Friday, April 3, 2009

Aquí Estamos: From Guatemala to la Casa Blanca

Yesterday I received some news that reminded me of my oldest and dearest comadre, Norma. She is pictured here with her four children – Olga, Normita, Henry and Willie. They fled to this country – mostly separately – escaping a situation of extreme violence in their homeland, Guatemala.

Henry came first and settled in Northern Virginia. He filed for asylum and started to work, first in restaurants and later as a teller. Olga came next, even though she was still a young teenager. Arriving in California, she called her brother who got her a ticket to Virginia and became her legal guardian so she could go back to school.

When the situation at home in Guatemala became life threatening, Norma fled, leaving Normita and Willie with a foster family, and payed a “coyote” who smuggled her to El Norte. She got a job as a babysitter with a diplomatic family. We talked across the fence and I helped her get the medical, dental and vision care she needed. Helping Norma get her dentures helped me conquer my fear of dentists and start getting regular dental care again for the first time since childhood. The dentist who attended her pro bono became my dentist too.

Whenever she had free time, Norma would come over and we would exchange informal English and Spanish conversation lessons. At Christmas, we would join forces and make tamales at my house. Norma provided the culinary expertise; I helped with the ingredients, a big kitchen, and an extra pair of hands.

Finally, she sent for Willie and Normita and they came up via another “coyote”, getting caught the first time by the Mexican police. On the second try, they made it across the border. Once reunited, the whole family filed for political asylum and Normita joined her sister in high school.

I remember going with Norma to her immigration lawyer’s office to translate. The lawyer was trying to establish that Norma was not an economic refugee and asked her if she had any property. I reminded Norma that, when we were looking at my tomatoes and green beans, she had told me that she had a “little patch” in Guatemala where she planted some vegetables. She smiled and gave the details – acreage and location. But, she added, there was more than that. She began to list all her little holdings scattered around Guatemala and it went on for a couple of pages. The attorney was beaming and I was floored. My friend, the “poor” Guatemalan babysitter with a third grade education, owned more land than I did!

The family won asylum with a lot of prayer, some help from Rep. Jim Moran’s office, and based on the doctrine of “imputed political belief” (persecution based on what the persecutor thinks the person believes, regardless of whether or not the person actually holds those beliefs).

This photo was taken in 1992. Today, Norma is a grandmother. Henry is a manager at a Toyota dealership. Normita is a manager at CVS. She married an American and became a mother herself. Olga became the first person in her family to graduate from college, getting a nursing degree from Howard University last year.

And then there’s Willie. When he first got here, he was bitter and withdrawn. The journey had been traumatic; he had been uprooted from all he knew. Unlike his sisters, he was too old for high school. Norma was worried about him. I asked him what he had done in Guatemala. He told me he had been an auto mechanic. We went to Sears and bought him a basic set of tools so he could work on cars and bring in a little cash. Back under the hood of a car, Willie was in his element and in a few months he earned enough to pay for the tools.

Eventually Willie got his work permit and a neighbor, who had been impressed by the work Willie had done on his car, helped him get a job with a friend in the auto repair business. Willie has worked steadily ever since.

Now, Willie is the father of two sons – William and Kevin – both born here. Yesterday he came by our house to pick up the last of the tools he was storing there, bringing a chapter of our lives to a close. He told us that his sons had entered a competition of students writing letters to President Obama. Their letter was one of those chosen and so these American sons of a Guatemalan family that waded across the Rio Grande many years ago, will be received at the White House as honored guests next week. Dios es bueno.

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