Reaching into The Divine Feminine — Other Voices III

From Chihuahua to Connecticut, by M.A.M., Guest Contributor

Growing up in Latin America is an underrated life-hack. Nothing is easy, nothing is given. Latin American people, like me, grow up in places where challenges force them to wake up every morning wishing things were different. I come from a place where a history of submission has been transformed into kindness and hospitality. I consider being born and raised in Mexico a blessing like no other. It is a land that sustains itself thanks to the thousands of hands of honest hard-working people who give their all for their families every single day. A country that demands people to reinvent themselves because of instability and creates kind and solid communities that are willing to unify to keep each other afloat. After all, we need to learn how to jump into the obstacle course of life.

I learned that I had to constantly reinvent myself at a very young age. Since I was a little girl, I knew what it was like to look for an anchor to sustain me. I was born and raised in Chihuahua, a small city in the north of Mexico, with my parents and my two younger siblings. For many years we tried to survive the economic limitations that were more difficult for a family as dysfunctional as ours. During my elementary school years, waking up in the middle of the night and running to my sibling’s room was almost a daily routine. I remember cuddling with Ernesto and Cesar to shield them from my parents’ loud arguing across the hall. Ernesto was seven when he started having, what I did not know then, was anxiety, which I tried to appease by rubbing his back and keeping his head close to my chest.

At some point, we went from hiding under the covers to being the only physical barrier that would stop my fathers’ arm from beating my mother. It was heartbreaking to see my mother brought to her knees, and a terrified expression on her face trying to fake a smile and saying: “I am OK,” to calm our fear.

Fortunately, the three of us found positive ways to build our emotional protective armor. My siblings found their refuge in music and sports, and my grandmother’s love sheltered me everyday.

Despite the adversities of my childhood, I also had great experiences. At sixteen I had a full-time job at a coffee shop after school. During the time I worked there, I learned some important lessons. I learned to connect with people, to listen, to observe and to be patient.

I liked memorizing the orders of regular customers to try to make their day a bit better. I knew Rogelio did not like to wait and that Julia was allergic to cinnamon. Seeing their appreciative faces when I made them feel memorable was my way of making a difference. I learned that we always get something in return for the good things we do, even if it is not monetary. 

What I enjoyed most about working there was getting to know myself. My job taught me that there is always room for improvement. The coffee shop showed me that even by doing small things we can achieve great things. It also taught me how to deal with frustration and disappointment.

My skin thickened just in time and prepared me for the day my father decided to leave. Without a warning and without a goodbye, my father had decided that the family he had formed with us was not what he wanted for his life anymore. Coming home to my mother crying in front of the closet my father had emptied changed the perspective I always had. The day my father left was the day I realized that my upbringing had prepared me for that moment.

I understood that I didn’t want situations like that to define me and that I wanted to do something remarkable with my life. I focused on school, my job, and being my mother’s greatest emotional support. I put on my shoulders a responsibility that I could not carry, but had to assume for my family’s well-being. My mom and I always say that we formed a team of two without realizing it. We made an unspoken agreement to build a new foundation to support a family that was falling apart.

Sometimes I look back to those times and I cannot believe that the woman I once saw lamenting the loss of her marriage became the strong and determined mother I so admire. A woman who raised three children by herself and who used everything in her power to make them good people. After my father left, my mother not only knew how to deal wisely with the anguish of an uncertain future for her now single parent family, but also she knew how to anticipate all of our needs. 

After graduating high school I intended to apply to medical school, however, I ended up enrolling in dentistry school at my local public university. It was my mother who motivated me to continue learning, growing and working on myself, but coming from a conservative culture, she suggested dentistry, not medicine, would be the career that allowed me to have time for a family.

During my studies, I began to learn how fascinating the human body is and everything that we still need to learn from it. Nonetheless, the fatigue caught up with me. I needed more hours in the day to be able to work full-time while attending a school as demanding as dentistry. Even though I was passionate about my studies, I understood that what I was doing was not sustainable. 

