As she looked back over her thirteen years as an immigrant in the U.S., Maria’s biggest regret after leaving Guatemala and walking through a desert filled with venomous snakes, not enough food and water, was the good-byes she never said to friends and family. Especially family members now separated by death—her grandparents. Denied a visa, at twenty, Maria risked the journey here to join her brother and reunite with the “love of her life.” Three children later, and still happily married, she had been right to follow her heart. Haunted by the death of those she will never see again, she remains undeterred as she pursues a career in Early Childhood Education while balancing her roles as mother and student to keep her family healthy and strong.
As she looked back over her thirteen years as an immigrant in the U.S., Maria’s biggest regret after leaving Guatemala and walking through a desert filled with venomous snakes, not enough food and water, was the good-byes never spoken to friends and family—especially family members now separated by death—her grandparents. Denied a visa, at twenty, Maria risked the journey here to join her brother and reunite with the “love of her life.” Three children later, and still happily married, she had been right to follow her heart. Haunted by the death of those she will never see again, she remains undeterred as she pursues a career in Early Childhood Education while balancing her roles as mother and student to keep her family healthy and strong.
Coming to the U.S./01:57
Deborah: My guest is Maria. And Maria, how are you today?
Maria: I am good. Thank you. How are you?
Deborah: I’m doing well. I’d love to ask you a few questions about your experience. What was the main reason behind your desire to leave Guatemala?
Maria: I have two main reasons to come here. The first one. It’s because my boyfriend was here and I wanted to be with him. He is, and he was, the love of my life. But also, it was because my brother was here working to support my mother and my younger siblings because my father abandoned us when we were underage to work by ourselves. And my older brother decided to come here. He was working on everything he was making was for my mother and for us because we were little and so after I was old enough and my boyfriend was here too and I said, “Well, I have to go. Because I cannot leave my brother working by himself to support our family.”
Deborah: How old were you at that point?
Maria: I was 20 when I came here.
Deborah: How had you met the love of your life?
Maria: I was at school. I was in 11 grade when I met him. I had a friend and any, they have cousins. My best friend is my husband’s cousin and I met him through her. So that’s how I met him.
Deborah: Did you end up with the love of your life?
Maria: Yes, we have. Yeah. We have been together married for almost 16 years now.
Deborah: And how did you get here? What was the journey like?
Maria: I came here as most immigrants. I have to say that I came through the border because I tried twice to get a visa to come here, but they denied it to me and I was looking for a job in Guatemala and I didn’t find a job for me over there. So I say, “I have to go.” And yeah, I have to say that I came through the border that are when back then it wasn’t so bad. I wasn’t like the news today. So it was hard to come just because it was a lot of walking, and not much food. But other than that, I have to be thankful that it wasn’t dangerous for me to come here.
Deborah: How many days did it take you?
Maria: It was like exactly one month because we were stuck in the middle of nowhere for more than one week. That’s why it took so long to come here.
Deborah: Was there one particular moment during the journey that was the most difficult or scary? Anything that you’d be willing to share?
Maria: The most scary thing was the walk, the desert without knowing where you were going and find maybe the border patrol over there. I think what scares you most is getting caught over there. And of course, we were afraid of snakes and everything. Animals from there. Other than that there was no big risks.
Deborah: Did you see any snakes?
Maria: Yes. Yes. A very poisonous he was. Very very close to me. And I don’t know how, it didn’t bite me, but I was so lucky. It was very, very close to me. And it was known in Guatemala as one of the most venomous snakes. Yeah.
Deborah: So when you cross the border, what state were you in? Texas? Was it another state?
Maria: We got to Phoenix.
Deborah: Oh and how many people were in the group?
Maria: We started thirty-four I remember. While coming here, we know that some people was, the border patrol got them. Some of them were sent back. So in the end, I don’t exactly know how many of the group was able to cross.
Deborah: Kind of scary not knowing if you’d get through.
Maria: Yes. I was traveling with two of my uncles and at least the three of us were able to cross safely.
