantage of due to the communication barriers they face and their inability to access further information about their employment rights. “[The subcontracting groups that hire them] communicate with the workers and can somehow make them participate in things that the workers don’t really understand. I have done it myself, you know, I have come to a place and I have put my name down for a cleaning position and somebody calls me literally at 8 at night and tells me to come right now and clean from 12 at night to 6 in the morning. And then I’m trying to ask the person questions in Spanish about pay or the contract and the person says ‘Aw don’t worry about it’. It’s a very exploitative process.” Not only are the hours terrible, but the workers’ low pay and poor working conditions inhibits them greatly. Many workers have to take public transportation or even walk to work, taking even more time out of their day just to have the opportunity to make money.
At first, it was difficult for Fernando to find workers who wanted to get involved in the film. Those more actively involved in the campaigns face the constant risk of being the target of disciplinary actions by managers and thus most were worried about being filmed and that this would put them in the public eye. But once Fernando managed to get the first people involved it was easier to motivate other workers and carry the filmmaking process onward.
Once filming began, Fernando could see participants getting more and more excited about the film project. He especially felt like he was making a difference when he travelled to countries in Latin America to talk to those who had been deported as a result of an immigration raid in one of the universities. “They had never had the opportunity of talking. So that for me means that I did something. Even more than the film. These people, they literally cried, you know? They felt thankful and grateful that somebody went there and somebody made an effort to rescue this episode and what this meant to their lives!” People want to be able to tell the world about their struggle so that no one else has to go through the same thing in the future.
Limpiadores is adding up to the discussion about workers’ rights as well as the difficult transitions migrants go through when living in a different country. Fernando has himself experienced the difficulties of the visa processes in the UK. When he originally came to the UK, post-study work visas allowed for students to stay and work for two years after completing their degrees. But after changes to the student visa rules, this opportunity no longer exists and Fernando now had to pay £2,000 to apply for a new Visa with his partner. “So all this money could be invested in so many other things like my films, or her projects, or life. We don’t live an amazing beautiful life, you know. All this money that we earn with our work needs to be going to these bureaucratic processes. It’s a lot of money. I could be sending this money to Cuba right now. You know 10 pounds in Cuba can make a difference to people.”
Fernando wants to continue making films and documentaries about migration and culture in the future. He said he wants to focus on “... culture in Latin America, how Latin American states they have this discourse of unity, of being one thing and they are not. There are so many cultures inside Brazil, there are so many cultures inside Mexico or Argentina but …there’s an official discourse that’s trying to homogenize these differences. I really want to find a way of expressing this in a documentary, and also migration rights.”
Whatever comes next, we will be looking out for the next project Fernando takes on. It is bound to inspire, touch us, provoke thought, and be a call to action just like Limpiadores.
Watch the trailer of the film Limpiadores here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Upb3OK-jclM