In 2013, Connie knew her life in Colombia was in danger. In her eagerness to escape, she gave thousands of dollars to someone who had promised to safely escort her to the U.S. Instead, he brought her to Panama, then on to the Bahamas where he left her and three more Colombians, dumping them into a car headed for a remote hideout. For weeks, she shared one room with 12 other travelers, all men. One night they were put, without life jackets, into a four-person boat destined for Miami. A thunder storm raged and the boat leaked. With only their prayers for comfort, they were rescued by the Coast Guard. Today Connie exudes optimism. Her philosophy of hard work, always seeing the good, and counting her blessings has brought her a life of great satisfaction. She loves the United States and feels that her challenging experiences have made her stronger.
In 2013, Connie knew her life in Colombia was in danger. In her eagerness to escape, she gave thousands of dollars to someone who had promised to safely escort her to the U.S. Instead, he brought her to Panama, then on to the Bahamas where he left her and three more Colombians, dumping them into a car headed for a remote hideout. For weeks, she shared one room with 12 other travelers, all men. One night they were put, without life jackets, into a four-person boat destined for Miami. A thunder storm raged and the boat leaked. With only their prayers for comfort, they were finally rescued by the Coast Guard. Today Connie exudes optimism. Her philosophy of hard work, always seeing the good, and counting her blessings has brought her a life of great satisfaction. She loves the United States and feels that her challenging experiences have made her stronger.
Deborah: I recorded today’s guest, Connie, via telephone so the audio leaves a bit to be desired. Let’s begin, Connie, by hearing what led to your coming to the United States in 2013.
Getting to the U.S./02:04
Connie: Deb, the reason I decided to come here was because I felt unsafe in my country.
Connie: I was unsafe because I realized some of my government people received money from somebody to steal my signature. And take all my property.
Connie: When I find out, I was, you know, I didn’t have anything. All my property was under another name. When I started to investigate that myself, I find out some people are receiving the money to allow the papers, and the person who did it changed my policies so I was really dangerous. I was absolutely. Because I’m still investigating. And I tell them, “I need my properties back or otherwise I gonna, you know, sue you to demand it.” And they say, “No. You don’t do anything if you want to live. If you want to live, you better be quiet.”
Connie: Then they start to send me papers to follow me wherever I was. Was a terrible, terrible experience. So, my family and I we decided that the better thing to do because we were afraid that I would be killed. They used to do that. Is the way Colombia some things function. The power.
Deborah: Were you married and had children at that time?
Connie: No, no, no. I’m a single person.
Deborah: Okay. When you decided to leave Colombia, how did you leave? What did you do?
Connie: First of all, I went to another city and I just met somebody that said. You know what, I asked him. We were talking like those things that happen in your life that you don’t expect; that you are waiting for. I didn’t know how. So, one day I was with somebody and I said, “You know, I want to go to the United States.” And the other person said, “I know how you can do it with no problem, blah, blah, blah.” And I said, “Really?” He said, “Ya, and he showed me his passport with all the times he comes in and out without a visa and anything and I say, “Wow. Ok.” So we make a deal. “Let’s go! I will go with you.” He said, “Let’s go. I’ll go next month.” I said, “OK.” I didn’t really know that guy. But I thought I knew I wanted to go out of Colombia.
Deborah: So did it work out? Was he trustworthy?
Connie: No. I paid him some money. We flew from Colombia to Panama. After that, we went to the Bahamas.
Deborah: Did you say that after Panama you went to the Bahamas?
Connie: Ya. But he said, “We going to do this only you and me.” And I said this is great and he said, “Only you and me.” But wasn’t true. He lied to me. When we arrived to Panama, actually, there were three more guys with him and I started to feel “Oh, oh!” But nothing to do. So we went to the Bahamas. In the Bahamas I gave him some more money and that was the last time that I saw him.
Deborah: Oh my God. And you were stuck at the Bahamas?
Deborah: So you were stuck in Bahamas. What did you do?
Connie: In the Bahamas, remember that he has three more guys with me. We start to make a relationship with them. They were from Colombia too. The last thing he said, “You know what? You gonna take this car with some guys and they gonna take you to this home and you’ll be safe there and you gonna wait there until the time is proper to go to the United States.” We say, “OK.” I was in his hands. What can I do?
