Learning English was the hardest part of immigrating
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Violeta Ornelas de Flores: I came with my husband and my son from Juarez, Mexico, so that my son could get a good education. My husband had been working in El Paso, Texas, across the border from Juarez. He was working in a restaurant frying chicken and when he lost his job he decided we should come to Colorado and start a new life, a better life. There weren’t many jobs in El Paso and salaries were low.
My husband is an American citizen who was born in Texas, but when he was young his parents moved back to Mexico. So he never really learned English. We wanted our kids to be able to speak both languages.
My husband helped me apply for a green card and we came to Colorado in 2000. He came in June and I followed with our son in September. He got a job with an excavation company. He’s been there 11 years.
I didn’t work for the first few years because I was taking care of my son who was in preschool. I think that is why it took me longer to learn English. I stayed home with the kids and only spoke Spanish.
Gallacher: Was it hard for you when you first came?
Ornelas de Flores: I loved Colorado. I came when the trees were changing colors. I remember my husband’s uncle took us for a ride over Independence Pass. That ride was like a fairy tale dream for me. The hills were all different colors. It was beautiful!
And the people were so friendly. In Juarez I was used to saying hello to only people I knew. But when I came here, everybody was greeting me, “Hello.” “How are you?” or “Good morning.” It was really a surprise for me because they didn’t know me. It felt good.
And when I tried to say something in English, people would encourage me and say, “Good job.” That for me was wonderful. People were really, really helpful.
Gallacher: What was the most difficult time for you?
Ornelas de Flores: There was one time when I was at the deli in City Market. It was when I couldn’t really speak English. The lady at the counter couldn’t understand me. There were three men behind me waiting in line and they were laughing at me. They made me really sad and uncomfortable. I felt terrible because they didn’t try to help me, they just laughed at me.
But I said to myself, “This lady doesn’t understand me and these men are laughing, but one day I will return speaking English and I will buy anything I want.” It was a bad experience but I have had so many more wonderful experiences.
Gallacher: What was Juarez like when you were a child?
Ornelas de Flores: Growing up there was wonderful for me. It wasn’t dangerous then like it is now. I was surrounded by my family, in a good neighborhood, with many friends. It was a safe place then. People from the United States came across from El Paso to buy Mexican things and eat in the restaurants. It was a very festive place, when I was a little girl. Thousands of tourists came there every month. But that has all changed.
When I was about 16, Juarez started to change. By then I was in high school and I can remember always being scared because I had to take two buses to get to school in the morning and home in the afternoon. It felt dangerous, but it was safe compared to now. Now no one leaves home during the night. It is not good.
My mother still lives there and when we go to visit we are very careful about protecting our kids and staying safe. But I can never really relax when I am there.
Gallacher: What does your mother do there?
Ornelas de Flores: She is a retired teacher. I was a student in my mom’s school and I have wonderful memories of being there with her. It was a great school with very good teachers. My mom loved teaching the kids.
Gallacher: What happened to change Juarez when you were 16?
Ornelas de Flores: Bad people began killing women in Juarez.* It was terrible. They were taking women between the ages of 16 and 24, so I was always really scared. Usually the women were taken from the factories. There were a lot of factories in Juarez then and women were disappearing when they left work.
All of the high schools had special police patrols after every factory shift was done, to make sure the students were safe. We had to always stay together. Guys and girls were always walking on the streets and riding the bus together.
Gallacher: Did they ever arrest anyone?
Ornelas de Flores: They caught one guy, but the murders continued and now with the drug cartels it is so violent it is hard to know who is doing the killing. Any place at any time can suddenly become deadly when they start shooting.
Gallacher: So it wasn’t hard to leave?
Ornelas de Flores: It is always hard to leave your home and your family, but I didn’t miss what Juarez had become. We came to live in Lazy Glen (outside of Aspen) with my husband’s uncle. We stayed there until the owners decided to sell the house. That’s when we decided to move to Glenwood. We couldn’t speak English very well, so trying to find a place to rent was very difficult.
I can remember going to the office for the place that was for rent and giving them the “for rent” ad. I was hoping that they would understand that we wanted to rent the place. But that didn’t work very well. I couldn’t explain myself and they couldn’t understand. I tried a lot of times to rent a place.
Finally, we were able to rent an apartment in Glenwood. I finally felt like I had a place and that I was in control of my life. I think the language is the main problem for any immigrant.
Gallacher: You speak very good English now. How did you do that?
Ornelas de Flores: Well, I can say that one of the people who really helped me speak better English is Judy Beattie. She is my Literacy Outreach tutor ** and she is wonderful. I had another teacher before her who spoke Spanish and English. But when I met Judy she spoke only English and that really forced me to use my English. I think that was a better way for me to learn, because I couldn’t use Spanish. Sometimes we had to use hand movements or pictures to communicate.
Gallacher: So your relationship with Judy has been important to you?
Ornelas de Flores: Yes, very important. You know one of the things I really admire about the United States is that many people volunteer. People give their time and their money to help others and Judy is one of those people. She volunteers with love and shares her time and her knowledge. She is wonderful. I can say that she is part of my family. She is like a mother to me and my children love her.
Five years ago when I was pregnant with my daughter I decided to work on my English skills and that is when I met her.
Gallacher: Didn’t you get your citizenship recently?
Ornelas de Flores: Yes, it was almost three years ago. I wasn’t sure about getting my citizenship because of my English. I didn’t think I could pass the test, but Judy believed in me. She has always encouraged me and pushed me to do many things. She completely helped me become a citizen.
We probably worked more than one year studying the questions. But finally we made it. I still can’t believe it. The day I went for the interview I was really, really nervous.
The interviewer was Mr. Crook. He told me many things and I was so nervous I couldn’t remember any of the things he told me. My brain was stuck. I was sure I wasn’t going to pass. I thought that part of the test was going to be writing, but everything was oral. That made it more difficult for me.
But at the end of the interview I asked him if I passed and he said, “Yes.”
“What is your name?” I asked him.
He said, “I am Mr. Crook.”
“For sure, I am never going to forget your name,” I said. He finally laughed, but during the whole interview he was very serious.
Later I got a letter inviting me to the ceremony. My husband and I went with Judy. I was expecting more people like me, Mexicans. But there were people from all over the world there, Italy, Germany, Spain. Everybody had to give a speech about their citizenship. It was really wonderful.
Gallacher: What did you say?
Ornelas de Flores: I thanked my family and I thanked Judy and I thanked the United States for giving me the opportunities. I now feel like I am part of this country and I feel proud. I am an American.
*The phenomenon of the female homicides in Juarez has involved the violent deaths of hundreds of women since 1993. The homicide toll is estimated to be around 400, but many local residents believe that the true count is much higher. Most of the cases have remained unsolved.
**Volunteer tutors with Literacy Outreach provide weekly instruction in reading, writing, math, or English as a Foreign Language. Volunteers also help students with skills related to personal literacy needs and goals such as letter writing or job applications. Info: http://www.gcpld.org/content/literacy-outreach.
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