Immigrants tell story of heartbreak and hope
Standing in front of a white board in a room at the Port Arthur Public Library, Fernando Ramirez wrote the word ‘senator’ calling attention to the pronunciation.
The two-hour citizenship class he was teaching was ending, but a woman had asked a question and he made sure to explain so that she knew the difference in pronunciation between el senador the Spanish word, and the English word senator, which both have the same meaning.
Becoming a legal U.S. citizen is important to the people in the class for many reasons, especially now, with the Trump administration targeting residents who are here illegally for deportation.
The adult students in Ramirez’s class are not here illegally — they are legal residents. Some speak perfect English, some don’t though many have been a legal resident for decades.
And they all have stories to tell.
“These people have been through the system and are here legally and still have problems,” Ramirez said.
Fair skinned, blonde haired Joanna was born in Reynosa, Mexico and is often mistaken for an Anglo.
Her husband is from the Rio Grande Valley and with their marriage she became a legal resident and has been in the U.S. since 1995.
Joanna declined to give her last name due to fears over discrimination and retaliation.
Her English is perfect and years ago she worked as a babysitter.
Due to her husband’s job, she has lived in different areas of the country and one son was born in Illinois.
But when her family came to Southeast Texas they encountered problems.
“My son was in the band in Illinois, where he was born, and he has a different accent,” Joanna said.
The accent is not Spanish but that of someone from a northern state and said he was bullied at school.
Ramirez said Joanna had complained to school officials about the bullying at her son’s school but the issue continued.
She and her family did what was needed to help her children receive a good education without bullying.
“In this case a parent was able to defend her child. They didn’t like the school system here,” he said. “They sold their home in Port Arthur and bought a home in Port Neches and were able to enroll their kids in that school district. Port Arthur lost a good citizen and good taxpayer. That’s something people don’t realize, immigrants contribute to the economy as taxpayers.”
Irma’s story also involves discrimination. Also a native of Reynosa, Mexico, Irma married an American, is a legal resident and has been in the U.S. for 26 years, 22 of which have been spent in Port Arthur.
Irma also declined to give her last name due to fears over discrimination and retaliation.
Through Ramirez who acted as an interpreter, Irma explained that her family speaks English but she knows only a little. She’s working on that — and citizenship.
Irma was once a business owner but due to her lack of English skills and racism from clients, she gave up her business.
“She had a hair salon in Nederland and had an Anglo client come in and wanted to talk to her,” he said. “Her daughter told the lady that her mother (Irma) didn’t speak English. The client said ‘if you own a business in the U.S. you should know English.’ She wanted to report her to authorities and have her deported and did pay her bill because Irma didn’t speak English.”
The daughter, who speaks English, did not want any problems so she told the woman to leave and didn’t demand payment for services.
“I wanted to tell someone it’s unfair,” Irma said through the translator. “I’m here legally, but I don’t speak English well enough.”
The business lasted from December 2015 to April 2016 and closed, she said, because of the atmosphere during the presidential elections.
“This is the problems legal residents and citizens are having. They (women in story) contribute to the economy and are still suffering discrimination,” he said. “I’m being treated the same way she’s treated.”
Ramirez, who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, is an American citizen.
He spent years as liaison between the Hispanic community and Port Arthur Independent School District, is owner of OTRA Hispanic Media and works with the Immigrant Education Center, a non-profit organization that helps immigrants learn English, prepare for the citizenship test and assimilate in Southeast Texas.
Another woman in the group, Maria, also knows the problems associated with not fully knowing the English language coupled with having brown skin and dark hair.
As with the others, Maria also declined to give her last name due to fears over discrimination and retaliation.
Maria was at the library at one of Ramirez’s classes during the presidential election run up.
“The class was in the back of the library and as she was leaving there were people distributing voting handouts,” Maria said through Ramirez. “Someone said ‘don’t give it to them, they’re not citizens, they’re not legal.’”
Maria is in the U.S. legally and is working toward citizenship and learning English.
Her story includes the pain of watching her aunt’s family being torn apart by immigration officials.
Maria’s aunt came to California illegally decades ago to make a better life for her and her children.
But back in the ‘80s the children of an undocumented person could not enroll in public school.
“Her aunt had to put her children under another person’s name so they cold go to school. The other person was like a (legal) guardian,” she said through Ramirez. “Immigration caught her (aunt) and told her to leave or she’d be deported. She left her children with the guardian to give them a better life.”
When the aunt decided to go back to California she found she couldn’t claim her children because they were not in her care.
The children grew up without their mother.
“She wanted to give her kids the best opportunities. She made a sacrifice for her children,” he said. “She still went to work, helped them maintain their lifestyle and paid their bills but they lived with another family all their lives and she didn’t want other people to know this.”
The problem was compounded when the kids grew up and learned they couldn’t help their mother because she didn’t have documentation.
For Immaculada Sanchez, the U.S. is a refuge from the tyranny of a dictator.
Sanchez, a native and resident of Merida, Venezuela, is in the U.S. on a tourist visa and taking classes to learn English while she’s here.
Her son is helping her file paperwork to legally stay in the U.S. as a refugee.
“When I was young I was very happy,” Sanchez said through Ramirez. “There were jobs, a lot of jobs, and money. Now it’s different.”
The South American country of Venezuela was once ruled by Hugo Chavez, whose rise to power took a toll on the country.
Homicides soared, armed gangs ruled over prisons and simple tasks such as transferring the title of a car because a nightmare made easy only by paying bribes to bureaucrats, according to a March 2013 New York Times story.
After the death of Chavez, Nicolas Maduro took control of the country.
Sanchez once owned a grocery store in her native country.
She explained that one day about 18 years ago the government came in and demanded supplies, without compensation.
The majority of the businesses saw this government take-over and she closed her store fearing for her life, she said as she began to cry.
The socialist regime’s economic policies worked to a degree while oil prices surged, but in recent years, a downturn in oil value has plunged the country into economic depression and food is scarce while inflation is soaring.
America offers the freedoms she strives for.
“I want to be a citizen one day,” Sanchez said. “If God grants me the privilege one day to become an American citizen, if I’m fortunate enough.”
Sanchez worked hard to give her children a better life. Two sons are professionals in the U.S. and a daughter is an electrical engineer in Madrid, Spain.
One son who is in Port Arthur has been here for two years on a work visa and is a third grade math teacher.
He came here as part of a program through PAISD when the district expanded its search for bilingual educators. He is now trying to give his mother a chance at citizenship.
“When in Venezuela there are no freedoms. No medical care, no health care, it’s very limited. People are suffering. There is no freedom of expression, no liberties,” she said. “I love the U.S. I’m very happy.”
This is the first time Sanchez has been in the U.S., she said, adding that things are difficult but not impossible if you want to achieve your goal.
Because she worked while in her native Venezuela she did not have the opportunity at a proper education.
“At first she was very intimidated at the (English) classes,” Ramirez said. “She could speak Spanish but her reading and writing were poor. She’s learning by listening and watching and basically learning to read and write Spanish while learning English.”
Sanchez broke down into tears describing the landscape of Venezuela.
“Merida, Venezuela is another world. It’s very beautiful and they have snow,” she said. “But if there’s nothing to eat and no freedom, beauty doesn’t matter. It hurt to leave but I saw the change in my country.”
Reporter: Mary Meaux, 409-721-2429