Deborah: And then how many days was it before you were reunited with your husband-to-be?
Maria: I spent a week in California because I have family over there and after one week, Boston, but the well, exactly we landed at Rhode Island. Yes. I took a plane from California to Rhode Island. I think that was a very common route for people to come.
Deborah: So it was a little bit easier than it has been recently.
Maria: Yeah, I think back then it was a little bit easier and I think it was a little bit safer than now.
Deborah: Venomous snakes don’t make me think it’s very safe there.
Maria: I’m talking about bigger threats right now for immigrants to come.
Leaving a Career Behind in Guatemala/08:22
Deborah: So it’s great you made it and arrived in one piece. Were you on some kind of career path? And you said you were a student when you were 20. So did you have a career in Guatemala that you were going to pursue? And how did that change when you came here?
Maria: Yeah, in Guatemala I graduated as an elementary teacher will be here. I can teach from first to sixth grade in Guatemala.
Deborah: Early childhood education.
Maria: In Guatemala, I graduated the equivalent of what an elementary teacher would be here. I could teach from first to sixth grade in Guatemala. I finished my twelve years of studying in Guatemala which you need to finish there in order to get a diploma.
Going Back to School/09:09
Deborah: Were you able to use that certification here in the states in any way?
Maria: Unfortunately here is equal to high school. So when I came here, I found out that my twelve years to study I was a professional there, everybody here it’s equal to high school. So I translate in my diploma right now, if I want to finish another career, I will have to prove that I at least I have my diploma and I’ve been studying to be an early education teacher here. I have a certificate in early education. So I’m still studying to have my associate's.
Deborah: It’s impressive.
Maria: Yes. It’s hard, you know, right now because I have three kids, but when I came here, I didn’t know that I could keep studying. Maybe I wasn’t so interested back then, but if I would know that I could keep studying by now I will be an elementary teacher here too, but I didn’t know. And when I found out that I had two kids already. And it’s hard. It’s hard to go to college in the evenings when you just want to relax and do nothing. But I’m still, I’m still enrolled in college getting my associate’s in early education.
Deborah: Good for you. And are the classes online now because of the pandemic?
Maria: Yes. My last class was completely crazy because we were trying to have classes online and sometimes the internet was down. Sometimes something happened, but I finished my class already, so. Well, now I am until September it will be my next class.
Deborah: Good for you to pursue that. But what kind of work did you do when you first got here? What were you able to find?
Maria: I found a job as a daycare assistant. So I’ve been working with kids since I came here. It was kind of you know, at least I have my experience as a teacher in Guatemala. So that helped me here to work as a daycare assistant.
Deborah: That was a good job to find. What was the hardest thing about once you got on? What was the biggest obstacle for you? What was the hardest thing about, what was the kind of shock? Was there a culture shock?
Maria: Oh yeah of course. The first thing you realize is that you cannot speak this language and you have to learn. A new language, a new culture and many things here that, that change. Also I realized that I was so far away from my mother, my siblings, and yeah, that was it. It was very hard for me. At least it was very hard to realize I was so far away. I couldn’t say, “Okay, this weekend, I’m going to go see my mother.” Yes. That was one of the hardest things to realize when you finally come here.
Deborah: Because you can’t go back and forth.
Maria: Yup. You can’t, you know, like, you know, you’ll have advantages and disadvantages. When you come here, you come here, you are started working. You started helping the people you cared about, but you cannot go back and see them like we would like to do. And you know, in the process of being here, you lost, maybe someone and you will never see them again. And that’s one of the disadvantages that we have that we maybe don’t think about them when we decide to come here. So everything in life has a price.
Deborah: That is for sure.
Deborah: How soon did you start working on your English acquisition when you got here? Did you take classes? What did you do to learn English?
