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 Stories for April 15, 1998

Campus Custodian José Díaz: “Getting Deep” With Campus Buildings

by Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
posted Apr. 15, 1998

When campus custodian José Díaz was assigned to Durant Hall – an historic 1911 granite building rich in architectural detail – he found himself doing “crazy things.” Using a small sponge to clean the 82 marble steps of its central staircase, and a razor blade to carefully scrape away wax and other debris, he recorded its gradual transformation with before-and-after pictures that he mounted in a photo album.

It took Díaz 14 months, working nightly after completing his regular duties, to restore the stairs to a stately white.

“I told my wife, ‘I’m getting too deep in this!’” Díaz recalls. “I polished it in sections, little by little.”

Rescuing Durant’s white marble from several decades of wear and wax (a job he now calls his “dissertation” and for which he received a special performance award) is one of many projects Díaz has initiated to keep work interesting and to “put my hands on a beautiful building.”

“I like to preserve things,” says Díaz. “Especially old buildings like Doe or Durant. I see some connections.”

The “connections” Díaz refers to weave among his preservationist bent at work, his boyhood love of exploring indigenous archeological sites in and around Vera Cruz, Mexico, and his anthropology studies at the Universidad Autónoma de Puebla.

“One of my goals in life was to become an anthropologist,” he says, “but my destiny was to immigrate to the United States in 1986.”

The following year he landed a temporary custodial position at Berkeley, and two years later became a permanent employee.

In his 11 years as a Berkeley custodian, Díaz has worked in 31 campus buildings including Moffitt and Doe libraries, Harmon Gym, Zellerbach Hall, Alumni House, University Hall, Evans, Durant and Valley Life Sciences, where he’s currently based. During a stint at California Hall, one of his favorite assignments, he cared for the offices of Chancellors Heyman and Tien.

“It’s a very secure building,” he says. “You see all the bosses.”

Diaz is one of 213 custodians – from more than a dozen nations and speaking at least as many languages and dialects – employed by Custodial Services. Maintaining a 24-hour presence on campus, they care for more than 110 buildings. Together, the custodians have nearly 2,400 years of experience on campus; more than half have served the university for at least a decade.

“While our customers are starting their work day,” Diaz says, “our group has been working day and night to keep one of the most well known universities in the world clean and well maintained.”

Field Research

Díaz’ background in anthropology enhances his appreciation of the buildings he works in each weeknight and of the people who inhabit them by day.

“In anthropology, you do field research,” he says. “I’m still acting like that.”

Removing graffiti from campus walls, he reflects on political freedoms and expression. In Latin America, people spray consignas on walls as “a way to partcipate in politics,” he notes. In the stalls of campus restrooms, in contrast, he finds “mostly racist graffiti, graffiti against gays and lesbians, ‘immigrants go home!’”

“It’s shocking,” he says. “They spread their ideas in a destructive way instead of something positive.”

When he removes graffiti, it usually reappears within a day. For that reason, says Díaz, “it’s one of the hardest parts of the job.” But the derogatory nature of most of the comments “gives me more impetus,” he says.

A clean and neat building, on the other hand, engenders cleaner, neater habits from its users, Díaz observes. In a well-kept classroom, students are more likely to wipe up their spills, he believes. If he consistently leaves a chair flush against the desk each time he cleans an office, its day-time occupant soon begins to push in the chair when leaving for the day.

Díaz hopes to someday return to school – ideally Berkeley – to complete his formal study of anthropology.

Custodial Staff Curriculum

The newest of Díaz’ special projects is a custodial staff training program that he and three colleagues are developing. He has led several pilot training sessions in recent weeks. He says his teaching style is friendly and funny.

His main objective is to make custodians think about the reasons things are done a certain way.

The curriculum includes slides taken by Díaz and his colleagues, which illustrate points and stimulate discussion on such topics as a systematic approach to cleaning a classroom, and the best body mechanics to prevent injury.

“We want you healthy,” he tells his coworkers. “We need you here.”

Through slides and discussion, participants also cover the advantages of a well-organized supply closet.

“The closet is the most important tool in this department,” Díaz says. “If you don’t have your tools in order, how can you do the job?”

After a two-hour training session in Valley Life Sciences, custodians move to hallways and classrooms for their hands-on component of the course.

Díaz and his colleagues plan to have the training program in place this month, when it becomes a requirement for all staff custodians.

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