While Hermelinda pursued a degree in early childhood education from the University in Peru in the mid 80s, she interrupted her studies to come to Boston to help her ailing sister. Her advanced education in her native country did not translate to a career in her field because she knew no English. Instead, her first plunged her into to the world of donuts, muffins and coffee at Dunkin Donuts where she learned to serve her customers with a smile while increasing her language skills. After going back and forth from Boston to Peru to complete her university education, Hermelinda chose permanent residency in the U.S. With the help of classes at the Gardner her language skills grew along with her confidence and career goals. She now has a demanding job as a caseworker for the state of Massachusetts. In addition, Hermelinda, who has not forgotten her early struggles with English, volunteers at the Gardner Adult Education ESOL program where she inspires immigrant students to learn English, to stand up for their rights, to embrace their American life while preserving their cultural roots.
While Hermelinda pursued a degree in early childhood education from the University in Peru in the mid-80s, she interrupted her studies to come to Boston to help her ailing sister. Her advanced education in her native country did not translate to a career in her field because she knew no English. Instead, her first job plunged her into the world of donuts, muffins, and coffee at Dunkin Donuts where she learned to serve her customers with a smile while increasing her language skills. After going back and forth from Boston to Peru to complete her university education, Hermelinda chose permanent residency in the U.S. With the help of classes at the Gardner her language skills grew along with her confidence and career goals. She now has a demanding job as a caseworker for the state of Massachusetts. In addition, Hermelinda, who has not forgotten her early struggles with English, volunteers at the Gardner Adult Education ESOL program where she inspires immigrant students to learn English, to stand up for their rights, and to embrace their American life while preserving their cultural roots.
Getting to U.S./02:04
Deborah: Welcome, Hermelinda.
Hermelinda: Thank you.
Deborah: So tell me a little bit about where you came from, what you left behind the people, family.
Hermelinda: I was born in Peru in a town 35 minutes from Lima called Chaclacayo. The town at the time was only 20,000 people and the weather was beautiful. Always the sun is there. Always we have a shiny day. Even sometimes in winter in the morning is cloudy and foggy but by noon the sun is gonna be bright. Like I said, all year around, it’s like springtime.
Deborah: What made you decide to come to the States?
Hermelinda: My sister. I have a sister who married somebody from Boston, and she got sick. And she invited me to come because she didn’t have any of us with her. So she made the petition for me to come to the United States. That’s why I came.
Deborah: What were the shocks that you encountered when you got here? Was, what season was it when you went there?
Hermelinda: It was winter! I came from summer. It was summer in Lima and summer in my town that of course we don’t have a drastic winter and I came here the first week in December, I remember December 8. And it was cold, and that was the first...
Deborah: Did you have a coat?
Hermelinda: Oh yes. I had a coat. My sister had a coat for me. It doesn’t matter how many layers of sweaters I was wearing, I was still cold. And every time it was to go out, it was ooooh.
Deborah: Tell me about the language part.
Hermelinda: And that was another thing, I didn’t speak English.
Deborah: Your English is terrific.
Hermelinda: I was limited. Go to my sister, a few different places and after a month I was here, I said to my sister, I want to work. And that’s when I started working in Dunkin Donuts. I remember my sister spoke with the owner who was a Greek guy and he said, “If your sister is patient and nice with the customers she’s gonna be OK.” My first day at Dunkin Donuts was the manager gave me all these instructions about how the company works, showed me a video, and then he gave me a tour to the store and from his body language I knew what he was talking about when he showed me the donuts, the muffins, the coffee. I knew what he was talking about but I didn’t know exactly what he was saying. So at the end of the tour, he said, “Do you understand?” and I said, “No.” I didn’t understand so we started laughing. I started there and the first two weeks it was hard because I had to learn the names for the pastries and the type of coffee and recognize when the customer came and what he wants because some of them had been coming there for years. And the only thing he has to do is sit down and people who are serving whatever they usually get. Two, three weeks, it was hard.
Deborah: Did anything funny happen with the language, like in terms of misunderstanding?
Hermelinda: Oh yes.
Deborah: Can you remember any particular?
Hermelinda: I remember it was difficult for me to say “schedule.” I said “choodle.” I couldn’t say “schedule” for years. I would ask, “What are my hours?”
Deborah: That’s wild. Did you take classes in English?
Hermelinda: I did off and on. I stayed here six months and then I went back to Peru. I stayed in Peru for one year and came back again.
Deborah: What made you come back?
