By Marjorie Leopold
I’m a member of the Ulster Immigrant Defense Network. I’ve also been teaching the English language for the past four years to parents and other family members whose children go to public schools in Ulster County, through a largely volunteer program run by Ulster Literacy Association.
The motivation and persistence of these adult learners is inspiring, as is the dedication of our volunteers. Our learners often have exhausting jobs (and more than their share of worries), but they put tremendous effort into learning English. As teachers and tutors we take considerable pride in creating effective lessons. But perhaps best of all, each class quickly becomes a microcosm of an international learning community, and each relationship represents the chance to turn “others” into real people with life stories marked by courage, fear, resilience, family loyalty and hope. Teachers, tutors and learners build trust, learn from our mistakes, laugh a lot, listen deeply, and sometimes cry together.
This is one of my friends. I’ll call her Reina. She’s small and strong, with high cheekbones and dark, observant eyes. She was born in a remote, rural village outside of Puebla, Mexico, one of nine children. Her father came home twice a year from his job in Mexico City, and when she was ten he left for the U.S. A few years later her three older brothers joined farmworkers on an onion farm near Goshen, while her father worked near Monticello on a duck-raising farm.
Still in Mexico, Reina was always on the honor role. She finished high school at fifteen, and went to Oaxaca for three years to study nursing. But at eighteen Reina needed to return to her village. With a slight sigh of regret, but clearly no resentment, Reina says, “There was no money, so I had to give up my studies.” For the next four years Reina took care of her younger sisters because her mother left for New York for work.
At age 22, in 1997, Reina came to the U.S. to live with her mother, who was working at a laundry in Middletown. “I arrived Sunday morning, and later that afternoon my mom said we’d go grocery shopping. I was shocked when I saw people with carts filled with food, so I was thinking what it would be like if I could buy this food in my town. Packages of meat! Chicken! Cookies! Bread! In my town you can’t buy that amount of food.”
Although she spoke no English, Reina quickly found a job, packing beauty supplies. For the next three years she earned $249.00 per week, placing wands into mascara tubes on an assembly line—discovering, incidentally, that even though the labels said Neutrogena, Maybelline, Avon or L’Oreal, the actual mascaras and wands were exactly the same! Reina could sometimes send money back to Mexico, but she had to pay rent, buy clothes and food, toiletries, etc., so there was little to spare.
Reina met her husband through her sister-in-law, while he was working in a restaurant in New York City. He, too, was born in Mexico, and like others came to the U.S. to work and send money back home. The couple fell in love, married, and had their first daughter two years later. Another daughter arrived after three years. Early in their marriage they moved to Kingston. The children are now in 8th and 5th grades. The family is close, and the children are studious. Although their apartment is on the second floor of a run down Kingston two-family, their pleasant uncluttered two-bedroom has shining wood floors, and the kitchen table is covered with a hand embroidered tablecloth from a relative back home. They live near the public library, a favorite place for Reina and both kids. Reina’s husband works long hours in a restaurant and does his own jobs on weekends. He takes off two days a month to be with his family.
A few years ago Reina’s mother succumbed to lymphoma. We talked a lot about her mother’s treatment and side effects; we shared that connection of hope and helplessness since my husband died from lymphoma a few years earlier. To see her mother, Reina traveled to Westchester Hospital a few times a week, taking several buses each time. Her mother wanted to die in her village in Mexico, but that didn’t happen, and I drove down to the Bronx to attend her funeral. Reina’s children were sitting quietly in the row in front of me when I got there. The chapel was filled with family and friends as the singers near the casket intoned a haunting song, many times over. I listened and cried on and off for two hours. Reina and I embraced and I felt wordlessly close to her. Maybe she felt the same way about me.
Reina works in a factory again, not quite full time, five nights a week, taking home $270.00 per week, and she also cleans a few houses a week during school hours. Without papers she can’t further her education (although she’s now pretty fluent in English), or buy health insurance for herself and her husband, or get a driver’s license. But the immediate problem is fear of deportation. Her husband’s boss paid for a lawyer, but they learned it is impossible for them to get papers at this time.
“Our children know they have to be good students so they can get college scholarships,” she says. Her children indeed study hard and do well in school. Reina and her family wish it were possible to get legal residence. “It could change many things!” Without it, Reina and her husband have assured the children they will bring them to Mexico if either or both parents are deported. If it happens before the school year is over the children will stay with their aunt.
Everything is uncertain. The immediate trauma of Trump’s election has given way to waves of anxiety. This is everywhere now. Reina and her family, like so many others, do their best to live with it.
*”Reina” is not her real name. Some other details that could identify her have also been changed.