A group of international writers, all of whom were Spanish speakers, was invited to an academic conference recently held at New York University. During the conference, a woman from the audience suddenly intervened. First she congratulated us for everything we had said up to that moment; then, she explained to us that she was Puerto Rican and earned her living in that city by cleaning office buildings at night.
I was already knew about these women who would go into the huge buildings of the New York City bureaucracy when most people were in bed—and who spent the night wandering through those empty spaces dragging a vacuum cleaner or brandishing a cloth for the dust: my hotel was in front of one of these buildings and, since I used to get back to my hotel room late and unable to sleep, I would try to induce sleepiness by sipping the last glass of water of the day while contemplating the phantasmal activity taking place in the building across the street from the hotel at those hours.
The woman eloquently described the sense of defenselessness and solitude that came from getting into an elevator or going down the stairs in this ghostly ambience.
We were all fascinated by her story but also a little uncomfortable because we didn’t know where it was going. In the end, the woman reported that the majority of the women who cleaned offices at night suffered a state of permanent sexual harassment by their bosses, who were mostly white North Americans.
This final declaration was greeted by a long, uncomfortable silence that was eventually broken by the moderator of the conference, who pointed out that although this situation was terrible, it had nothing to do with the conference.
“Really? Nothing at all to do with the conference?” I asked myself as I faced the office building that was in front of my hotel.
Perhaps not, but it’s the only thing about that trip to New York that has managed to survive in my memory.