It was a telecommuting day for Esther. She works with a non-profit across the river — some days there, some days from home. We met during her lunch break at the park so that her boys — 6-year-old Alexander and 4-year-old Maximo — could play while we talked. Maximo — already dashing off to busy himself with ladders and slides when I arrived; Alexander — hanging back to tell me that school would start soon and he was going to be in first grade.

“Long Beach School,” he informed me. And when I told him that I was once a teacher at his very school he considered that carefully — then told me all about last year’s Kindergarten teacher who, he said, he liked a lot. He wasn’t sure whose class he’d be in this fall but it didn’t seem concerning. Besides, he had other things to tell me… But his mother gently suggested he might go play while she and I talked. Off he went, with a big smile. Off to out-climb his little brother!

“I went to Long Beach School, too,” Esther said softly. “I went to all four schools here — Ocean Park for preschool, then Long Beach, Hilltop and Ilwaco High. I graduated in 2007. I loved school. I did well in all my classes. And I had lots of friends.” She spoke with quiet confidence — not boastfully, but with conviction.

Really? 2007, I thought. This slim slip-of-a-girl with her shining dark hair and oh-so-soft voice has been out of high school for 10 years? Never mind that — she is married, has two little boys, has a career path in a responsible job and a huge story to tell…

“None of my friends in school were from the Hispanic community.” She pauses, thinking. “In fact, as I remember,” she said, “there was only one other Hispanic student at my grade level until about fourth grade; later three or four, but not in any of my classes. I never spoke Spanish at school or even much in our Hispanic community. Only at home. I definitely wanted to identify with the mainstream culture.”

“I remember the feeling I had in first grade when I had an assignment to do at home and my mother couldn’t help me. She couldn’t yet read or even understand spoken English too well. It was a horrible feeling. I don’t think it was shame that I felt exactly. It was just the realization that there were some things in my world that my mother couldn’t share with me.” She grew thoughtful.

“It was the language barrier, but it was the education barrier, too. She grew up in a remote village in Mexico and only went to first grade. There was too much to do at home and school meant spending money they didn’t have. Sometimes I see adults asking children to translate for them. It breaks my heart — kids translating conversations that they shouldn’t be part of. They’re just kids! But there are so many pressures…’

“I was born here — actually in Salem, Oregon — and at that time my folks were undocumented. There was an amnesty around the time I was born — 1989 — and they could begin the path to citizenship. It took them a long time — until 1996 for my father and 2000 for my mother. Now they are full U.S. citizens, so they have no worries.

“Even so, we all keep our documentation close at hand; we all have passports. You can never tell if you might be questioned or stopped by some authority. Especially my husband Luis. He finally has ‘Permanent Resident’ status. There is still a lot to do…”

A pause as she approaches the boys to speak quietly to them. Other families had brought their kids to play. Perhaps Esther was speaking to her sons about sharing. Hard to tell. I’d have given them both high marks for “plays well with others.”

“My quinceañera was the turning point for me. Suddenly, I realized that I did belong to the Hispanic community. Not only that, but I wanted to belong! My inherited culture began to become important to me and I found I wanted to participate more with my ‘other’ community — ‘my birth culture.’

“Part of what I felt — not belonging to either group — was that I was being raised with traditional ideals and values that my parents had grown up with in Mexico. Everything was family oriented — especially for girls. Being ‘independent’ wasn’t a goal for girls and women — not like here. On the other hand, in school and in the mainstream culture, there is a big emphasis on girls being as capable and as self-sufficient as boys. I gravitated toward that, but it wasn’t what the standards I heard at home were all about.

“I don’t think I was all one or the other — not totally in one culture or another. I did lots of things with my school friends but I never dated. Not in high school. That didn’t feel right to me. On the other hand, until my Quinceañera, I didn’t participate much with the Latino community. But, all that changed when I was 15. Then I began to figure out who I really was.”

“When I first went to ‘The U’ — the University of Washington — I felt a lot of stress. Coming from our little Peninsula and suddenly being on a large campus with hundreds of classmates was confusing and scary. Too, I found the city overwhelming. I was unsure how to get around or even where to go. It was extremely difficult for me. It was like a third community culture that I had no models for. I was not prepared. Plus, I found that people in the city celebrated their diversity and displayed their cultural differences proudly. Confusion! And more stress!

“Then I learned that there were counseling services. Free! For people like me! So, I went and found what they offered very helpful — one-on-one counseling plus support groups and good reading references. I began to gain confidence and to make friends. Little did I know that my experience in that program would stand me in good stead years later when I began our journey to attain citizenship for Luis. But it did — and not in any way you might think!!”

As we talk, I find it difficult to imagine this remarkably poised young woman ever feeling stress. Even the few times she needs to call out to her sons — a cautionary word to Maximo-the-risk-taker or a gentle reminder to Alexander-the-oldest — she hardly raises her voice. I remember back a few weeks when I first met her. We were in a large group and though I was not sitting far from her, I had to strain a bit to hear her offer to tell her story. What a lovely demeanor, I thought. Is that partly cultural, I wondered.

It was while she was at The U that she met Luis — through a friend of a friend. He was undocumented but not too worried about it. I was a bit concerned, she smiles, but what can I say? I fell head over heels for him. One of those love at first sight things! For both of us. We were married in a year. After Alexander was born, we got to work on getting Luis legal. Little did I know what we were about to face! Would you like to see the paperwork?”

Read next week for more on the process of “getting legal.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Increasing immigration enforcement since the inauguration of President Donald Trump is an important story in Pacific County and elsewhere in the nation. But it’s a difficult story to tell, because the people most affected — undocumented immigrants — are often afraid to speak to authorities, including the news media. Chinook Observer columnist and retired teacher Sydney Stevens is writing this series, “Stories from the heart,” in an unconventional way that will mostly avoid specifically identifying the people she is reporting about. Their quotes are real, their stories are real. We hope it will help illuminate this issue that is having profound impacts on Pacific County’s families, culture and economy.

‘[My mother] grew up in a remote village in Mexico and only went to first grade. There was too much to do at home and school meant spending money they didn’t have.’

The Fiesta de Quinceañera is a big celebration on the occasion of a girl’s 15th birthday. It celebrates the girl, not the birthday, and it is far more than what we think of as “a birthday party.” It is a time when a girl transitions into young womanhood with the blessing of God and the expectation that she will shed the more carefree days of childhood and take on the responsibilities that God expects of women.

In the old days, as girls in Mexico and many of the Latin American countries were growing up, they were taught by the older women of the family. They learned to weave and cook and to care for children — all with the expectation that after their quinceañera they would be ready to marry and take their place in the community as wives and mothers.

Each Latin American country has their own variations to the cultural components of a Fiesta de Quinceañera. The ceremony can be very simple or quite elaborate, depending upon the desires and circumstances of the family. Traditionally, the customs highlight God, family, friends, music, food, and dance.

In general, the Fiesta begins at church with a quinceañera mass which is an act of thanksgiving for Life and Faith and is crowned by God’s blessing. That is the time, too, for the Traditional Ceremony Gifts that are presented to the priest for a special blessing. Although a quinceañera mass is not a Catholic sacrament like a baptism or confirmation, it is a significant cultural ritual within the Hispanic community that solidifies the girl’s commitment to her faith.

Afterward, there is a big party for friends and extended family, often in the reception area of the church which is festooned with flowers and balloons and special decorations matching the ‘birthday girl’s’ dress. The party usually includes dinner and dancing as well as special traditions that involve specific roles for parents, godparents, and other family members. It is an important rite of passage for girls of Hispanic heritage.

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