The Backbone of the School: Stories of Pacific’s custodial staff

“I’ve often said that if I want to disappear, I’d pick up a vacuum cleaner,” said Douglas Martin, Custodial Staff Manager of Pacific University. “A lot of our staff I think does feel invisible.”

Pacific’s custodial staff consists of a vibrant array of people, rich in culture. As a team of 26, they are the backbone of the institution. From cleaning cadaver labs, to hygiene vans, to taking out student trash, Pacific’s custodians do it all, working hard from before 5:00 a.m. until afternoon to ensure school is safe for everyone.

The majority of staff are from Mexico—largely Michoacán—Martin discussed how language barriers and cultural differences often keep students from feeling like they can interact with our custodians.

“I think rather than talking about things as a challenge …  we need to sit down and think this is another chance to interact and learn where folks are coming from,” he said. “Everybody’s kind of got their story about how they got here.”

Marsh Hall custodian Pilar Sayago’s life has changed since beginning to work for Pacific in 1996. As this is her first job, Sayago did not expect to work here for 24 years, but she came to love the students, teachers, and fellow staff. “For me, this place is my second home,” she said.

To Sayago, Pacific changed her life in an unimaginable way because it gave her the opportunity to learn English. “When I start [sic] working here, I knew nothing. I didn’t speak English … It’s hard … but right now, I don’t get scared,” Sayago said. 

Laughing, she recalled the time she accidentally vacuumed a student’s shoelaces, stretching them to double their initial size. “It was very, very big,” she explained. “One day I see [sic] the person walking. I see [their shoes] and one is more large [sic] than normal. For me, it’s laughing when I see the person.”

Rosa Mejia, a Pacific custodian for 26 years, reflected on the culture around custodial staff.

“I feel safe, I feel good,” she shared. “I like the people working here, they’re friendly; the students is [sic] nice.”

Mejia’s favorite part of working at Pacific is getting to meet new people. She is an example of how much Pacific’s custodians are willing to give—even in the simple act of postponing her lunch break to interview for this article. 

“Our staff really likes you guys,” Manager Doug Martin explained. “It is important to think of us all together as community.”

With such a diverse custodial staff, coworkers are able to share their culture with one another. Custodian for the University Center Scott Pickrell spoke on how working with his Latinx coworkers has impacted his perspective of the world.

“It’s made me way more open, as far as open-mindedness,” he said, simultaneously greeting a passing coworker in the hallway. “I guess it’s just helped me mature and become a better person.” 

Martin discussed the cultural diversity within Forest Grove, which according to The U.S. Census Bureau has a Latinx population of 23.4%. “This community has a really, really great Latino community,” he said. He proceeded to name his favorite Mexican eateries in the area, insisting however that “the very best food is made by staff who works here.”

Though Martin only began speaking Spanish as an adult, he can seamlessly switch between English and Spanish. When a Latina custodian passed by during a tour of the backroom, Martin conversed easily with her, asking about her day. 

Ultimately, Martin urges that our diverse custodial staff offers a great opportunity for students and staff alike to learn about other cultures and experiences. 

“Just because you try once with somebody doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying again if it didn’t come out the way you wanted it to…  A smile and a ‘thank you’ goes a long way.”

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