Hermelinda: I had my resident visa and I didn’t want to lose it. I had finished school in Peru. I was finished at the university. A few courses I couldn’t finish when I came and that was I was back and forth for three or four years.
Deborah: What were you studying at the university?
Hermelinda: To be a teacher. Elementary school. So that was why I was going back and forth. I missed my family, my mother was there, my sister, my nephews. Everybody was there. My friends. That was the reason why I was back and forth, back and forth until finally the economic situation was getting tough in Peru. The inflation. Terrorism was getting worse. So I decided to stay here. And because too one of the times I came through immigration, they said, “If you don’t want to lose your resident visa, you have to spend more time here than in Peru.” So that was one of the things. And you’re getting older. My sister was always saying, “You’re getting older and you have to get something stable. You will never get a stable job or a good paying job if you are back and forth.” With Dunkin Donuts, I was able to do that. But my sister said, “you’ve got to get a better job.”
Deborah: Did you feel frustrated doing Dunkin Donuts job after you’d been in the university to become a professional teacher?
Hermelinda: No. Not really. Because my mother prepared us to do anything. And here nobody knew me. Maybe if I were in Peru because people see you in a different way if you’re working cleaning tables or sweeping the floor, you are less than whoever is not doing that. But here, no. I said, nobody knows me and it’s a job and I was happy because I was because I was learning English. And started getting familiar with the customers and they came. They know you. You start knowing what they want and without asking them and it was different.
Deborah: What was the most challenging thing other than the weather and the language? Cause you were mastering the language enough. You began to just . . . Was there some event or something that was really tough for you in addition about being an immigrant? Did you ever encounter any prejudice?
Hermelinda: Oh yeah. [Even] until now. You go to the store and they don’t pay attention to you. They don’t ask you what you want. Other people come who are from here and they run and say, “What do you want? How can I help you?” But it doesn’t affect me because you know I just take I just laugh inside. They don’t ask me because I’m not from here. One day that happened a few years ago. I was in one store and was looking for clothes. No one came and told me what do I want. Nothing. I said, well. My husband came. My husband is American. As soon as he came they ran to see what he needs. He was looking. He said, “No my wife is here.” I said OK. So I was laughing and I said they didn’t ask me anything. And another time I was in the store and I bought something and I was requesting to get a box for that because the store provides boxes for that. And the guy gave me a box that was half the size for the thing I was buying. He told me they didn’t have a box when they did have a box. And I was so upset I talked to the manager.
Deborah: How did you handle it?
Hermelinda: I talked to the manager.
Deborah: What did you say?
Hermelinda: I said, “I always come to this store to buy things. You should educate your people to treat everybody with respect. I bought this. I came here because in the other store they told me that you have this type of plate here. And I asked him to give me a box and he gave me half a box. What does he think, I’m stupid or what?” And I said, “You should educate your people to treat everybody the same.” And there are some people who are no good to deal with people. Maybe that’s these people. How is somebody have half the size of the box that the object you buy. He apologized, things like that. But still you see that. Little things that.
Deborah: How does your husband feel about, has he been with you and you’ve encountered that other than in the dress store?
Hermelinda: No, that time when I have these, I was very upset and I came and he called the manager and he spoke to the manager. He told him. Of course, the manager apologized. And he said you shouldn’t have people like that. If they don’t want to deal with people, don’t. So a few things that think once I was flying to Peru. And I called the airlines and I asked how many suitcases? My daughter was small. “Is my daughter able to have a suitcase?” I asked. And they said yes. And when I went to the airport they said, “Oh no, you have to pay for the suitcase.” And I said, “No! Because I called and they told me that she doesn’t have to pay for the suitcase.” “No, no, no. You have to pay!” they said, and I answered, “I’m gonna call customer service right now because someone from customer service told me that I can come. And I called in English and I called in Spanish. So, two people cannot be wrong.”
Deborah: So what did they do?
Hermelinda: They called. And then they let me go. They let me go, yeah, you find some people.
Deborah: What are the biggest successes you’ve experienced here? Personal, professional, whatever, any kind of success that you’ve experienced, that you feel proud of?
Hermelinda: Personal thing? How I raised my child. My daughter. And my job. I’m happy with what I’m doing. I’m proud of what I’m doing. I’m trying to be honest with my job.
Deborah: What kind of work do you do?
Hermelinda: I work for the Department of Revenue, Child Support/Enforcement Division. And I am very. I love it. I love the job and I am proud for what I do. I try to do my best in every case that I touch.