Connie: Anything he say, I have to say “Yes.” Because I was alone and I said, “Ok. Let’s go.” So we went there. We went to some house, one house, and, Deb, they put us in the house in one room. We were like 12 people inside that room. Only one bedroom. The only lady, the only woman was me.
Deborah: Oh. Did anybody attack you or abuse you?
Connie: No. I attacked them first.
Deborah: How did you attack them first?
Connie: That is the way that I tell them, “You know what, I’m not afraid of you!” So I tell them, “Don’t worry. We have only one bed. And I am young and I am strong so don’t worry about it. So we can handle it.” So they started to laugh and make a good relationship with me. And I tell them, “I know that I’m the only woman here, but I’m not afraid of you. I know you guys are nice guys. You don’t want to trouble with me, believe me.”
Deborah: Good for you. Good for you.
Connie: Oh yeah. So, I tell them, “I’m not dangerous.” During the night. The first night I ask, them, “Who of you want to live with me because there’s only one bed and I’m going to sleep on the floor?” The bed was big. Maybe two on the head side, two on the feet side. And they say, “No, that’s OK.” I said, “No. Ok. This is the situation, this is what happening now to us. We have to do the best we can. Don’t worry about me. I’m not dangerous. I’m not going to do anything with you, believe me. I’m going to respect you during this time.” So that way for me was the best way to tell them, it’s better to keep a distance from me. And made a relationship with them. All the men became my friends. And they took care of me because they knew what happened to me and that guy. No food.
Deborah: How much money did you have to give that guy who left you?
Connie : Oh my God, Deb. There, by that time, we are talking about like eight years ago where I said thousands of dollars. Thousands of dollars.
Deborah: How long were you in that room, in that house before you got to the United States?
Connie: Like a couple of weeks. They don’t allow us to get out from that room. All the time locked in that room. All of us. One bedroom and one bathroom for all of us. No food. One person once a day goes to the room and brings some little thing. Nothing. We was really [hungry]. Some of those guys they are more they seemed more hungry than me, maybe. And they was getting crazy some of them. I said, “I need to eat.” If they don’t bring. Once we realized we were alone in the house, I tell them, “Take care of my back and let me know if somebody’s coming and I go into the kitchen and I find something you like.” So that’s what we did. I stole things from the kitchen and I bring to them. Little things. Ya, the house was empty. Nobody was there. Only one lady that take care of the house.
Deborah: So you were there two weeks? Then what happened?
Connie: So one night we was there. Somebody interrupted us and said, “OK! Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go! Everything is ready. Let’s go.” And put two or three pounds don’t take anything. Only things you can put on your body. No more. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go. We don’t have time. So we went out and we take in the boat.
Deborah: Ok. You went into a boat? All twelve people in one boat?
Connie: We go in a little fishing boat. The capacity they told us for that boat was like maximum four persons. And there were 10-12 of us.
Deborah: Oh my goodness!
Connie: The idea was to cross the ocean to Miami Beach. The thing was that the boat broke down in the middle of the ocean.
Deborah: Oh my god!
Connie: And was an electrical storm that night. Was a lot. It was drifting on the water. The night was really, really dark. Was a huge storm with raining and lightning.
Deborah: How terrifying! How terrifying!
Connie: Yeah! Absolutely. It was terrible. The water was starting to coming into the boat. And the guy who was driving that boat. Everybody I start to ask him, “Come on! Do something! What are we gonna do now? Do you have something like a life jacket?” “No.” “Do you have at least a lighter or something?” “No.” “Do you have a phone, some way to call your friends and come here to recue?” “No.” Nothing. Nothing. At that point, I guess that everybody starts to pray. Nobody say anything. We was just quiet and waiting. Personally, I was thinking, the only thing that I remember that I think and think, “Thanks, God, to bring me home! Thanks God to bring me home.” I don’t know what home means. That’s what I remember I started to think. Somebody behind me, cause I couldn’t move. We were 10-12 people in one boat with the capacity for 4. Somebody behind me said, “Consuelo, we’re gonna die.” I say, “I don’t know.” “Consuelo, please.” I say, “What can I do? Just relax, relax. Nobody died before the day is through so don’t worry. Right now, we’re alive and we are here. Wait. Do you have faith? Do you have a god and believe in something or somebody, so please. That’s the only thing we can do now.”
