Soy/Somos: Colombiana

From my blog Soy/Somos, a series that celebrates the multiple identities of Latinos in the USA.You can read the introductory post here: Soy/Somos: We Are Many.

Milly looks wired. She has been a social worker now for twenty-five years and has just begun working with detectives on crisis intervention, a recent promotion. She's doing me un favorcito. Parsing her time after work and before her son and her husband and dinner and all the rest.

We've been friends for a short time, though Milly's younger than me. She has a sturdy build--compared to my bird-boned frame. An expressive face, almond eyes, and golden skin. A mescolanza of Spanish and other European ancestors, and, she tells me, "some African too." Milly laughs. We are sitting at the local Panera's. It's four o'clock and she has just finished work with the County.

"I was one of seven children. Grew up in Cali in the Cordillera Occidental in the West of Colombia. Came to this country when I was twenty-two. I knew just a little bit of school English. My sister who married an American was the first. Then she sent for my mother and dad, and then my mother sponsored me.

That was a huge move. You were on the way to university at the time. Can you tell me how it happened?

"My parents were of modest means but abiertos al progreso. It was not unheard of to leave home to better yourself. We did think that all Americanos were on drugs. And that worried me. We got this from the movies. In the United States my father got work building roads. He was a laborer with a government job, which meant he got a pension. Papi was the breadwinner. Our mother was ruler of the household.

"My mother said to me, 'All we can leave you is an education.' She was my inspiration. 'Even if we don't have enough money, we can leave you with that.' This was painted in my brain from young.

"In my work today I see so many cases where the family structure is broken. You only need one caring person to be an example. When I was young I felt like a millionaire. I had family."

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"When I came to the US I enrolled at the local community college and made myself a fool. I couldn't sleep at night with anxiety before presenting work in class. I was given a C+ out of compassion. For the two-year Associate's degree, it took me four and a half years while working at a printing shop cutting business cards.

"After that I got my bachelor's degree, and with a good GPA I got into a graduate program and completed my degree in social work. In the meantime, I was developing connections by working at a hospital where I could get medical benefits. I applied for the job six times before someone took pity."

Milly mentions that she walked around at all times with a bilingual dictionary in her hands. It wasn't pity, I don't think. Someone recognized the young woman's determination.

"In our Hispanic culture we have a moral obligation--once you start working--to contribute. I made $150 a week and contributed $100 to my parents' rent."

Your mother gave you strength, and I suspect that you had a strong will of your own. Were there differences in your Colombian culture that caused you problems here? You and I have spoken a little about this and that what is expected of women above all is to be supportive of family. The value of self actualization so prevalent in American culture today is not so true of Hispanic culture, especially as regards women.

"That is true, but it's also true of almost any immigrant culture. And, yes, it's a challenge to figure out where you belong."

But then, you've gone where your own heart has taken you. Tell me a little about your work.

"Well, I've worked with developmentally disabled persons. Mental retardation. Autism. Physical disabilities like cerebral palsy. For example, I was responsible for a child with cerebral palsy, and I advocated for her with doctors and hospitals. Eventually she did pass away, and I helped her mother find ways to pay for the simple funeral that she couldn't afford.

"I've worked as a clinician with the homeless, and then the clinics closed. I've worked with prisoners in prisons, and, when released, connecting them with services they need and following through. It is never a one-shot deal. You need to follow-up so bad things don't happen again. I worked with a parole officer, and I learned a lot. ¿Qué les puedo dar, Marlena, si no un rayo de esperanza?" Millie's face softens.

"What can I give them, but a ray of hope?"