ESOL at the Gardner/13:38
Deborah: And you’ve been connected to the Gardner for how long, how many years what’s been your journey at the Gardner?
Hermelinda: My daughter, I was coming here for classes here in 2004 or 2005. Michelle was my teacher and I loved the classes. Michelle and Amy. They were wonderful teachers.
Deborah: Ah! Amy Pechukas!
Hermelinda: They were wonderful teachers. And I felt comfortable and it was a place that was close to my house, so I enjoyed coming to the classes. But then, I stopped coming because my daughter went to school, and I had so many duties at home. And then I came back when my daughter started school here. She started the third grade and I moved her to this school. That’s when I met Michelle again, but then I started my classes again when Lucero was here. I don’t remember. But then years after that, I connected with Michelle again. I saw that they needed some volunteers. And I said, I would like to do something to volunteer. Because sometimes you waste time and I said 2 hours or 3 hours a week is not much, and I can help somebody that came to this country and doesn’t know English and maybe I can understand better because I had passed through that process too. So that’s when I started coming to the Gardner back again.
Future & Hobbies/15:28
Deborah: Great. How about the future? Do you have dreams about the future or dreams, some goal that you would like to achieve?
Hermelinda: I like just want to enjoy my family, my daughter, my husband. I would like to be healthy. It’s possible.
Deborah: You like you’re beaming with good health to me.
Hermelinda: And, maybe to volunteer more. More two days. Not from, for my job. I walked around in one day, but maybe to volunteer, to be a volunteer for more days, increase my hours here.
Deborah: Do you have any hobbies?
Hermelinda: Oh yeah.
Deborah: Oh tell me.
Hermelinda: I like to embroidery. I like to knit. I like to do puzzles. I like to play volleyball.
Deborah: Really? Are you on a team or something?
Hermelinda: No, I’m not. I’m not, but when it’s summer, I usually play with my nephews, my daughter. I like to play volleyball. I like to knit; I always knit all the time.
Deborah: If you were going to give advice to other immigrants coming to this country, what would you say to them? What’s like the most important thing that, advice that maybe no one gave to you, but that you having gone through it that you could give to them?
Hermelinda: I will say, “Learn the language! It is very important. Try to prevent any problems, any kind of situations that you can be involved in. Be honest with what you do. If people you feel don’t treat you Ok, I would tell them. The problem is not with you, it’s with them. You try to do your best. Be respectful with everybody. When people see that you are like that, people respect you. When you start a job and you respect everybody, basically. Learn the language and don’t feel that you are less than anybody.”
Deborah: That’s good advice. Did you always stand up for yourself the way you did in that store? About the box and . . .
Hermelinda: In Peru I didn’t have that problem, you know but here, yeah.
Deborah: Were you surprised that you were able to stand up for yourself?
Hermelinda: I think age makes you stronger and not to be afraid of anything. Probably, thirty years ago I would have been afraid to say something but at the same time I think I came....my mother was very strong. She said when you are right, you’re right. You don’t have to tell people why you feel that you are right. Sometimes and it’s true because I didn’t have to suffer like other people suffer like they don’t have legal status. They are afraid and they have to take everything because they are afraid that they can do something today like call immigration, call the police, and get in trouble. And education, too.
Deborah: When did you become a citizen? You’re a naturalized citizen, right?
Deborah: When did that happen? Was that hard?
Hermelinda: No, it wasn’t hard. I was lucky because when I went to have the tests, the lady who interviewed me was, was nice, was very nice. She asked me questions on, I studied the basic question that they do and for the naturalization. Yeah. No, it was not hard. Nervous, of course, probably I didn’t sleep. They were the days before the day of the interview. Yeah.
Memento from Peru/19:30
Deborah: Thank you so much for sharing your story. Is there anything else that you would like to add? Some quirky thing. Did you bring something for example, from Peru that you always keep with you? Tell me about that.
Hermelinda: Pictures. And the one special thing that I brought is my baby doll. That when I was, I had my doll for years. Yes. Really when my, aunt gave me the doll when I was like five years old.
Deborah: Describe it to me. Tell me, tell me what is it like big doll. Yeah.
Hermelinda: This size. Yeah. Yeah. I dunno. It’s a boy or girl, but sometimes I put the clothes, pants have some flexible dress. I don’t know, but I love that doll. I love that doll.
Deborah: Where do you keep it in your house?
