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South Chicago, East Side

Women Behind Mujeres Brillantes, A Southeast Side Cleaning Cooperative, Say They’re Making Strides Toward A Safer, Fairer Industry

"I'd see a lot of discrimination, I'd see a lot of abuse for [cleaning] workers," said co-founder Maria Estela Nava, who has worked in the industry for decades. "We decided to do something on our own."

Estela Nava, Mairim Fernandez and Esmeralda Gutierrez of Cooperative Mujeres Brillantes, a cleaning co-op in East Side, pose for a photo at the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos office on Sept. 26, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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EAST SIDE — Maria Estela Nava, who’s spent decades as a domestic and commercial cleaning worker, is tired of the wage theft, mistreatment and favoritism that is rampant in her industry.

Nava has seen her employers take advantage of her and her colleagues — many of whom are immigrants and don’t speak English, she said. In recent years, she has pursued a new path forward: uniting with her fellow workers to run their own business.

“I’d see a lot of discrimination, I’d see a lot of abuse for the workers,” Nava said. “We decided to do something on our own.”

Nava and two colleagues, Esmeralda Gutierrez and Mairim Fernandez, unveiled their cooperative cleaning company Mujeres Brillantes last month.

The trio shares profits as they clean homes, offices and businesses, even if one of the women is unable to work on a given day, they said. They also have an equal say in the jobs they take and the way they’re treated on the job.

Mujeres Brillantes formed in 2019, and have stuck to their business plan despite numerous delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The company was recognized under the state’s Limited Worker Cooperative Association Act in May, and launched publicly in August.

Nava, Gutierrez and Fernandez started by cleaning for clients they worked for prior to forming Mujeres Brillantes. On Sept. 18, they completed their first new job as a cooperative — a large Northbrook home where they’ll return monthly or as the homeowner needs, Gutierrez said through a translator.

They’re also in talks with Claretian Associates in South Chicago to clean the nonprofit’s office, Gutierrez said.

It’s been a slow grind so far to secure new jobs, but the women have “had a lot of phone calls, doing estimates, seeing if the person is interested,” Nava said.

The East Side-based Centro de Trabajadores Unidos, or United Workers’ Center, helped the three women with training and licensing through the center’s cooperative incubator.

“We had been hearing from a lot of our members about the abuse in the workplace, and for years we have been fighting these bad employers that have been abusing their workers,” economic justice organizer Maricela Estrada said.

“We felt, why not create an alternative model — alternative ways that [workers] themselves can create fair wages and employment? Estrada said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Estela Nava of Cooperative Mujeres Brillantes, a cleaning co-op in East Side, cleans the bathroom at Stella’s Hair Studio on Sept. 26, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Esmeralda Gutierrez of Cooperative Mujeres Brillantes, a cleaning co-op in East Side, sweeps the floor at Stella’s Hair Studio on Sept. 26, 2022.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Esmeralda Gutierrez, Estela Nava and Mairim Fernandez of Cooperative Mujeres Brillantes, a cleaning co-op in East Side, pose for a photo on Sept. 26, 2022.

The cooperative model offers disenfranchised people a lane to employment and even ownership, Estrada said. It’s accessible to people regardless of immigration status, as they need an individual taxpayer identification number to be hired, not a social security number, she said.

Mujeres Brillantes was founded in no small part to employ and empower immigrants, who in 2020 accounted for nearly four in 10 domestic workers in the Chicago area, as reported by WBEZ.

“It’s a good start, to do something not only for us, but for our people,” Nava said.

The three founders aren’t looking to hire immediately, but will do so as they take on more contracts — and those staffers will have an opportunity to become co-owners, they said.

Employees must work for Mujeres Brillantes for at least six months, receive unanimous approval from the existing owners, pay $500 and meet other requirements under the cooperative’s bylaws to become a part-owner, Gutierrez and Estrada said.

“I’m a single mom, and I know how hard it is to try to raise a family and work,” Gutierrez said. “I’m trying to help other moms in the community … . In the future, we’ll have more people join and be co-owners. We’ll have the same, equal benefits for everybody, and have this grow into something big.”

To inquire about hiring Mujeres Brillantes, call Nava at 773-375-3002, Fernandez at 312-662-8911 or Gutierrez at 312-504-0852 from 8 a.m.-7 p.m.

Basic cleaning starts at $100 and depends on the size of the space to be cleaned. Deep cleanings require in-person visits for a quote.

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