Maria: In Guatemala, you have like from ninth to twelfth grade. We learn mostly vocabulary but you know that’s just a little start to come here. At least you know some words, how to say your name or good morning to someone but when I really started learning was when I started working in the daycare because the lady was bi-lingual. She was from Guatemala too. And there were kids that were old enough to know two languages. So, I started learning English as a game with the kids. You know, I will grab an object and ask them “What was the name of that?” And when they say the name of that, I will repeat it and repeat it, maybe only in my mind. That was the way I started learning English. And then reading books to them, and there were two kids who were old enough they were bi-lingual and I would ask them, “How do you say this in English?”
It was there that I learned a little bit. Then I worked there for two years. Then I moved to Boston and I was on the border with Brookline. So I left the job as a daycare assistant and I came here and I started working as a babysitter in Brookline. So that family only spoke English. So I said to myself, “Well there is no option for you! You have to speak English, even with the little you know.” And I started talking with them and reading books to the little boy.
After we decided to take some classes but we were never able to finish any classes. We would miss many classes. And the years pass so quickly and you don’t realize that you are not learning enough English. Then we started listening to music in English, watching movies, maybe when you understand only half of it, but that was the way we were pushing ourselves to learn some English. And after the years, I found the website and that we were able to attend English lessons. And that’s how we came to meet a very nice lady, Michelle Duval, and the Gardner Pilot Academy where we currently are taking English lessons.
Deborah: So is your husband also taking English lessons?
Maria: Yes, he is.
Deborah: Okay, great. Can you just back up on one thing? I wanted to ask you, you had said how difficult it was. Couldn’t see your siblings, some of your family again, has the technology of WhatsApp and FaceTime and Zoom has that helped you reconnect more with a little more satisfaction to your family in Guatemala?
Maria: Yes. The technology nowadays it’s helpful for us because we can have video calls through with our family. Yeah in Guatemala. And it’s a little relief at least to see them through a screen. So that’s a nice way to communicate with them and better it’s. It’s just still, it’s hard because you can’t really. How your siblings, my youngest brother he is twenty and he was, he doesn’t really know me. He doesn’t really remember me because, you know, well, at least we don’t have that much memories together because he was only almost four when I left my country.
Missing the Culture of Guatemala/18:09
Deborah: What do you long for? What do you miss the most about the country? Obviously the family and siblings and a lot about the culture. What other aspects do you miss?
Maria: As you said, besides my family I miss being able to gather with family, more friends, and relatives, because in Guatemala at least the town where I grew up, we are very close. If someone needs help we will gather almost the whole town to help that person. And that’s something you miss here. Because here you have to work and go home. The next day the same thing. The same routine every day. Work. Home. Maybe just go grocery shopping and if you need some clothes, you go to the mall. But in Guatemala, even birthday parties are completely different. No matter what day of the week is your birthday some families will come to see and celebrate with you. Here you have to, at least I choose the weekend to make a little party for my kids. Because I know during the week everybody’s working. And those things change a lot here. There it’s a little different like you have like it’s easier to gather with your family. That’s one of the things that I really miss.
Deborah: Is this sheltering in place because of the coronavirus made that kind of loss of social interaction even greater?
Maria: Yeah. This has been completely weird. We cannot see our families, our relatives here. Even here we haven’t seen our relatives for more than two months. We can’t go visit anyone within here. Completely home just go outside to get some fresh air. To take a walk. Or go to a restaurant to pick up our food. These are the only activities we’ve been able to right now.
Deborah: So did you have a hobby back in Guatemala? Something that was a special interest for you? That you have not been able to continue or have continued here?
Maria: Well, a really big hobby I enjoy singing. And I used to do that in Guatemala back in school. I will sing every time I have an opportunity at church I will also sing. And here I also have that hobby. It’s a little bit. It’s my favorite thing to do. I just sing along Christian songs now. I really like to sing. I used to sing in Guatemala. Here too I look for karaoke on YouTube and I like to sing the songs I know.
Deborah: What’s your favorite kind of music?
Maria: I will say worship songs. That’s my favorite.
Deborah: And do you sing in Spanish or English or both?
Maria: If I know a song in English, I will sing, but mostly it’s Spanish, you know.
Bilingual Children & Dreams for hem/22:10
Deborah: Are your children bilingual?