Hermelinda: I have an extra room. So I keep it in the bed there and I used to, I, every time I used to go to Peru, he was back and forth with me back and forth.
Deborah: You put him in your suitcase.
Hermelinda: Yeah. I carry it with me. Yeah.
Deborah: Wow. A little piece of Peru.
Hermelinda: Yeah. Thank you so much.
Deborah: Really. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you. Thank you. Yeah.
My conversation with Hermelinda took place just before the pandemic hit. When I spoke with her by telephone a couple of weeks later to get her perspective of living through this global crisis, I learned that her husband had suffered a medical emergency right in the middle of it all. Here’s our conversation.
Hermelinda: Well, I never thought in my life that I passed through earthquakes and things like that but never this coronavirus is something that practically paralyzes the whole world. And it’s scary because it’s there and you don’t know from one moment to what situation you can get the virus. What can I say? I think it’s very scary and I still feel that there are some people who don’t see how dangerous it can be. And I think that something that has to shut down the whole world to fight this virus.
Deborah: At the same time. Everywhere.
Hermelinda: At the same time, everybody has to shut down because we are taking precautions here but in other states they don’t. People are in and out from the states carrying the virus. Back and forth.
Deborah: What did they say in the hospital when your husband was there? What happened?
Hermelinda: I was able to go to him to the emergency, but as soon as we arrived, they told me I couldn’t be there because of the coronavirus. They don’t allow anybody in the hospitals only the person who needs, who needs the help, no assistance they needed. Yeah. And they told me just go home and we are going to call you.
Deborah: But he was having a heart attack!
Hermelinda: Yeah. But they don’t want anybody to be there. Not even the waiting room was empty. They don’t want nobody only, they don’t want nobody. That is not for health issues.
Deborah: So what happened? Where did you go?
Hermelinda: You’ll have to go home. So you’ll have to go to, you have to go home because they say we are going to call you.
Deborah: And so what happened?
Hermelinda: We got there and they tell us you have to go home, but in the meantime, I have to give information about, health insurance, age, all personal information. And they told me, we were doing that somebody, another nurse said, “Don’t go. Stay here for a few minutes cause I want to talk to you.” So we wait ten, fifteen minutes, they came and told me, “Your husband had a heart attack. So they are sending upstairs that they have to put a stint. And it seems like that other two arteries are blocked.”
Deborah: So they didn’t send him home then,
Hermelinda: No. They took immediately. They have, they immediately, they went to the operation room or whatever they in and they said, you go home and we are going to call you in a couple of hours to give you how the procedure was. So that’s why we come home and then they call us and they told us, he had one artery that was blocked. So they have to put this stint and they’re going to check with the doctor because the other artery seemed partially blocked.
Deborah: This is all in the middle, all in the middle of this coronavirus thing going on.
Hermelinda: Yes. And my husband had pneumonia two months ago. So I, we were more concerned about the coronavirus, but when he has the pain in the chest, so suddenly, I felt it was not coronavirus, because I don’t think that the signs of coronavirus. So my husband, they did the first stint. They put it on Friday and then on Monday they put the other two in the other arteries.
Deborah: Wow. And so was he in the hospital the whole time?
Hermelinda: Yep. And he came home the next day. Tuesday, they came home, because of that, they have to be more careful. Now don’t go out to them.
Deborah: What do you do for groceries?
Hermelinda: My daughter drops the groceries here because we have to protect Michael from and protect me too from contact with any people who have the virus. I am very anxious. I have a lot of anxiety. A lot of concerns. I think we just have to wait.
Deborah: Have you had any kind of strange dreams?
Hermelinda: Not really.
Deborah: Because I’ve had a couple of nightmares.
Hermelinda: I had a dream when I lived in Peru. My house was close to a river. The river increases at this time in the Andes, and I dream that the river was full with a very dirty water. In Peru, there is this thing, if you dream something with dirty water, it means somebody is going to get sick. But this is. I try not to believe too much in those things but they stick in your head because you grow up with those ideas. If you dream that dirty water is that somebody is gonna get sick, if you dream this, it is because all those ideas that they have about dreams. But here dreams mean different things that it means over there. Yeah, probably but I didn’t pay much attention.
Deborah: You were saying that this coronavirus situation compared to some of the things that you went through in Peru or just all the years I’ve been, how does this compare?
Hermelinda: I passed through earthquakes. Earthquakes are one fifty seconds or one minute and destroys things but it’s in one part of the world but this is everybody. There is nobody here that can say, “No. We won’t be having the virus.” It’s everybody.
