Today, right before the New Year begins, Esperanza and her two daughters came to visit my wife and me in our New York apartment. Thirty four years before today's visit, Esperanza was a runaway from a South American embassy in Manhattan that had virtually kept her a slave, having taken her to America from her native Peru to care for the Ambassador's children. They paid her no salary, gave her no days off, and confiscated her visa so she could not return home. She made her escape one night and, being homeless and penniless, began riding the subway, back and forth from Manhattan to Brooklyn, lost, frightened, and alone. She only spoke Spanish, and did not know where or how to reach out for help. It was her good fortune that Maria, a woman who worked as a housekeeper in our apartment building, was riding on that very subway car, and had heard that my wife and I needed a baby nurse for our infant son so that my wife could return to work. I've told some of this story before on the Huffington Post, but bear with me, it's worth retelling, and today I bring it up-to-date. Best of all we can all use a tale of hope in a time when so many feel hopeless.
Maria introduced herself to the frightened girl and told her of this chance for work, a decent salary and warm shelter working as a baby nurse for a family with two small boys. She advised Esperanza to keep silent, say yes when nudged, and let Maria do the talking. Maria introduced Esperanza to us as her "dear cousin" from South America, here on a visit and in need of work. Maria assured us that Esperanza understood English but was very shy about speaking it. Thanks to that wonderful lie we hired her. My wife spoke no Spanish, only high school French, and my high school Spanish, taught by the stern Senorita Pulaski, left me speechless after my first Buenos Dias. Nevertheless, we were drawn towards the small, bright eyed, intelligent-looking girl of eighteen whose profile might have been the model for a face on a Mayan ruin and whose long black braid gleamed like a raven's wings. So Esperanza arrived in our lives to take care of our two young sons, and we were privileged to watch the amazing development of a human being.
Esperanza soon proved to be our Mary Poppins, without the magical umbrella or the Disney score; her magic was her soft voice, her bright eyes, and the wondrously kind heart, all of which had its own power over our rambunctious children. Yesterday, in the closing day of 2009, she spoke of her terror during those first weeks in our apartment, not knowing how to answer the telephone and take a message for us when we were out in that long ago time before answering machines when human beings had to take messages. In a very short time we came to know and love this girl. My enchanting older sister, now long deceased, spoke an easy Spanish and encouraged Esperanza's ambition to learn English, while filling her in on all the obscene Spanish words that Esperanza had escaped learning from the nuns in her native village; words which my sister thought might come in handy in New York City. Esperanza soon made it clear to us that she wanted an education, so we took her to Hunter College, where she enrolled in an evening English class. In less than a year she had mastered the language and gained her high school degree.
In time Esperanza left us, married, had a child, Ramon, and was
abandoned by her feckless husband. Sadly, in the face of all she had
experienced, she remained a schoolgirl romantic when it came to love.
But she understood that she had to make a decent life for her own small
son and for herself.
There was no going back, only going forward.
Wishing to improve her lot and hating to live the shadow life as an
undocumented alien, she turned herself into the immigration
authorities hoping to legitimize her status. Instead, she was given
her deportation papers. She turned to my wife for help, and she could
not have found a better ally. My wife, beautiful, intelligent, strong
willed, determined (my description, not hers -- she would call herself
an ordinary woman who did what anyone would do) contacted the then-
governor of New Jersey where Esperanza was living about Esperanza's
misfortune, praising her splendid character, and reminding him of the
necessary work this woman was doing as an aide in a nursing home for
the elderly. He promised to look into the case and my wife followed up,
making sure he did. She reminded him that if deported, Ramon,
Esperanza's six-year-old American born son -- a bright child who had
only known life in America -- would also be forced to leave the
She found an immigration lawyer for Esperanza and finally, she came to testify with me before the scowling, formidable looking immigration judge at the court hearing.
Little Ramon arrived with a flute that my wife had given the boy as a gift, and when the Judge asked him if he could play it, the boy made a noble effort at producing some Mozartian sounds, which won a grudging smile from the bench. After the testimony of the character witnesses, which included friends and employers, the Judge said he was most of all impressed by the support shown by Esperanza's friends, my wife particularly, who made the case that to send this woman back to her native country would condemn her and her son to lifelong poverty, and deny this country a productive, decent human being, one who now worked taking care of the sick and the elderly, much needed since we always have a scarcity of those caretakers in this country.
The Judge decided in Esperanza's favor. Esperanza was permitted to
stay and given her green card, followed a few years later by her US
citizenship. She went on to earn a degree from a local college, married
again, another failed marriage that produced two daughters, the young
women who visited us on this last day of 2009. The flute playing son
became a HS teacher and coach and owns a small prosperous business, and
those daughters were Esperanza's special triumph.
One of them was
awarded a scholarship to a prestigious private academy in Connecticut
and graduated with honors. Esperanza herself now worked professionally
as a liaison between the Hispanic community and the beleaguered public
educational system. What a long journey between that subway ride going
nowhere to her life today. No, she is not rich, she makes just enough
to get by, is self-supporting, took no "welfare" or any job from any
qualified native born American, and her beautiful daughters became
exemplars of those who rise above poverty through grit, hard work, and
the love of their family.
In Esperanza's story I could read the story of my own immigrant grandparents whose belief in education and in hard work gave their children a hand up in life.
On this late December visit Esperanza brought with her a box of butter cookies which we ate with our store bought brownies, coffee and tea -- dieting gave way to sweets with old friends, but most importantly she was accompanied by her two beautiful grown daughters, Gloria, 23, and Carmen, 18. Gloria is a recent graduate of an Ivy League law school, and Carmen has just begun her legal studies at that same school. I am not using their true names -- not because they or I have anything to hide -- but to allow them the privacy they have earned. It is clearly their aim to become true assets to the legal profession, not celebrities on reality TV.
If there is any hope for this country in this time of xenophobia,
recession, international and economic terror I find it in Esperanza's
story. What I noticed most during this recent visit -- beyond the
laughter and the family stories -- was the deep, old fashioned respect
that the daughters showed towards their mother: the pride they took in
being the children of such a woman.
It was delightful for us to discuss
everything from memories of relatives long gone to movies we all
enjoyed to the best selling books of Malcolm Gladwell and the novels of
F. Scott Fitzgerald. What was supposed to be an hour of tea lasted
through the evening as the girls treated us as a part of their extended
family. I've left out the hard mean streets in which they grew up for
much of their early lives, how they managed to balance studies with
work and friendships, with studies tipping the scales.
I've also left out their sacrifices along the way, but today's visit from Esperanza and her daughters reminded me that this is a country of immigrants who give back so much more than they take from those who have preceded them.
Sure, not every immigrant is an Esperanza, but all it takes is one Esperanza to put the lie to the Glenn Becks, the Lou Dobbs, and others who would build a barricade of hate between the hopes of new arrivals and the opportunities in this country. Not every Hispanic will join the Supreme Court, but they are fast becoming a powerful group of voters who will not tolerate discrimination. Esperanza may have once ridden a train to nowhere but she raised her children to know where they were going and how to get there. I know that there are some who are upset by the "browning" of America, the changing face of this country. My advice to them: get over it. The new face is beautiful if only you take the trouble to look at it. So I wish all a Happy New Year; and I hope I get this right, Feliz Ano Nuevo. If not, apologies to the ghost of the formidable Senorita Pulaski. You tried, Senorita. Lucky for me and most native born Americans so many newcomers are eager to learn our language and join the great American adventure.