Teresa, a 53-year-old woman born in El Salvador, has been living in the U.S. since 1996. She is married and has one daughter and five grandchildren. We met Teresa at CIANA (Center for the Integration and Advancement of New Americans) a few years ago when she came to ask for legal assistance for her grandchildren. This is her story.
A tough start in El Salvador.
Teresa came to the United States on her own through the Mexico-Texas border in the area of Corpus Christi when she was 33. She was born in San Miguel in El Salvador, the country’s second-biggest city. Teresa worked hard since she was a little girl, and did not have access to a proper education. Born to a very humble family, she suffered from lack of opportunity, education, and support, and couldn’t afford either to go to college or have a professional career.
Back in El Salvador, Teresa worked in sales for several years. She had her first child at the age of 22 and a second one a few years later. At the time, she was financially struggling, juggling between a survival job and her children’s education. Her second child became sick at age 4 and passed away, and his death had a huge impact on Teresa’s life. She didn’t want to live anymore. She felt hopeless and she didn’t see any future for her in El Salvador – life felt like a dead-end. But one day, her aunt who resided in the United States, suggested she come to live with her. Teresa didn’t think twice and left El Salvador: “Not a job anymore,” said Teresa. “Not a good opportunity to seize for the future”
Her aunt helped to finance her journey from El Salvador to the U.S. They spent 4,000 dollars to pay a “coyote” – a person smuggling people across the Mexico-United States border. She was lucky to cross it safely, as a lot of women are assaulted or sexually abused during their journey to the U.S. border. The first stop in her journey was in Guatemala where a lot of people tried to cross the border with her. Then in Mexico, she crossed the whole country and traveled about 1,505 miles using different types of transportation. She also had to pay people to hide her during her stay in Mexico. “You have to play smart, because if someone sees that you can be manageable, they try and take advantage of you,” cautioned Teresa. She was lucky enough to stay out of trouble and not draw any attention from the police. After a one-month journey from San Miguel, she arrived in New York City and started a new life.
What was your mindset during your journey?
“When you are running for your life, you’re not thinking of anybody else. I remember when I was running, we crossed a deserted land in Mexico, but we had to cross a different area with small fences in between. One man was running and he pushed me, and I fell on a cactus. So I stopped running and said, if I have to stay here so be it, but I’ll not run anymore and I crossed the land without running and everything was fine. I didn’t take my daughter with me, I didn’t know what the journey would be like and I was afraid what could happen to her. I left her with her father’s parents; they took good care of her. It was very hard, but you think you’re doing the best for your kid. At that time, I wasn’t thinking right. In another situation, I wouldn’t have made the same decision.”
Tell us about the first years of your new life in New York City.
“Once I arrived in New York, my first job was to baby-sit my niece and then clean apartments. I was 34 when I got here, and I started taking English classes. I took the home-aid training and I took care of the elderly at home. In 1998, I volunteered for five years in an organization for immigrant rights within the Hispanic community. Later, I was employed there and worked as a community organizer until 2005. After that, I worked for El Centro Hispanico in Queens, with newcomers and immigrants. This holistic program provided training to the community by understanding what it is like to be a new immigrant and asking the question: What can you do?’ Similar to what CIANA does.”
Working with all these immigrants, did you ever think that there was something in the system that has to be changed?
“Everything has to be changed in the system. Every group has to have the same rights and possibilities. They should invest in education and give the opportunity to get educated and have some better programs for newcomers. When you come here without speaking English, without knowing where to get help, it is way more difficult. You don’t feel like part of the larger community, it’s not easy. Not everyone has the courage to ask for help.”
Tell us about your grandchildren.
“I have four grandchildren who crossed the border. One lives in Virginia with her daughter and grandmother. The other one, he lives with me; I have custody of him. My granddaughter crossed the border with her two younger siblings, at that time aged 11 and 5, and her baby daughter of 6 months. She travelled with three young children all the way from El Salvador to the Texas border. They paid someone to bring them to the border. They got caught at the border, and the U.S. authorities took them to a detention center.”
Why did they leave El Salvador?
“Long story. They lived in El Salvador with their aunt. One day, they started receiving blackmail calls from a gang for money. Death threats. They tried many times to escape and find a solution like moving to Guatemala. But back in El Salvador, the problem with the gangs remained the same. And then my daughter got involved with one of the gangs and she got arrested. My grandchildren were in danger; one of them could not finish school as the gang had an eye on him to make him join it. My granddaughter was afraid all the time that something could happen to her daughter. So they left El Salvador. You have to understand the situation there – if you are not part of the gang, your life is threatened and if you are part of it your life is in danger! It is out of control – either way you can get killed.”
Did you ever go back to El Salvador?
“Now that I have my family with me, I don’t know if I’ll ever move back there. The health-care system is not good and it’s not safe there. We don’t think we’ll move back even if we retire. But I visited my father and sisters, I enjoy going back but it feels different even though I lived half my life there. It’s not easy to live in an area where something could happen to you any time.”
Would you say that New York is your home or El Salvador?
“I think I’m not in at a place right now to say what is my home. When I was in El Salvador last time with my father and sisters, I enjoyed it but I felt out of the place sometimes because you don’t have friends there. They say ‘you can’t go home again’ because it changes. Here I feel like whatever has to be, will be.”
If you think and you could change one thing about immigration and people coming from El Salvador to the U.S. what would it be?
“Like I said, opportunities and more programs with and for the community. It is so hard to find English classes for adults, not easy to find programs in general. I didn’t even finish high school, but everything I learned was to be better, because I want to be better, and working with the community gives me the motivation to continue. I have a Muslim friend and we’ve been working on a campaign to promote Muslim holidays a few years ago. It was in cooperation with a Mosque in Corona with the Muslim community, and for the first time this year, Muslim holidays are observed in all the public schools in New York City.”
Teresa testified in front of the New York City Council about her experience as a community organizer for immigrants in the city. She talked to the president of the Committee for Immigrants and asked for more help and budgets to support local organizations such as CIANA. She advocated for complete immigration reform, family reunification, and a reduction in the time processing the residence of noncitizens. Then Teresa added “I spoke to them in favor of the community, in front of all the budget committee and other groups. I told them they should not cut programs that help the community. If your organization works with a budget, but you don’t know what it will look like next year and you don’t have the money, when they cut the programs the clients get lost in the system with no help. Immigrants and newcomers get help in the area where they live. When you are a community organizer like me, you work 24/7 because there are always people who need your help. And I work with my heart.”
The NY Metro Chapter of the U.S. National Committee for UN Women recognizes that illegal immigration is a contentious issue. “Teresa’s story” details the journey of an illegal immigrant who after great difficulty became a community organizer in Queens. Our aim is purely to shed light on her story of adversity and triumph, as it is one shared by many women at the heart of this and other humanitarian crises.
Our thanks to CIANA for sharing this, the first in a series of profiles on inspiring immigrant and refugee women.