Deborah: I know. And we don’t know what the end is. We don’t know how long.
Hermelinda: We won’t be in peace until they don’t find a vaccination.
Deborah: Oh, you think so?
Hermelinda: Yeah. I think so. They said, then you say that probably in, it can be a year, that this is going to come back in the fall.
Deborah: That’s right.
Hermelinda: So until I think until we don’t find the vaccination, it will be around.
Deborah: So what are you doing to stay calm? If you can.
Hermelinda: In the house, I have to do cleaning, cooking. I embroidering, reading or watching a movie. Today I decided that I won’t watch television anymore because everything is about coronavirus.
Deborah: That’s too much.
Hermelinda: Increase in anxiety because you see that. The cases increase by the minute, the dead people increase by hours. So I just don’t, I don’t want to, I don’t want them, I don’t want to watch anymore TV right on the one that I don’t want to know, I know I have to, I do embroidery and knitting.
Deborah: You were going to send me, you were going to send me a picture of your dog. What was his name?
Hermelinda: My doll. My doll. My doll. Yeah.
Deborah: She did send me the picture of the doll. You can see it on the cover graphics for Hermelinda’s episode. After learning about her doll, the conversation quickly returned to her concern about her husband’s vulnerability during this time of Covid.
Hermelinda: You know what? I’m very, I don’t know. I’m very worried about my husband.
Deborah: I don’t blame you.
Deborah: His condition is compromised.
Hermelinda: Yeah. He feels good, but I don’t know. I see him a little bit weak. He’s still recovering. I’m afraid of the coronavirus. I think life won’t be the same.
Deborah: I think you’re right in terms of the life isn’t going to be the same.
Hermelinda: Socially, anything. It won’t be the same. Like I said, we don’t, it should be a complete shut down the whole world. So that virus will, we can fight against the virus, but if it’s still people that are gonna, now it’s in Peru and South America. When we get better here, people from there, they can come here or they can come from Europe, and they think it will continue. So we live in a very insecure times and I’m worried about people that are losing the jobs, people that they don’t, they’re losing their jobs. It’s a lot, it’s a lot of things.
Deborah: I know, it’s touching everybody. My son is a professional musician and he goes on tour all over the world and they had to cancel, they had to cancel the tour.
Hermelinda: What kind of things does he do?
Deborah: He’s in a band, a classic rock band called Foreigner. Yeah, Foreigner’s the name of the band. You probably would recognize some of the music, but, so he’s in Los Angeles right now. And my other son is a dialect coach. He’s doing some work through the internet, but he’s doing mostly the childcare while his wife is working from home, but every everybody’s affected.
Hermelinda: Everybody is affected. And I admire those nurses doctors, and the people who clean the hospital, cleaning people; it’s just, I think all of them, they should get a prize Nobel.
Deborah: A Nobel prize for the whole, yeah, the whole category. I’m just thinking about your husband and I’m thinking to help his immune system, you should watch very funny movies.
Deborah: Laughter is supposed to, or funny books or something, because it really makes the immune system stronger.
Hermelinda: Yeah. yeah, no, he likes to read, he has a library here.
Deborah: I know. I just finished reading Jane Eyre for the first time. I had never read it before and it was, I just got lost in it. It was wonderful escape from all of this stuff. Anyway, thank you so much for talking to me and sharing.
Hermelinda: Thank you.
Final Wrap Up/31:43
I hope Hermelinda’s story, shared so clearly in her fluent English, inspires
other immigrants who may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of adjusting to a new way of life in a new country. The confidence she has gained over the years to stand up for herself, the contributions she has made to her community, and her professional accomplishments along with her strong family life, tell the story of someone who has never given up, and never lost a chance to help her fellow immigrants.
Thank you for staying with us right to the end of this episode. The Immigrant Voices Podcast Project is the brain child of Michelle Duvall the Program Director at the Adult Education Program at the Gardner Pilot Academy in Allston, Massachusetts. You can learn more about English for Speakers of Other Languages courses at our website, www.gpaesol.com or by emailing Michelle Duval directly at [email protected]
Without the funding of Charlesview, Inc. and the support of its Executive Director, Jo-Ann Barbour, this project would never have been possible.
A special, thanks to music consultant, Michael Bluestein who helped us locate royalty-free music as background for each of my guest episodes.
And last but not least, a big thank you to all the guests who are participating in this series of interviews. And to all our listeners, we say, “Thank you. Do come back for the next episode.”