Deborah: What happened?
Connie: It’s the only thing, God send us the Coast Guard. They saw us and they rescued us.
Deborah: The Coast Guard found you?
Connie: Yes. How? I don’t know. Why? I don’t know. But that’s what happened. Because we had no way to call somebody. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Deborah: And the Coast Guard brought you to Florida?
Connie: Ya. They took us to Palm Springs, Florida.
Deborah: So nobody died. All 12 people lived, nobody drowned or fell into the ocean?
Connie: Only one almost died. He started to throw up on my back. When the Coast Guard rescued us, he was in very very bad condition. But he survivied.
A Rocky Start/15:24
Deborah: What happened in Palm Springs?
Connie: They started the process of immigration and they put us in jail.
Deborah: In jail?
Connie: Yeah. I was in the jail for four months.
Deborah: Four months?
Connie: At least. And they interviewed us. But I don’t know what happened with the other guys, because some of them, oh Deb, when I realized after all that some of those guys was really dangerous guys.
Deborah: Oh really? But they had been nice to you.
Connie: Yes, they was really dangerous guys. Because I said to them, “It’s not a bad thing the Coast Guard arrested us. At least we are alive! The worst thing is that we have to go back to our country, but, hello? We are alive.” But some of them said, “No. That isn’t gonna happen to me because I killed, because I stealed, because, . . .” Oh my God! Uh oh, I feel sorry for you. We have to do the right things all the time, because we never know. Some of them had to stay in the jail for a long time because they have things here. They did things here before. And they was deported. And they came back and were trying to get in again, so. They took me, only me.
Deborah: How did you get out of the jail after four months?
Connie: Because. In the jail they started the process with us, with me. I went. One part of the jail was for ladies and the other part was for the guys. And they started to call us for an interview. “Why you here? Why you come here for? What you looking for blah, blah, blah.” So I tell them the truth why I was here exactly what I’m telling you now and I applied for asylum. So the process was started and after four months I was allowed to leave. And I flew to Boston to live with my friend.
Deborah: So you had people here in Boston.
Connie: Yes. Some friends. And the friends that helped me. The only thing that I have here was one friend, a couple of friends in Boston. Because I’m alone here. I have no family. I have nobody here. So I went there. My friend help me a lot. God bless her. And I started my asylum process.
Making a Living/18:46
Deborah: Did you get a job in Boston? What happened?
Connie: Yeah. I started to work in Boston as a housekeeper and studied English. Of course, Deb. All the time. I worked all the time, no matter while anything I’m available to learn. Maybe I don’t know how to do that, but I have the ability to learn. So I don’t care. What you need to do? I can do it.
Deborah: You’ll do anything.
On to California/19:19
Deborah: You’re in California now. What brought you there?
Connie: Why am I here now? Because my lawyer who gave my case in Boston was retired. And also, I have something. Along long time ago, Deb, like 30 years ago, I came here to California. On that time, I did one DUI [Driving Under the Influence]. Thirty years ago. I paid everything. I did everything right. Everything was fine, so when I was in Boston, I said, I’m going to go to California to get my driver’s license. Because I know that I can get it in California. When I came here I went to DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] and I said, “This is my old driver’s license. I know that I had a DUI but I’m OK because I paid everything.” And the DMV said, “No. I’m sorry. It shows that you have two DUIs.” I said, “No, it’s not true.” So I went to the court and required for my papers and tell them. The court has nothing to see with DMV. And you have to take 18 months of program for DUI. But I say, “But why if I did before? And was one time.” “It’s the system!” I said, “OK, OK that’s OK. That’s fine. No worry.” So and I did all this, I get my drivers license.
Deborah: Good for you!
Connie: That’s why I here in California. When I came here, my lawyer in Boston, he retired and said, “You know what, Consuelo, I gotta go. I’m going to Australia because I’m not working any more as a lawyer.” So now I said, “What can I do?” And he said, “Well, you can find out somebody.” So I work here so I found somebody here. Because I had to be here for 18 months. And also, I love California.
