Immigrant Stories: Life in the U.S. inspired by her grandfather in Mexico
Immigrant Stories by Walter Gallacher appears on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Gallacher is a photojournalist and an independent radio producer. Anyone with an immigrant story to tell about themselves or relatives is invited to email firstname.lastname@example.org. To read past Immigrant Stories, go to www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.”
Rosa Gonzalez tells Walter Gallacher her story of moving to Colorado from Mexico with her migrant farmer father when she was a teen.
Gonzalez: When I was a teenager it wasn’t in my plans at all to come to the U.S., but my father and his wife decided that I should come and stop going to school down in Mexico. It was very difficult because I had to leave my grandfather who had raised me. I was happy where I was, even though my town was very small, and resources were limited.
I always dreamed of getting an education, and it probably wouldn’t have been possible if I had stayed behind.
Gallacher: Tell me about your grandfather.
Gonzalez: He was amazing. He was the youngest of 16 kids, and he never went to school. He didn’t know how to read or write, but he was the best teacher I could have had. He was my best friend, my mom, my brother. He was everything to me.
He was very modern in the way he raised me.
Gallacher: What do you mean by modern?
Gonzalez: It was the way he talked to people. He never raised his voice. He was always kind and compassionate with me. He tried to teach me and help me understand when I did something wrong.
Gallacher: Why did your grandfather end up raising you?
Gonzalez: My mother left me with my grandfather when I was a month old. My father was there, but he wasn’t really involved in my life. He was physically present but not emotionally. He got married again after my mom left and started a new life.
Gallacher: Did you ever see your mother again?
Gonzalez: Yes, I met her once when I was 14, and then I didn’t see her again until last year when I went back to visit. I was able to spend three days with her and learn more about her.
Gallacher: Was it difficult for you growing up without your mom?
Gonzalez: Yes, as a kid I wasn’t able to understand why I didn’t have a mom when other kids did. And then kids would tease me and say mean things about me not having a mom. But my grandfather tried very hard to be there and comfort me. He was always present.
Gallacher: What about your grandmother?
Gonzalez: She was there until I was about 5 years old, and then she was gone too. She left my grandfather and me.
Gallacher: What was it like when you first arrived in the United States?
Gonzalez: It was a different culture, different food, different language, different people, different everything for me. I had just left school, and all my friends and I had to start working in the potato fields in Alamosa the day after I arrived.
So I was realizing that I had to forget about school and everything else. I couldn’t speak English, so I had no one to talk to other than my father and his wife. It was a lonely time. I just wanted to go back.
Gallacher: How did you finally adjust?
Gonzalez: Well, I really didn’t have a choice. My father was a migrant farmer, and after two months in Alamosa he told me it was time to move on to the next job. That’s when I realized that migrant farm work was going to be my life from then on. There was going to be no chance for me to get an education. So I told him, “No, I’m staying here.”
Gallacher: How was that even possible?
Gonzalez: I think that even though I was only 15, in my mind, I felt like I was 25. I had been working since I was 12, so I felt pretty independent. And in the three months that we were in Alamosa I had made friends with Martha, a woman that we worked with in the fields. I went to her and asked her to take me in, and she did.
Gallacher: So in a few short months you decided you liked it here?
Gonzalez: Not that I liked it, but I had started to make money, and that enabled me to send some money back to my grandfather. I knew I didn’t want to move from job to job with my father, so my plan was to save enough money to go back to Mexico and finish school.
My decision to stay was more about having to do it than wanting to do it.
Gallacher: What kind of work did you do in the potato fields?
Gonzalez: I did it all. The work depends on the season. I started by doing a lot of sorting. It was 12-16 hours a day, seven days a week standing at the conveyor belts sorting potatoes. The sorting lasted about two to three months, and then it was time to prepare the fields for planting. After that it was time to hoe the rows and take out any diseased plants and then it was time to harvest. Again lots of hours bent over picking and sorting potatoes.
Gallacher: Tell me about Martha.
Gonzalez: She was a woman in her 50s. She reminded me of my grandfather. She was very kind and a good teacher, and in six months I was able to speak English pretty well. I was doing fine, but then I got involved with a man who was twice my age, and the next five years of my life were a nightmare.
He was very controlling. I continued to work, and all my money went to him. We bought a house and a car, but everything was in his name. I had my daughter with him, and it was right before she was born that he started to get really abusive. He was drinking a lot and doing drugs.
A month after my daughter was born I found out he had another family in Mexico. That’s when he brought them over and threw me and my daughter out.
Martha was kind enough to take me back and help me get started again.
Gallacher: Why didn’t you go back to Mexico?
Gonzalez: I wasn’t going to quit. I wasn’t ready for that. I wanted to prove to myself and everybody else that I could succeed. And so I stayed, and it was while I was with Martha that I got my first real job.
It wasn’t ranch work or the potato fields. It was a job working in a kitchen at a nursing home. Then I took another step and became a certified nursing assistant. That job put me back in touch with the reason I stayed in the U.S., to finish my schooling.
Martha helped me find my own apartment and another woman, Tony, helped me buy an old car. They both were like mothers to me and helped me get out of a very bad time in my life.
Gallacher: A lot of people would have given up and gone back to Mexico. Where did you get that persistence?
Gonzalez: My grandfather, definitely. He has been the greatest source of strength and inspiration throughout my life. He was one person I didn’t have to talk to or see, he would just know when I needed him.
I would call and he would know immediately. He always made me feel like he knew exactly what I was going through. He believed in me and let me know that I could do anything. He left the decisions about whether to stay or go up to me. I knew that he would always welcome me home if that was what I decided.
He was there to help me no matter what.
Gallacher: So is he still in your life?
Gonzalez: He passed away two years ago. It was a very difficult time for me, but I was pretty happy about the way he left. He lived long enough to know my daughter and my son. They used to go to Mexico every summer to live on the ranch with him. I’m so glad they had that time with him.
He got to know that I was doing well and pursuing my dream of becoming a nurse.
He never wanted to spend his last years sick and in a bed, and he got his wish.
Gallacher: You want to be a nurse?
Gonzalez: Yes, I want to work in emergency medicine. Right now I am waiting to be accepted into the Colorado Mountain College nursing program, and I’m working as a medical assistant in internal medicine.
I think I am attracted to nursing because it gives me a chance to help others. My father and my mother are getting older, and I feel like nursing is a way to help.
It all comes back to the way I was raised and my grandfather, Benigno. It all comes back to him. I want to be the kind of nurse who will not just be taking care of nameless people. I want to treat people like my grandfather did. Everywhere I go, I want to carry his memory and all he taught me.
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