She arrived in New York City on an autumn day in 1967. She knew four English phrases: “yes,” “no,” “please,” and “thank you.”
She came here to get a college degree and to see more of the world beyond the confines of her tiny village in Central America. To earn tuition money, she got a job scrubbing floors and cleaning house for a Holocaust survivor. She spent evenings memorizing phrases such as “Does this train go to Grand Central?” and “I would like a slice of pizza.”
Once enrolled in school, she picked up English rapidly, and soon, she was reading books that had been banned in her home country. Some of these books told of the atrocities that her nation’s government had committed. They told of the thousands murdered and the land stolen and the cultures despoiled. She had traveled multiple time zones to learn the truth about her own homeland, but once she knew it, there was no returning to her old life. From that point on, she was American.
Because she was beautiful and exotic (especially for the time), she picked up some modeling gigs, which paid better than housecleaning. On one shoot, she met a divorced photographer a dozen years older than she. The man had three kids and drank too much, but he was smart and funny, and he took her to great parties, where she hung out with Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan and other NYC icons.
She married the photographer and moved to the Midwest. At the age of twenty-six, she had her only child, a boy, to go along with the three stepchildren she was raising.
Her husband wanted to start a new career in real estate, and to cover the exorbitant start-up costs, she got a job as a cashier in a grocery store. Her thick accent in a place staffed almost exclusively by ninth-generation Anglo-Americans caused no small amount of hilarity.
The real-estate business boomed, and the family got a big house in a developing part of the city. Her husband had a flair for making money, but as the cash poured in, his drinking increased proportionally. Before long, cases of brandy were being delivered to the house weekly. Like all upper-class alcoholics, he soon embraced the violence that had always been lurking beneath his smiling façade.
They came to an arrangement: When he hit her, she would fall down. This arrangement was played out often, just to make sure it was still in effect.
The children from the man’s first marriage left to go live with their mother. By this time, her husband’s chief occupation was drinking. So the real-estate company began to falter, and it was only her stepping in to work the details that kept it solvent.
One night, her husband hit her as usual, but she decided that she had endured enough. She went to the shed, grabbed an ax, came back, and walloped him in the head. She used the flat part of the ax head, for which he should have been grateful. After he got out of the hospital, he threatened her just once more, and she knocked him flat. He never touched her again.
She didn’t file for divorce, however, until the night he threatened to blow up the neighborhood, and the SWAT team deployed outside her door. It was a good time to leave.
She found work as a waitress and went back to school. She was a full-time worker, full-time student (making the Dean’s List), and full-time single mother. She still had energy to become a community activist and organize political rallies on behalf of the people in her home country, which was, at the time, a bloody pawn in the Cold War.
In the land of her birth, her brother and sister were murdered. Both died at the hands of a government funded by U.S. tax dollars. She brought over the orphaned children, and together with her sister (who had emigrated years before and started a family of her own), they helped raise the kids.
She made sure that her own son was well-fed, had all the books he could read, and received plenty of Christmas presents.
She worked her way up from administrative jobs to management, and then moved on to government jobs. Before long, she was advising mayors on cultural matters and giving speeches at grand openings and forming subcommittees and chairing meetings.
Today, she owns two houses in the nicest part of town, using the real-estate knowledge she learned salvaging her ex-husband’s business. She has an office in City Hall, where she helps run her adopted city and is one of the leaders of the state. She has met with governors, senators, and former Presidents. Universities around the country pay her to give guest lectures.
It is far removed from the small village of her birth or the NYC apartment floors that she scoured or the runways she walked or the check-out line of the grocery store where she toiled. It is the American experience.
She is my mother, and today is her birthday. She remains my personal hero.