Twice I have lived in other countries for an extended period of time. Once, I worked in a department store in London, England, selling women's hosiery. The language was less a barrier than the money, and I could ask questions when I ran into a problem. I made minimum wage.
I rode the bus to and from work and took the "tube" and double-decker buses for sightseeing jaunts. I was single, and I had a guaranteed return trip ticket back to the States.
I was not afraid I would not survive, and I was not responsible for taking care of anyone else.
Twenty-five years later, I was an exchange teacher in a sister- school in Imabari on the southern island of Shikoku in Japan. I had studied the language, but Japanese - with its complexities and subtleties - was a mystery to me - and remains so to this day. I can boast now little more that what I could boast 30 years ago. I am fluent in English, I can speak enough French to survive minimally, and I can speak and understand a few words of Japanese. Living in Japan was the closest I have ever come to feeling truly alienated because almost everyone else did not speak my language.
Even so, most of the people with whom I came in contact on a daily basis in Japan spoke English, and they were patient with my struggling Japanese. I was traveling with my college age daughter who had spent a year in Japan and was fluent in the language that stymied her mother. I was taken into the homes of hospitable families. I was provided every meal. I was driven to work every day by one of the other teachers. I was taken care of, looked after, attended to. I was not afraid I would not survive, and I was not responsible for taking care of anyone else.
With this pampered history of being "a stranger in a strange land" - as Robert Heinlein titles one of his science fiction novels with its themes of alienation and misunderstanding - I came to the Peninsula, where eventually I met three women whose journeys have been anything but pampered. These were women who came to a land strange to them, where English is their second language, where life as an immigrant can be uncertain, and where they are responsible not only for taking care of themselves, but also for taking care of their children and sometimes extended family. The first story is Marta Herrejon's.
I hear about Marta Herrejon long before I track her down and set up an interview at a time that fits her busy schedule. I know she works as a staff assistant in the preschool program here on the Peninsula. People speak highly of her, her strong work ethic, and her contribution as a translator for Hispanic preschool children. I know she is a force in the Hispanic community on the Peninsula. There is much more I do not know.
When I go to her house one rainy October afternoon last fall, she greets me at the door. The house is warm and cozy, and dinner is on the stove. A parakeet chirps in the background. The television runs cartoons. It is very much like any household with three busy youngsters and a single mother who is the sole provider.
Two of the girls - Cindy, 12, and Angie, 9 - come into the living room to be introduced to me. They are polite and a little shy, but interested in what's going on. The oldest girl - Carolyn, 13, is still at school, and Marta warns me ahead of time that she will have to leave for a few minutes to pick up her daughter from an after-school activity. The girls go back to their play, and we two women inch into getting to know each other. We have barriers of language, education, and experience, but we have connections of children, divorce, and hard work. Today, she tells me, her divorce is final. "It's hard," she says, "but good for me. It's hard right now, but get-togethers and happenings help. We are better off single. I am strong."
I believe her. She's a little bit of a woman, like my own mother, and she has the same spunk. Like my mother, Marta makes me believe that if we were choosing up sides I'd want her on mine. She tells her story quietly, with humor and a smile. Strong, apparently, does not have to rule out pleasant. Her girls see her as being strong, and they help out. "We are strong," Marta emphasizes again. "We love. We work together. " I believe that, too.
I try several words before we connect on the title of her job: staff assistant. "Yes, I help the teachers. Sometimes I help the students. If they don't understand what the teacher says, then I say in Spanish, and we work together. When I don't understand, then I know some of the students don't understand. When I understand, I know I can tell the students."
Marta knows about hard work. When she was fourteen, her father died, and her mother had to work to support nine children. The oldest brother and sister immediately went to work. Marta herself finished high school at fourteen and went to work in Mexico City, working in a supermarket and in a shop selling children's clothes, which she liked the best. Since being in the States, she has worked as a housekeeper, a bookkeeper, a cook and a prep cook.
Marta knows about the fear and uncertainty of trying to communicate in a second language. When she first moved to the States from Mexico, she lived in big cities in Texas and California. "I didn't understand English. When I went to the store, people would laugh. Then I went to work in the community, went to meetings, and to church. I learned."
Marta also knows success. She has been in the U.S. for 19 years now and speaks and understands English very well. Her three daughters were born in the United States and are fluent in English. Gradually, the family worked its way up the coast to the Peninsula, which Marta likes the best.
"The best thing," she says, smiling, "is all the people. They respect me. I am a single mother, and they give me the opportunity for everything. Sometimes at the church they need help, and I go there to work. We work together. All the people understand that I am single, and they are nice. In the city, they do not give us the opportunity like here."