Deborah: My sons live there, Burbank.
Deborah: Los Angeles. Burbank.
Connie: Oh, really?
Deborah: Remember I was going to come out there and visit and meet you in person. But then the virus.
Optimism in the Face
of the Unknown/22:12
Deborah: Tell me about the virus. After two weeks in the room with 12 people in the Bahamas, this is probably not much compared to that. How are you reacting to the coronavirus?
Deborah: How’s that affecting your life right now?
Connie: No, nothing. Nothing. Because, let me explain you, I believe that I create what I believe. That’s simple.
Deborah: So it doesn’t frighten you?
Connie: Not really. I take it, I take care of me of course, everything that you know that we have to do, because as I tell you, I did the right things the most time I can.
Deborah: You wearing a mask?
Connie: Yes. My mask and gloves, everything, but not because I’m afraid. Because I cannot get the virus. No! I do the best for respect the believers of others and my job and everything. But not because. Because I’m absolutely sure for me it’s my point of view. If I really believe it’s I gonna get it. That simple. Everything that I put in my mind, I gonna see in my life. Every single thing. What I really believe, from the deep of my heart, my body, I’m gonna see it in front of me.
Deborah: You’re gonna attract it into your life.
Connie: Exactly. What I try to say.
Deborah: So you think positively.
Connie: Hundred percent. I learned that right here in the United States. That’s why I love this country. This country I learn and I change my mind and I change my life. And the way that I was. In Colombia I was all the time in the comfort zone. My whole life was drinking, smoking, dancing. Stupid things. Right here my world, is, oh my God is very different. Why? Because to live in Colombia it wasn’t the best way to live. Right here, even if I don’t have a lot of money, but I’m still richer than I was in Colombia with money. Because to be rich is not about how much money do you have, it’s how rich do you feel that you feel that you are.
Deborah: Absolutely. There are many kinds of wealth.
Connie: Exactly. So that’s I learned all those kind of things here. And I love the way that I you know, personal development. And I love how I grow emotionally, spiritually, and those things. That’s why the Bible. I respect the people. And I believe that the people is dying because they believe that thing will kill them. So that’s if I think, if I chose, if I believe that when I go out, I gonna get the accident. Make sure that we gonna get the accident. I’m gonna say right now. No matter, Deb, what happens in my life, you can see that I am that the in the worse situations, for me, is the best thing that happened to me in that moment, because I’m expecting the better things all the time.
Deborah: You’ve become a true optimist.
Connie: Hundred percent. Absolutely. I believe all the time, I’m expecting the best things in my life. That’s why I find out great people like you, like Deb, because all the time I’m waiting for a blessing and not for, “Oh I don’t have this. I don’t have.” No, no. The best things that happen to the people happen to me. The best. No matter what, I’m not my circumstances! I am not my thinking. It’s not what happened to me. It is what can I DO with the things that happen. I cannot get better or become worse, is my decision. To be happy, to live in peace is my decision, not the circumstances. Not what happened. It’s not if I have a job or not. It’s not if I have money or not. It’s to learn and to see how we can live better is not too hard. It’s to be better.
Deborah: Wow. You are a real philosopher.
Connie: Ha ha ha.
Deborah: So tell me, did you become a citizen?
Connie: Not yet. At this time, I’m still waiting for the final immigration decision on my citizenship. The only thing I have is my work permission, social security, my driver’s license, and my ID. But I’m waiting.
Deborah: You do have a social security number?
Deborah: Ok. And do you have the green card?
Connie: Not yet green card. But I have social security and I have permission to work legally here, finally.
Deborah: That’s great. What kind of work are you doing now, Connie?
Connie: Right now I’m working at a grave yard shift, 10 pm to 6 a.m at the gas station.
Deborah: Where is it?
Connie: In a gas station.
Deborah: You could teach a course on optimism, Connie.