I ventured to enroll in the Au Pair program. It was the perfect way to combine my love for children and my desire to travel. In less time than I thought possible, I had filled out the necessary paperwork and was being interviewed by families from all over the United States. The Stevens family opened their home to me, and they trusted me to take care of what is most precious to them: their children.

I moved to a different country by myself, to live with a family that I only knew through a screen. Moving abroad brought out the brave woman that I didn’t know I had inside me. I moved to a place where English was not, at least then, my dominant language and the traditions and customs were considerably different. The moment I stepped off the plane and heard people speaking English, I realized what a huge step I had taken. I adjusted to living with three wonderful kids, and eating frozen food for dinner. I grew to enjoy the tranquility of the suburbs and realized how much I liked eating bagels with cream cheese on the weekends. 

Living in the US sparked my ambition and reignited the desire to move forward. Coming from Mexico where there are so many shortcomings made me appreciate how the US offers opportunity everywhere. I never dreamed of moving to the United States, however my time here transformed me. Being away from everything I knew helped me to see that although many of the events in my past were not up to me, there was a point where I could decide where I wanted to go. My experience here also demonstrated to me how fortunate I am, after I volunteered at Person-to-Person. I had the chance to help P2P organize clothing donations. Many people who went there were Spanish-speaking immigrants who did not know a word of English.

It was gratifying to allow them to feel heard in their own language while having someone guide them through the process of acquiring items. I could see myself in the eyes of the people I helped, because I always thought that it could be me who needed a hand. I saw the relief on their faces when they heard me speaking Spanish, because that meant that at least for a moment they would not have to feel so vulnerable being in an unknown place. What they did not know is that they also made me feel closer to home.

At the end of my au pair program, after a year and a half in the United States, I returned to Mexico with the intention of finishing dentistry school. Returning to Chihuahua after having traveled to many big cities and towns in America had altered me. One Mary Ann left but a new Mary Ann, who now lived day-to-day much more consciously, had returned. After living in a place where children read, enjoy art and play tons of sports, where people respect traffic signals and do not try to bribe the police, my vision evolved. It was heartbreaking to return and realize that although I will always love Mexico, what I am looking for is not there. Although I felt renewed, full of life, and ready to continue with my journey, neither my school, nor my family, nor any situation around me had changed. I was different but the circumstances that welcomed me home were the same.

I never expected to return to find a closed door. I ran into barriers in obtaining an education. I tried a thousand ways to secure aid from my educational institution, the government, and private funds, but nothing was available. In Mexico, not enough funds are allocated to students. Mexico does not invest in the education of its inhabitants and that is why people who believe they have potential seek support in other countries. I also ran into the barrier of the customs and traditions of a conservative country, where it is thought that there is a certain age you are too old to go back to school, and where as a woman you should be focusing on finding a husband and starting a family. I decided to fight against the social pressure of following a traditional path, and did not hesitate when the Stevens family offered to sponsor me to return to the United States as a student.

I enrolled in community college and registered for classes in the Allied Health Department. There, I have had an enriching experience which continued feeding my interest in the health sciences.  An undergraduate degree will pave the way to broaden my knowledge in areas inside and outside of my major, and prepare me for my next academic steps. I wish to enter Smith College to continue my pursuit of scholarship and realize my ambition of forging a career in medicine. I am particularly interested in the summer research programs Smith offers, where I will improve upon my skills obtained assisting research in the microbiology laboratory the few years I attended dentistry school.

Smith will give me the opportunity to be part of a diverse community that values knowledge for knowledge’s sake. I wish to be part of Smith College because of its challenging academic standards and the sense of community that it promotes. It excites me that the Ada Comstock program will allow me to be fully immersed in a scholarly environment, and where I will meet students from other colleges and universities. I want to attend Smith because it will establish a solid foundation as I advance in my career. 

