Continuing our occasional series of profiles of the men and women who daily bring news and information from Washington to 94 million listeners around the world, today on New American Voices we introduce you to Carmen Luce Lazo Cento, affiliates coordinator for Voice of America’s Latin America Division.
Carmen Cento says that each and every day she is grateful to her parents, who left their home in Peru for an unknown fate in the United States so that their children might have the chance of a brighter future.
“My parents are my heroes. Because of everything they’ve accomplished. The sacrifices. My parents didn’t think of themselves, because had they thought of themselves – especially my father, he wouldn’t have left all his family and friends. My father had seven brothers and sisters and his parents still living. So they basically left their lives in order to make a new life for their children. And it worked, and their dreams came true, and I see how proud they are.”
Mrs. Cento’s parents, Susana and Alfonso Lazo, lived in Arequipa, a provincial city in southern Peru. Both had only a fourth-grade education. Alfonso Lazo worked in the mines, Susana Lazo had taught herself to type, and had found a job in a bank. Carmen, the youngest of the three Lazo daughters, was eighteen months old when her mother decided that she had do something to improve her family’s prospects. Carmen says her mother resolved to go to the United States, leaving her family behind.
“There was no other choice for her, she said. She just had to get us out of that poverty. I’ve come to realize how difficult that must have been, that decision. Because I know that I could never have left my children, much less go to a different country.”
Since the father’s work in the mines allowed him to come home only on weekends, one daughter went to live with one set of grandparents, another with the other grandparents, while baby Carmen was put into an orphanage run by an uncle who was a missionary. In America Susana Lazo, working as a housekeeper and nanny, saved every penny she earned, but still it was two years before she was able to bring her husband and youngest daughter to Washington.
“Do you remember that store, Landsberg’s, it was department store here in D.C.? And apparently in the window they had these little mannequins, these baby mannequins with little knitted outfits. And my mother would tell me the story that Sunday was her day off and she would go and sit there on a park bench and look into Landsberg’s and cry at these little mannequins with these little knitted outfits - because my mother used to knit me outfits.”
When Alfonzo Lazo arrived in the Washington area, he found work as a handyman in a hospital -- a job that he held for 40 years. Susana Lazo became a nurse’s aide. Carmen Cento says that throughout her growing up years, both parents usually worked two or three jobs. Her mother also attended school, eventually graduating from college. In time the couple was able to bring their two older daughters from Peru, and two more children were born here.
“In the beginning, my parents needed to learn how to speak English. We taught them how to speak English, we the children. You know, children catch on easily. And once I learned how to speak English, then my mother, what she would make us do – which I do with my kids now – is she would save all of our papers and a lot of our important reports and things from school, and in the summertime we would have Mama Susana school of Spanish, and she would have us translate all of our papers into Spanish. And so we’re all bilingual.”
In college Carmen at first majored in Special Education, preparing to be a teacher of physically or mentally challenged children.
“I always had this sense of wanting to give back. I think all of us kids – we’ve actually talked about it – we want our parents to be proud of us, because we saw the sacrifice that they made for us, we live with it every day. You know, they gave up so much for us. When we finished college, my parents would take each one of us on our own special trip to Peru, to meet the family, they made it a point to show me where they were born, where we come from, and then you come back and you’re, like, grateful for those Mac Donald’s hamburgers and that hot shower.”
But to earn money she worked in a radio station run by the U.S. Air Force, and discovered that she liked it. So in her junior year, she changed her major to Radioand Television Communications. After graduation, this led to a job at Radio Marti, the U.S. government radio station broadcasting to Cuba -- where she met her husband, Dan Cento -- and later to a job in the Latin America Division of the Voice of America. Here her Spanish language and communication skills and her outgoing personality make for an effective combination in her work as a liaison with radio stations in Latin America that rebroadcast VOA programs.
“What I do is I call our radio stations on a daily basis, pretty much, throughout Latin America, and if they need a story covered, or a special interview, or they have radio equipment that’s failing, or they need radio equipment, then I kind of steer them in the right direction. Or if there are new radio stations, and we get letters all the time, that want to use our material, then I recommend them to be donated radio equipment, antennas, and dishes, and other things. I consider myself a customer service rep.”
According to Carmen Cento, radio stations in the capital cities of Latin America have long had contracts with VOA for re-broadcasting its material. Increasingly now the concentration is in the interior, in cities like Arequipa, where there is a real need for the kind of news and information about the world and the United States that the Voice of America provides.
“I do go to Arequipa, I have traveled there on business, and I’ve traveled to Tacna, where my mother’s from, on business, and they have interviewed me and things like that. And it is a way to keep in touch with them, you know, and it’s something that I’m proud to do, to tell America’s story to the world there.”
While living a totally American life with her husband and two young sons in the Washington suburbs, Carmen Cento is nevertheless deeply connected, thanks to her parents and to her job, with the Peru she left as a four-year-old.
English Feature #7-38138 Broadcast December 15, 2003