TAMPA — When she wakes up before dawn, Paola Andrea Gutiérrez likes to check her cleaning supplies. Everything has to be in order: a mop, a bucket, a dozen trash bags, a scrub brush, mirror cleaner.
For four years, she has been cleaning apartments, offices and public restrooms. Born in Colombia, Gutiérrez said she had trouble finding work here, partly because she cannot speak English and lacks a formal education.
But she faced another challenge: She was born without her right arm.
To inspire confidence in others, Gutiérrez, 44, started posting videos in Spanish on TikTok and other social platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
She doesn’t have millions of followers. But she has enough to feel like she’s doing something valuable. With her videos accumulating 306,000 likes, she has amassed more than 30,000 followers on TikTok, where she goes by @19paog.
While domestic workers have suffered immensely due to COVID-19, low wages and discrimination, Gutiérrez maintains a positive outlook.
“We have to learn from the circumstances to transcend,” Gutiérrez said in Spanish.
With more than 112,000 domestic workers in Florida, 9 in 10 are women, according to a recent study by the Florida Policy Institute, a local nonprofit organization. Of those, Latinas represent 46% in the cleaning and care industry. The study also found that immigrants are overrepresented in domestic work, with at least 3 in 5 workers (60%) in those jobs.
Gutiérrez jokes about her broken English and the reactions of some people when they see her mopping floors or cleaning mirrors with one arm. Sometimes people don’t see her personal sacrifice, she said, and the desire to get ahead.
“Disability is a beautiful art because you learn to do things in a different way,” she said.
Gutiérrez was born in Medellín, in northwestern Colombia, under tough conditions and poverty. The region was filled with drug lords and guerrillas.
She spent most of her childhood with her late grandmother, Susana, learning to be confident and independent. They talked about the unique challenge she faced.
“As a child you don’t understand why people talk about you, or look at you in a different way, especially when they don’t know you as a human being,” Gutiérrez said. “At the end of the day it’s a good life lesson because you learn to be thoughtful.”
Her grandmother taught her how to clean and how to adapt to the world.
“She was my inspiration, the woman that showed me the way to be strong and reshaped the perception of my condition,” Gutiérrez said. “She told me: ‘You can do whatever you want. Nothing is impossible, believe and you will see.’”
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That’s exactly what she did.
In Colombia, Gutierrez learned business administration, accounting and marketing by herself, along with some free online courses. She worked as a secretary and call center representative for more than 20 years. She also ran her own small business as a health insurance agent.
In 2013, she decided to open her own nonprofit to help kids and people with disabilities like her. Gutiérrez called it Fundación Haciéndonos Grandes (Making Us Bigger Foundation).
She collected food, clothing and money to help children with disabilities. In December 2013, she also organized the first inclusive fashion show in Medellín to support more than 50 vulnerable minors.
Leidy Henao, a former volunteer at the foundation, said Gutiérrez has the ability to innovate and carry out the projects she proposes.
“She is a cheerful person and likes to help others,” Henao said. “She has an enormous personality.”
Gutiérrez decided to move to the United States to live with her husband, a Puerto Rican who now works as a welder in Tampa.
“It was a new beginning,” Gutiérrez said.
When the pandemic shut down offices, colleges and restaurants everywhere, Gutiérrez focused on her videos. She became a motivational speaker, a counselor — a virtual friend. She documents her life in a lighthearted way and with humor.
It was something that Gutiérrez started in 2018 among the Latin community when TikTok was officially introduced. In a series of videos she posted on the social media platform, she encouraged her followers to find ways to achieve their goals.
Through TikTok, Gutiérrez said, she could break the mold with a fun and creative expression of herself: from sharing inspirational quotes and positive vibes with her fans to making jokes and dancing.
In one video, she said she feels like a “diva” when she’s cleaning.
“Life is to be enjoyed at all times,” says one of her messages while she’s seen dancing to the song “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from the movie “Dirty Dancing.”
Gutiérrez said she wants to write children’s books about the importance of being confident and positive.
“I want to do it because behind a child there is a future, and the possibility of living in a better society.”
Her ongoing goal is to raise awareness about bullying by talking about it.
“If you are a victim of bullying, don’t stay silent,” she said.
While social media tends to get a bad rap, Gutiérrez has used it to empower women and promote positive thinking.
“Social media helped me to share that there is nothing to hide,” she said, “and especially nothing to be embarrassed about.”