Connie: Yeah. It’s the best way, Deb. We cannot live in United States alone, no family, nothing and feel bad. No. We have to find out the way we can feel better without the things we want or we needed. So at the end of the day, Deb, I made my home wherever I am. It depends on me. It’s not because Los Angeles is better or not. I’m not alone here. I have hundreds and hundreds of friends outside that I don’t know yet. But I am not alone.
Deborah: When you were in that boat and you were praying, “Bring me home!” and home was going to mean whatever it meant. You obviously got your prayer answered.
Connie: Yeah. The happiness does not depend on the circumstances, it depends on me. So no matter where I am, where I live, where I go, I leave my home with me inside me. Depend on me.
Deborah: I really understand that. And now, before you came to the United States, before you left Colombia, are you saying that you didn’t have this philosophy when you were still in Colombia? You weren’t such an optimist then?
Connie: No. I was not that kind of optimist, positive, because in Colombia, remember, we are the result of the people around us. Exactly. That’s the problem. Right here for some years to now, I started to reprogram my brain.
Deborah: You started to program your brain once you were in the United States or when you were on your way to the United States?
Connie: You know, in the middle of the ocean, I say, “God thank you for taking me home.” And he bring me here. So I start to believe more. I believe all the time, of course. Not the way that I am. Now my faith I started to change my mind and then the circumstances around me started to change. As a wise person said, “Change your thinking and change your life.”
Deborah: I’m going to ask you one more question, which might sound silly, but did you bring something with you from Colombia that was either, maybe in your pocket or even on the boat, some object that you brought with you that you still have?
Connie: My Bible.
Deborah: And it was in the boat with you?
Connie: Is with me all the time.
Deborah: That same Bible?
Connie: The same one.
Deborah: Can you take of picture of it and send me a picture of it?
Connie: Ya, of course.
Deborah: Great! Ok. Wow.
Connie: My Bible and I don’t know how you call that it my rosario.
Deborah: Rosary beads.
Deborah: You had those in Colombia. And you still have them?
Connie: Yeah. Yeah.
Deborah: Take a picture of them with the Bible, please, because after we do the podcast, I’m gonna, maybe make a little, ebook, so I want pictures and maybe I’d like to have a picture of you. Do you have a picture of you that you can send me?
Connie: Yeah. Which kind? Anyone?
Deborah: Yeah. Snapshot, something that I can actually see your face. And if not, we can do a phone call with FaceTime and I can take a picture while we’re talking. That’s you know, I can do that.
Connie: I can send you a picture that somebody took me yesterday at my job, like a couple of weeks ago.
Deborah: Perfect. That’s perfect.
Connie: You want me to send you the picture that someone took yesterday at the station?
Deborah: Sure. Whatever you want.
Deborah: And, this it’s been so good to talk to you, very inspiring your life and your philosophy. I believe that our attitude is what determines if we’re happy or not. Not the circumstances.
Connie: Absolutely. That’s why I learned. That’s how I live now. And I understand that the life depends only your attitude. Attitude is everything. Attitude and energy is all about it. To live depends on your attitude. And, and just say, those grateful heart.
Deborah: Yes. A grateful heart. I have a grateful heart that I met you and that we had this conversation. I’m very pleased that I got to talk with you. And, I’ll be sending you some emails and stuff for a little bit more information, but thank you so much, Connie. Really Consuela!
Connie: Consuelo. You can call me, Connie is how Deb called me and everybody called me.
Deborah: I like Consuelo. I think it’s a beautiful name.
Connie: Yeah. Most of them. Yeah. And I am too.
Deborah: I don’t know what you look like, but you are obviously very beautiful on the inside. That’s for sure.
Connie: How we are inside is how we show outside. You will see it.
Deborah: Thank you so much, Consuelo.
Connie: God bless you bye bye.
Final Wrap Up/34:51
In this time of the pandemic, as we all struggle to carve out some semblance of normalcy, I hope Connie’s spirit of optimism has inspired all my listeners with a positive attitude. With the example of her resilience, along with her philosophy of gratitude and always being able to see the silver lining, Connie/Consuelo reminds us to count our blessings as we put one foot in front of the other, anticipating the good the universe will provide.
Thank you for staying with us right to the end of this episode. The Immigrant Voices Podcast Project is the brain child of Michelle Duval 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.”