Maria: Yes, they are. It’s easier for me. They are bilingual. With them, that’s one of my main—to raising bilingual.
Deborah: So good for the brain.
Maria: It is.
Deborah: My five-year-old granddaughter is bilingual. My daughter-in-law’s parents came from Honduras. My daughter-in-law’s mother does a lot of the childcare for my granddaughter and can’t speak much English, but she speaks to her in Spanish and my son teaches Spanish so it’s so good for children to be bilingual.
Maria: It is. I think that’s a great gift that a child can have. Because as you know, the Spanish-speaking community is growing so our kids really need to know as many languages that they can learn it’s better for them. You know, in the future, I guess, that will be a great opportunity for them to find a better job if they are bilingual, they know more than two languages. To me, it’s like a gift a child can have because honestly I see many other languages here and I think it’s better to know as many as you can. My older son is learning Mandarin right now. So I hope he really learns how to communicate with it. You never know when you can use your language to help somebody else.
Regrets & Accomplishments/23:48
Deborah: Based on your experience and the knowledge you have now, what one thing would you wish you could have changed before you came to this country? And if you have any regrets?
Maria: That’s a tricky question. I may be as I told you knowing that you may not see your family again. Maybe your father or your mother. I lost my grandfathers while I was here. Those things I didn’t know were going to happen. We don’t think about those things. Maybe I would have said goodbye in a better way. When we come here we tried not to make a big deal because we say, “What if I don’t get to the other side?” I will come back and they will make fun of you that you didn’t cross and you will say goodbye. Because I tried to come here like without telling many people, but in the process, I didn’t say a nice goodbye to my grandparents. And now both of my grandfathers are gone. Those are the things maybe we...I know there is no time to change that. Yeah.
Deborah: But it has to be one of the hardest things. What are you proud of that you’ve accomplished since you’ve been in the States? What are you most proud of?
Maria: I am proud to know that I came here, um, to help my mother. I am still helping my mother. I was here to support my brother. And, um, even though he just passed away this December.
Deborah: So sorry.
Maria: Yes, he passed away, and I feel proud knowing that I was here, and I helped him. I support him. I see him, as far as I was able to do it. So I am proud of myself for having the courage to come here knowing that it was a very dangerous travel. So, but I am proud of that.
Deborah: Sounds like you have a lot. Three children, a career that you’re still pursuing. Well, that’s impressive. Aside from the American dream, what human dream have you had for yourself? Have you accomplished? You say you’re in school, so you’re working towards it. What are your dreams today for yourself for your family?
Maria: My bigger dream besides the American dream was to come here and get married with my husband now. But my, I think right now, as a mother, my bigger or biggest dream is to see my kids grows healthier and happy. That’s my big dream right now.
Deborah: That’s a good one. I’ve got one more question. Do you have some object or something that you brought with you from Guatemala that you’ve had, maybe from the time you were a child or that you had right around the time you traveled to be United States that you still have some, some object or personal small thing?
Maria: No. I decided you cannot bring like many things when you come here, at least, the way I came here. So if I have something that was maybe of value to me, I will leave it there and it’s over there, like safe where they know that I will find it when I get back.
Deborah: Well, I certainly hope that things change in the immigration scene and that somehow you are able to find a pathway to citizenship so that you can go back to Guatemala and your children reunite with your family there. That’s my dream for you.
Maria: Thank you. Yeah. That was. Yeah, we hope that too because it will be like, one of the happiest things for us to go back and see our family again, our friends, and our town.
Deborah: Wow. Well, Maria, thank you so much for chatting with me today and meeting to tell your story. I know that other people hearing it will feel encouraged by it. Thank you very much.
Maria: And thank you too for taking this time to interview me and send this story to somebody else.
Deborah: You’re very welcome.
Maria and her husband are a vital part of our Gardner Pilot Academy community. We are grateful for her courageous journey all those years ago. Let’s hope she finds a way someday to show her children the beauty of her native country and experience the hugs and kisses so long denied from friends and family there.