Marta knows the importance of goals. "My first time here," she explains, "my daughters and I make goals, and we work for those goals." Her most important goal is "to show my daughters that every woman, every mother can have goals and achieve them." To do that, she talks to her daughters to help them understand about life in a single parent household, how and why they are working together. For example, Marta wants to buy a house. She is leasing the house they live in now, and that is one step closer to owning a house. When they moved to the Peninsula, they made a goal to stay in one place until the three girls graduate from high school.
Marta's personal goal is to get her GED. "I've gone for nine months to the college studying English to get my GED," which she has to have to qualify for citizenship. However, when she applied for a job, she had to drop out of the GED program. Not just because of work, but also because she volunteers at the church. "It's a time thing," she says, voicing the familiar "Catch-22" of any working parent. Eventually, however, she will get her GED and her citizenship. I don't doubt it. She's already made a believer out of me about a number of other things.
When Marta leaves to pick up her oldest daughter at school, the other two girls come in to talk with me. They are friendly, articulate, and straightforward in their answers to my questions. The younger one is a bit shy, but before long she and her sister chatter along impressively. The middle daughter talks matter-of-factly about divorce and moving and working mothers and fathers with visitation rights. A loud squawk comes from the corner of the room, and the conversation turns to Kiwi, the parakeet. Kiwi screeches again, and Angie, the youngest, fills me in on details about the pet bird.
"She's the mother," she says. "The husband died."
Cindy clarifies. "He ate something that made him very, very sick."
"He was very, very old," Angie insists. "His name was Bubba." Cindy rolls her eyes.
When the oldest daughter, Carolyn, returns from her after school activity, she willingly sits down to participate in the interview. Cindy and Angie head for the kitchen to have some supper, while Carolyn answers my question about the best thing about living on the Peninsula. "It's quiet," she says without hesitation. This is a beautiful 13-year-old, who is obviously bright and extremely articulate for her age. Carolyn is, I realize, just a year younger than Marta was when she went to work to earn money like an adult. The mother's resolve is beautifully evident in the daughter.
One of the hardest thing about being on the Peninsula, the girls tell me, is hearing people talk about "the Mexicans who come here" and how some people make fun of new people by saying they're "like Mexicans" when they can't speak English. "It makes me feel bad," one of them says, "and in Mexico they made fun of me when I couldn't talk in Spanish." Another "Catch-22." Their descriptions of every day school life is like what we read in the newspapers nationwide. Kids make fun of other kids. Kids hear other kids talk about belonging to gangs and getting mad at each other and fighting. Sometimes kids feel safe. Sometimes they don't.
Carolyn takes her mother's goal setting seriously. She herself is planning to go to college and then to law school to become a lawyer and practice family law. "When my folks were getting the divorce and talking about custody and stuff, it got me interested."
The little sisters look not only to their mother for guidance, but also to Carolyn. "We keep following her like she's the leader," Angie says of her big sister. The sisters have a way of talking with each other as well as to their mom to problem solve, and Carolyn naturally feels the responsibility of being the oldest. "It bothers me a little bit because I don't follow anyone else - except my mom of course. I don't really feel like talking about my problems with my sisters, so, every morning after they go to school, I talk to my mom in private while she drives me to school." Carolyn also finds support among her friends - one in particular - from a teacher, from her youth group at church, and from being in sports at school.
I ask Carolyn and Cindy if they have any advice for others. Carolyn doesn't even have to think about her answer. "Yes. Follow your mentor. My mom was my mentor when I was little. She told me stuff I could use in the future. That has helped me more and more."
Mentor is a sophisticated word, and I ask Carolyn if that is a word her mom used. "Actually," she says, "the word my mom used was role model, but I looked it up in the thesaurus to find another word for it and I found 'mentor.' That's a word I liked more."
Cindy's advice is simple. "Always be safe. If you have to tell something - something bad that happened - tell a teacher or a parent. My mom is really independent and I trust her a lot. She gives herself goals and then she does them. She's really independent and strong. I trust her. I tell her everything. I express my feelings [to her]. I cry. She's my diary."
Marta's parting words contain the truth of how she lives her life: with goals and gratitude. "Tell everybody - if they have goals and are a single woman - they can do anything. And thank you to everyone I know who's helped us."
Frequently, when families immigrate, the children pick up the new language and new ways more quickly than the adults. Sometimes this creates a problem. Sometimes, elder family members, who have previously held positions of respect and authority in the family, lose credibility. The whole family system can be turned upside-down. Not so in the Herrejon family. They are strong and loving and thriving. The daughters are taught to have goals and to seek out mentors by a mother who is as trustable as a personal diary. Together they are proof positive that family is family - in any language.