The course I charted transformed the girl who once hid under the covers with her brothers into a better version of herself, which then led her to choose her life’s path. Growing up in Mexico and moving to the United States in my 20’s showed me that determination and resilience, along with kindness and honesty, ease the way through life’s uncertainties. The underrated life hack of a Latin American childhood has served me well, and I know that my will to move myself forward, my desire for knowledge and my community-based engagement will contribute to Smith College.

M.A.M. herself

Yet another beautiful journey begins.

UPDATE!!!! M.A.M. informed us last week that she was accepted to both Smith College and Mt. Holyoke on a full ride! M.A.M. has decided on Smith. How great is that?

Some images courtesy of Flemming Madsen, fashion photographs by Louise Dahl-Wolfe.

Letter from a Front Line

We have our first guest contributor! This essay came to my attention this morning. It’s written by a young woman I know. I will say more about her at the end, but I will let her words speak. I hope you enjoy.

Being an Essential Worker  by Shirley N.

A job that never seemed important. That is how a cashier sometimes is seen. Like many other jobs, being a cashier does not require going to school to get a certificate, a degree, or an advanced degree. It is just simple, but overall it is essential and important. Unfortunately, it is not seen in this way all the time or by everyone. I have been working as a supermarket cashier for about two and a half years, and it is not a simple job as many would say. We have to be careful with customer’s groceries, be patient, be polite, and sometimes pretend not to feel the offenses of people. For example, one day a lady went to check out her groceries with one of my co-workers. My co-worker is in her 40s. She does not speak English well. The lady noticed that, and she started telling the cashier that she should not be working there because she does not even understand and speak English. The cashier seemed very sad, and another lady behind her started calling the manager really loud because she said that the lady was abusing the cashier. This is an everyday occurrence at a supermarket. Sometimes people just want to make us feel down because we are “supermarket cashiers.” When the pandemic (COVID-19) started, we were not simple cashiers, we started being essential workers.

When schools, restaurants, bars, and malls closed, pharmacies, hospitals, and supermarkets remained open. My health, my goals, and my life were in danger. During this time, working to serve people who do not appreciate our work did not make sense. That is how I was feeling. The week my school closed, I worked four days up to the weekend and during my spring break week. That week and a half was something I will never forget. The first day, March 4, the supermarket was incredibly crowded; it took just a day to have empty shelves and people fighting each other because of food. Everything was unreal for me. Before the pandemic, people used to complain about every single thing. They always want to have things at the cheapest price and they bought in less quantity — but not this time. They tried to get as much food as possible. They did not care about the price anymore. It felt like the end of the world. After that Wednesday of work, the only thing I wanted to do was sleep and be ready for the next day because I knew it could be worse.

The next day, March 5th, other schools, and businesses were closing. People were losing their jobs and scarcity of supplies began to happen. That day is unforgettable for me because I was not scared about the virus and everything that was going on. However, it is sad how everything can just disappear. I remember a few months before looking for a job at a bookstore in the mall because I wanted to work somewhere a little slower than a supermarket, but for some reason I did not get the job. That day, I felt grateful that I didn’t, because even though I was in danger, I had work. I would still be able to help my family in Ecuador, and that made me feel blessed. I thanked God once again for what I had.

The next day of work was also hard for me. I have to deal with a lot of people, and in my mind, there was always the question: might he or she have the virus? My co-workers seemed scared. I heard them talking to each other about what they heard in the news, what people were saying, etc. For a few, it is something that they would have to face and only God knows what would happen to them.  For me, I thought this experience was something that will make us become better people. However, this did not seem to be on everybody’s mind. For those customers who think we “the cashiers” are useless people, putting my life in danger and giving them service did not seem worthwhile. For instance, there was a guy who came to my register with a bad attitude. For some reason, he pushed one of the items of the customer in front of him and brought it closer to her. The lady did not like him touching her stuff and getting too close to her.  I told him very politely to stand where the sign indicated where the 6 feet distance was. He just looked at me and muttered to himself. When it was his turn to be checked out, he started yelling at me to put an item in a bag. I knew that was my job, but certainly, he was trying to give me a hard time. I called the manager because as I said I am a supermarket cashier, but I am not less than anyone. He also treated the manager really badly. Other customers were calling him nasty.

