For many immigrants, the first years in the United States can be difficult, as they struggle with language, loneliness, and financial and cultural challenges. In this edition of New American Voices, we have the story of one woman's experience.
When 18-year-old Maria Angela Contreras came to the United States from Guatemala, she spoke no English, knew nobody, and carried the sum total of her possessions in one small suitcase. Now, 33 years later, she feels that her hard work, first as a nanny and then a housekeeper, has reaped a rich reward. "This country gave me a good opportunity to grow up in different ways," she says. "In this country, if we want to grow, we can do it. This country gives the opportunity to work. If everybody wants to work, we can work, we can have, you know, a good life. A good life in every way."
But Maria was a reluctant immigrant. A friend of a friend of her family told her mother about a good job opportunity in the United States, working as a nanny for the child of a diplomat. Although she was happy with her life at school in Guatemala City, her mother insisted she go. So Maria became a nanny, rarely stepping out of the house, rarely seeing anybody. She remembers it as a lonely time. "Oh yes, because in the beginning I didn't have anybody around me," she says." I was in the house by myself, taking care of the little one. I was really, really sad, but what can you do, far away from home. And then, after four years, I thought that for me, the time, it was flying, and I didn't want to stay like that. So I decided to go to school."
Maria Contreras moved to an apartment in Washington, and began to study English. Meanwhile, she took whatever odd jobs she could find to support herself - mostly cleaning houses, which didn't require much English. In time she got her high school equivalency diploma, and decided to pursue her dream of becoming a bi-lingual, Spanish-English secretary. But fate intervened. "This handsome young man, he lived in the building where I went to live," she recalls. "I met him one time, but I didn't realize that he was the lucky guy," she says, laughing. "I remember that I was on the way to school, and he was around every time, everywhere. And I think that was the beginning of my relationship with this guy."
Maria Contreras and Perfecto Rivera were married when both were 24 years old. "I remember that we didn't have anything to start with, but we worked very hard, both of us, cleaning houses," says Maria. To this day, Maria Rivera continues to clean people's houses. For many years Perfecto worked alongside his wife, doing the heavier jobs. Eventually, though, he bought a dump truck and went into business for himself. Together they bought a small house, then a larger one, and two cars, and sent money to their families in Guatemala, and raised their three daughters.
"Wendy, Jacqueline and Angela. For me, it was my dream to have my kids, and I wanted to have good girls," she says. "And I decided to be very, very strict with them. They started school, and they got their high school diplomas, and now one is studying for a degree in education, and the other one is studying business management. And it's interesting," she adds, "because the little one, the youngest one, she got married, but I'm really glad that she's in school, she's studying business administration. And I'm really happy for them, because I see that they grew up, and they have good challenges, you know, as women."
A defining moment in Maria Rivera's life was converting to evangelical Christianity. Her family was Catholic, but with the various difficulties she was experiencing in her life, Maria wanted something that would give her more spiritual and emotional comfort. She explains, "This is the best part of my life. Not just the in hard times--and you know, things happened to me in this country-- but the beautiful and the greatest that I can describe is how I feel to know the Lord of my life. It was hard for me, because my husband didn't want to go with me. He didn't understand exactly why I go to church often, that it's something that you do because you need it."
Some ten years later, however, Perfecto Rivera also became a born-again Christian. Maria says religion changed his heart -- he stopped drinking and joined his wife in various church-related activities. Their three daughters are active Christians, as well. Maria Rivera says she has much to be grateful for. "I say, thanks God because I'm in this country, and I have things I couldn't have in my country, and I say thanks God for my family and for everything," she says.
"My husband and I, we are at home, and we are looking around, and we are happy because we say, wow, we did a good job, and the girls are happy!" Maria adds. "If I count my blessings, I cannot finish counting them. It was so hard, in one way. But I know that everybody has to work, everybody has experiences, everybody has to go through life - and the most important is to go step by step, and to trust God."
Two years ago Maria Rivera experienced what she considers to be another defining moment -- she became an American citizen.