It’s been 16 years since her first ferry ride to the Island. Luciana Freire wipes a sink and remembers it all as clearly as if it was yesterday.
“I flew from Sao Paolo, Brazil to New York. A friend of my husband’s, a guy I’ve never met before, picks me up and drives me to Woods Hole. I see the boat. I can’t believe my eyes. It’s huge. So white. I’ve never seen a boat like this. Then I’m standing on the deck, wind in my hair, looking at this beautiful Island in the distance and I feel like I am Rose in the movie Titanic. Part of me is looking around wondering if I’m going to see Leonardo DiCaprio next.”
She laughs and begins cleaning a stove top. “I say to God: thank you. You bring me to paradise.”
It’s mid-morning. Luciana has already cleaned one house today and is on a second. With three houses to clean, this is a light day. Starting around Memorial Day weekend, she and her summer crew — two women from Brazil and two from the Ukraine — will work from eight in the morning to sometimes nine at night. But Luciana says this is easy compared to the life she had in Brazil. There, six days a week she would walk three miles to a bus stop at the crack of dawn, travel two and a half hours and work 10 hours cleaning at a hospital. At the end of her day because of traffic it would take her three or four hours to get home, followed by another three-mile walk. She would arrive home exhausted, hands sore from harsh chemicals, kiss her sleeping children, eat and fall into bed, only to have to do it all over again the next day.
“It was a very difficult life,” she says. “My mother helped me raise my kids. We lived in a tiny room. We had an outhouse and there was an area outside where we’d wash. We’d use a bucket with holes in the bottom for a shower. We’d heat the water on the stove, carry it outside and pour it into the bucket. You had to be very fast to get clean.” Her hands underline the statement as they move deftly and efficiently over kitchen appliances, making them gleam.
She gestures to a Cuisinart and a large silver juicer on a countertop. “I didn’t know what most of this stuff did when I first came here,” she says. “Day by day I learn something new. When I was first here, I was like a baby. I have to learn talking. Everything. Only word I knew was okay. Then I learned hello, please, excuse me and I don’t speak English.”
Because her parents split up when she was 11, she quit school and went to work as a babysitter, house cleaner, farm hand and even fished to help support the family. “Kids here don’t know how lucky they are,” she says. “I wish I could have stayed in school. Learning English was even harder because I didn’t even know how to write well in Portuguese.”
She fluffs pillows, straightens cushions, dusts a coffee table, drapes a blanket over a couch, and her story continues to tumble out. She credits Island real estate brokers Rob and Patti Kendall for giving her a start on the Vineyard. “My angels,” she calls them. “On my first time here, I met Patti. She asked me if I needed work. I said, yes, of course! I remember her walking me around this giant house pointing at things telling me, Limpar, no limpar. [Clean. Don’t clean.] And me just nodding saying, okay, okay. Then she told me she’d be back in three hours. She held up three fingers so I could understand. I said okay. I was shaking. So nervous. The house was so big! I didn’t know if I could do it all. But I did it. After that, I began working for her. For three years, Patti drove me around, delivering me from house to house, giving me work and clients. Rob taught me English and how to drive. I thank God every day for them.”
Today Luciana now speaks and writes proficiently in English. She has a thriving cleaning business. Last year she became an American citizen. She owns a house and car on the Island and in Brazil. She supports her mother, husband, son, youngest daughter and herself. She also gives financial assistance to her five sisters, oldest daughter and some friends. She is a devout Roman Catholic and attributes her success to God. “He has plenty to give,” she says.
An active member of the Good Shepherd Parish on the Vineyard, Luciana spends much of her limited spare time at her church, Our Lady Star of the Sea in Oak Bluffs, and with her church groups. She and her daughter Jacqueline attend Saturday night mass, which is said in Portuguese, a Monday night prayer group, a Tuesday night women’s group and sometimes a Wednesday night group that visits people who are homebound. Once a month they attend a Friday night sing. “I am hot for God,” she says.
She was not always so religious. But over time, the church and her church community have given her a profound appreciation for her life and the lives of others. She is inspired by the Rev. Father Michael Nagle, the longtime Vineyard priest for the Good Shepherd Parish who traveled to Brazil last year to learn the language so he could say mass in Portuguese for his Brazilian parishioners. “I think this is amazing! He did this for us. I tell my kids: Sing! Open your eyes. People are good. Life is the best.”
Her attention returns to her work as she snaps dust from a rag and packs up her cleaning supplies. “This house just had dust. Some houses have dirt. That’s different,” she says. She heads out to her shiny year-old white Toyota Corolla that has two car seats in the back seat for her grandchildren, Jao who is four and his little brother Pedro. The grandchildren, along with their mom, Luciana’s older daughter Janaiana, and her other daughter Jacqueline live with her. “I got this last year. It has great gas mileage. I used to have a van. What a waste of gas and money,” she says.
She moves on to the next job, her last house today. The owner greets her like family, with a quiet word that a young son is upstairs napping. Luciana smiles and heads upstairs. “Each house has its own starting place,” she says. “If there is a second floor, I start at the top and work down. If it is one floor, I usually begin in one of the bedrooms, changing the sheets, making the beds. Then I do the bathrooms. The bathrooms and kitchen take the most time.” Two hours later sheets have been changed, rooms dusted, bathrooms cleaned, floors washed, kitchen scrubbed. The kitchen sink sparkles, the floors reflect sunlight pouring through windows. The homeowner giggles with delight at the sight of the kitchen. “I’m so happy you are happy,” Luciana says.
The work day over, she heads home. Her husband is in Brazil waiting for a visa to come to the U.S. “I hope he gets here by the summer. On the weekends when we do turnovers, he is my vacuuming man. God sends me the perfect husband. He is a carpenter, like Jesus. He can fix things,” she says. She shows off her remodeled kitchen and the addition her husband put on before he left. “If I sold this house here, I could buy a little farm in Brazil and have chickens, goats, and ducks. A vegetable garden,” she says. “I’d do it for myself. But Jacqueline was born here. She doesn’t want to go back to Brazil. I understand that.”
Her favorite space in the house is her prayer room, a small room with Giotto blue walls and filled with religious icons. Luciana is quiet for a moment or two. “Well, I think the only thing I didn’t talk about was when I got my first kiss,” she says. “That’s okay. All the kisses in the world are not as good as God’s.”
Luciana Freire by the numbers
Born: Parana, Brazil
Came to the Island for the first time: 1997
Became an American citizen: 2012
Family: Mother, five sisters, one husband, three children, two grandchildren
Favorite song: Jesus Is the Lord of My Life
Favorite Brazilian food: Beans and rice
Favorite American food: Soup, especially butternut squash soup
Motto: “I’m luck.”
What she wants to in retirement: “Take care of sick people. Help others.”