This kind of situation is something that I am used to facing. Being a supermarket cashier for these years has taught me customer service skills when dealing with this kind of person in a real-life situation that most of us have faced or will face. Another thing I will take from it is to not be this type of person because every single job position needs to be respected and valued. Also, advocating for myself is another thing I have learned. Even though I am young, I am able to defend my rights and not let anyone drive over me. This is one of the things that people like me have to know in order not to be put down as many people would like to do to others. Sometimes, it is not something I wish I have to do, but in real life, it is what we must face. 

In my everyday work, now there was something different. First, we started using gloves. I did not like the idea because we did not have hand sanitizers to disinfect the gloves. Second, we were obliged to wear masks. Then a second mask, the kind that is clear plastic and covers the entire face, was offered but not compulsory, yet it was an extra safety precaution for us. After the masks, they put up plastic partitions so we would not have direct contact with customers. It stood like that for a while. What did not stay the same was the freedom of buying whatever people wanted and the amount they wanted. Since the shelves were emptying and deliveries were delayed, the store had to make decisions about how they would be able to address people’s needs. Therefore, the limit on chicken, beef, rice, frozen vegetables and fruits, paper towels and bath tissue, etc. was one of those decisions. Again, this was something that made people go crazy. Every day, work is an argument with customers about the limits on food. On sunny days, people come to the store and try to get a lot of packages of meat to do BBQ. It is sad, but it seems that people still do not get what is going on.

After work, it feels like I survived another day, but at the same time, nothing is the same. I feel scared of wearing the same pair of jeans twice, my shoes can not be inside of the house without disinfecting them. Life is not the same, out there many families have lost their loved ones, and even though we are all facing a different situation related to COVID-19, it is not easy to assimilate it. At the supermarket, I continue to experience all kinds of situations. For example, a few people try to relax with a case of beer, others try to get a lot of meat to have for weeks, others buy only what they need, and others’ jobs are to shop for others. This is a really interesting time to me.

I have been experiencing a lot, and I can not stop thinking about how incredible life is. Becoming a doctor requires a lot of studying and many years of interning and residency. Other people make videos and become famous social media influencers and society sees them as important. The reality is different. I am out there making it every day providing an essential service. I never thought I would be in this position carrying this craziness on my back.

After three weeks, the supermarket provided additional protection. Now, we have a plastic curtain that protects our backs. I feel that nothing really would completely protect us, but it is worthwhile to try everything that might help. Staying motivated is also another thing I have been facing because it is sad how the world has changed, but many people’s minds have not.  For example, supermarkets went back to using plastic grocery bags so that we do not have to touch people’s bags that they bring from home. However, it is really sad how people are taking advantage of it. They try to take as many bags as they can home. I still do not see the point of this. This is not always the case. There are also people who have tried to thank us for our outstanding work. They have been making signs to make us feel how important we are to them and to the world. I am pretty sure that there are more people who thank essential workers than people who think we are just being paid to do a job, and that our work also includes hearing their insults

Overall, being part of the essential workforce is a role that today is one of the most important. My everyday job is to serve people while exposing my health and my family’s health. Not only that, but my goals, dreams, and feelings are out there with me. I am able to support myself, be a full-time student, manage two jobs, send money to my family in Ecuador, be a daughter, a sister, cook, and wash my clothes every day after work. Throughout this time I have noticed how being essential requires strength, courage, and patience. It is now about two months and a half since people’s everyday lives have changed. Being outside is not joyful anymore. Every day something different and unexpected happens. My job may not be considered important to many because we are still seen as simple supermarket cashiers even though we are the ones who help to keep this world moving forward. For others, we make the difference and that motivates me to continue.

Shirley is 20 years old. She loves mathematics, environmental science and Albert Einstein. She hopes to attend Princeton University where her idol taught. I, for one, applaud her every step of the way.

Clare

Images: WPA and Diego Rivera