Portrait of Maria

“I was going to be a doctor at home. Here I clean houses. But if you allow yourself to be depressed you will be.”

I was in college studying medicine in Ecuador. My first daughter had been born prematurely, and when I was pregnant with my second daughter the doctor said I had to stay in bed for one and a half months. Two weeks before she was born, I suffered facial paralysis that lasted for seven months. I lost a lot of time not being in classes.

The next year I tried to go back to college but they had changed from a traditional system to a modular system. I had 5 years of study, but I would have to go back to the second module. I could move to a different city with a university with a traditional system, or start over where I was. I thought of starting a business, and applied for jobs. I knew how to use a computer so I ended up working as a secretary for five years. That was when my husband decided to come here. The idea was to have a house one day, to earn money for one or two years and return.

Six months later I decided to come join him. I came here April 24, 1999, a Saturday. My daughters stayed with my mother in Ecuador for three years. When I entered the US I was given six months to stay. I got a job in a box factory, cutting sponge for packaging. I worked four days the first week and was paid $200. It was more than I would have made in a month back home. I lived in an apartment with my husband and my brother and sister in law. It took two weeks work to earn our living expenses, rent and food, and then the rest we could save. I worked there only two weeks. My sister-in-law was cleaning houses and schools. She was leaving to go back to Ecuador and told her boss that I would take over her job. But she lied to me—I thought it was a full time job, but it was only two houses.

The people I worked for thought I didn’t know any English at all because I didn’t talk much. For two months I listened to the husband calling me stupid idiot and saying why do you pay her so much? The woman made me coffee one day and was trying to teach me to say “su-gar,” talking to me like a small child. One day I was tired and the husband dropped me off. I say, “thank you so much have a nice weekend,” and he was shocked. Why don’t you tell me you speak English? Your sister-in-law said you only know how to say hello. I explained that I know more but when you are learning a new language you are afraid to speak. They were very sorry, and after that they were really nice with me and with my daughters when they came, and helped me find more jobs.

In 2002 we went back for our daughter’s first communion. We got both our daughters visas and decided to bring them back to the U.S. with us. We tried to enroll our daughters in school. We brought the papers to the school district. They took our passports. We will let you know which school and which grades your daughters will be in. They were assigned to second and fourth grade. In my country they were in fifth grade and seventh grade. I was asked to go talk to someone at the school district. The lady had noticed my daughters had a visitor’s visa, she became angry, screamed at us and said your daughters don’t have the right to be here. I was told by her, “If you try to have them in this school, I will call immigration.” And she would not give us our papers back. That was the only time I thought that we should go back to my country. So we tried a Catholic school. The first one would not take them because they didn’t have a teacher who could teach them English. So we tried another school, and they said they could take them. They would spend the first year just to learn English, and they would be in grades 3 and 5. The principle said that to put them in the grades that they were in at home would be like putting lambs in a pack of wolves. This turned out to be the right decision. The culture is different here and girls that age in Ecuador are still children.

We had a party when I was leaving, with food and family. My mother’s family had a big barbecue with friends, aunts, and cousins. We had barbecue meat, corn on the cob, potatoes, and yucca. My friends brought chicken and rice. There was lots of food, lots of meat, and lots of friends. We were celebrating because I was going to be with my husband. My girls called my sister’s house at 5am to say goodbye. My father-in-law came with me to the airport. I flew to Newark and took a train to Philadelphia.

While my husband was away in my country (he went back to renew visa) I couldn’t pay anyone to take care of the girls while I was at work, so they stayed alone. They had to grow up fast. One would cook. The other would clean. They were 9 and 10. I got home from work at midnight. They made dinner and left it for me each night. They cooked rice with eggs and cheese. I was afraid for them to cook. I had to buy cell phones. They called me and asked me how to cook soup, and I had to explain potato soup over the phone. This was in the summer and they were all day at home. One thing I will never forget, on my birthday they made brownies for me in a Daisy Bake Oven. They went to the supermarket and made a cake and brought it to me at 5 am before I went to work.

Work here is difficult. Everyone comes, wants a good job, good luck, and someone to help. I can’t say anything bad. It’s hard work but I can help my daughters. The girls have made opportunities here.

I was going to be a doctor at home. Here I clean houses. But if you allow yourself to be depressed you will be. I belong to an organization, Centre de Apoyo Communitarios. We work with Villanova students to help community members open ITINs (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number) and file taxes; we also help people with ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. We hope to hold trainings about domestic abuse very soon. Helping others makes me feel more worthwhile.

28 and 29. IMG_0402

Portraits of People on the Move tells the stories of Philadelphia-area immigrants through their own words on the Supperdance.com blog and was first shown as an exhibition June 25–28, 2015, at the Gray Area of Crane Arts in Philadelphia. The exhibition was created as a companion work to Supper, People on the Move by Cardell Dance Theater, a dance inspired by themes of migration.

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