Hours spent fending for themselves, hard manual labor, going to school on empty stomachs, not having anything to eat throughout the school day and receiving a substandard education — that was the experience of sisters-in-law Angela Telez and Valeria Tochimani as young children in the city of Cholula, Puebla, Mexico. It was a future they didn’t want for their children, and the motivation for their emigration to the United States.
“I came because there were not a lot of opportunities to study,” Telez said.
She shared that back in her hometown it was normal to get married at 16 or 17, have kids and work too hard. She didn’t want that same cycle for her kids. The jobs the women had as children — making bricks — were not the most stable and were very labor-intensive. They also cultivated their own corn, but without the aid of animals or machinery.
“That work was just too difficult,” she said.
Many children in Cholula went to work at the age of 7 and the education they did get was much different than in America. Telez said if her mom had time to feed her kids breakfast they’d eat, but if not, the children could go more than six hours without any food. If Mom couldn’t leave work to bring them lunch, they wouldn’t get any. She said the food they had was simple: eggs or beans, cooked over an open fire with sticks. There was rarely gas available for the stove, and even when it was it was too expensive. Not buying it was a way to save money.
Tochimani’s experience was similar. She had six siblings, and by the time she was 5 she and her other siblings were being left home from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. because her mother worked. Although there was food in the home there was no one to fix it, so they’d go to school without anything to eat. Other times, they’d eat a tortilla with salt. As she got older, around 10 years old, she’d come home from school while Mom still was at work and eat a churrito — a tube-shaped pastry — inside bread, something she and her sister still do.
Tochimani said her parents didn’t go to school to sign her report cards because they were working. She also recalled a time when her younger sister was spoken to by the teacher because she was wearing “inappropriate clothes. They were dirty, and the teacher wanted to know why. Why wasn’t there anyone at home taking care of the kids?”
Tears well up in Tochimani’s eyes as she recalls such things. “I don’t blame my mother for the things we struggled with,” she said. “I understand, but it’s still hard to think about and I get emotional about it.”
According to Tochimani, things in her home country haven’t changed. Children are still left alone for long hours while parents work. Because of the local brick-making industry, homes in Cholula are at least better built than some in other parts of the country, the women said, but Telez said the roofs were often made from aluminum or asbestos, making them uncomfortably hot or cold.
Coming to America
Tochimani came to the U.S. first, in 1993, at the age of 19. She immigrated to New York, where she met her husband, Juventino Cuatlacuatl. They had a baby girl, and Tochimani worked from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. The busy lifestyle was too much for her, and she returned to Mexico for a couple of years.
In the meantime, her husband stayed in the U.S. and moved to Indiana, where his brother had immigrated.
The brother, Jesus, worked to raise money to bring his family here. His wife, Telez, joined him after a year later, leaving their two sons with an aunt for three years. The children were only 5 and 7 years old at the time.
Although it was difficult, Telez said she took advantage of the time away from her children to work two jobs so they could get ahead and pay for the children to come. The family was reunited in 1999, when David was 10 and Federico was 8. They are now 29 and 27, and their daughter, Jessica, is 17. Tochimani and her husband also had more children, two more daughters.
The women said life was still hard when they first came. Language was a barrier, and they came with nothing but had to find jobs, a place to rent and transportation. They also had to pay back a loan to the person who brought them to the U.S.
Because Tochimani remembers going to school with an empty stomach, she made sure her daughters always had breakfast before going to school — even if she had to go to work. And as time went on life became easier for the two families. Tochimani said there is more access to food in the U.S., and they get paid more money and more promptly for the work that they do. Telez and her husband struggled a little when her two sons were in college at the same time, though, because as immigrants they were not eligible for any scholarships or grants.
Relying on their faith
Telez and her family have been parishioners at St. Michael Parish in Plymouth for close to 20 years, Tochimani and family about 16. Both cantor at the Spanish Masses, and both are in charge of quinceñera preparation. Telez is also in charge of the proclaimers of the Word and the eucharistic ministers.
The sisters-in-law rely heavily on their faith. Telez said she’s gone through a lot of tests, trials and difficult times in her life.
“Through those times, God was the only one who could help. I held onto that — especially when I was separated from my sons. I was always thinking of them and worrying about them, I worried when they crossed over (to the U.S.). Every day, I asked for my faith to sustain me.” Even now there is an every-day fear just driving, because they’re undocumented, so she prays for God to protect them while they are out.
Tears begin to flow as Telez is overcome with emotion, and she struggles to continue speaking. “It feels like God always listens. My children were able to meet their goals. Even though I’m going through a difficult time now, my faith gives me strength to live every day.”
Tochimani said she’s had difficult times too; in particular, difficulties between her and her husband were what brought them back to the Church.
“My husband and I, through our faith, understand that as a family we’re tied together. That makes it easier to encourage one another,” she said. “And as Angela said, always hold on to your faith.”
Telez said she realizes as time goes on it will bring more difficulties but with her faith she gets the strength she needs. “As long as I have my health, work and life, I’m thankful for that.”
Tochimani said she’s also afraid because of political decisions in the country right now but said, “I’m thankful for all the opportunities this country has given us — and that my children have had all these opportunities.” She said she asks God to protect them and to protect their jobs, because she realizes that without their jobs, “we would not be able to have a life here.”
Note: This interview was conducted with the aid of interpreters.
“You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you have the same love for him as for yourself; for you, too, were once— Lv. 19:33-34
— Catholic Relief Services’ www.ShareTheJourney.org
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Catholic Social Teaching on Immigration and the Movement of People espouses three basic principles.
1. People have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. (Which includes) every person has an equal right to receive from the earth what is necessary for life — food, clothing and shelter.
2. A country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration. “As Americans we should cherish and celebrate the contributions of immigrants and their cultures; however, we should work to make it unnecessary for people to leave their own land.”
3. A country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy. “A country’s regulation of borders and control of immigration must be governed by concern for all people and by mercy and justice. A nation may not simply decide that it wants to provide for its own people and no others. A sincere commitment to the needs of all must prevail.”
For the full document see http://www.uscb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/immigration/catholic–teaching-on-immigration-and-movement-of-peoples.cfm
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