Teresa Reyes was born in El Salvador and came to the United States in 1999 when she was 17 years old, nine months pregnant and spoke only Spanish. As she established herself in her new home, she packed lettuce in farm fields, worked in slaughterhouses and taught herself English. She eventually put herself through college and now works as an environmental scientist.
We talked about the search for her mother, who had fled the country’s civil war before Teresa’s first birthday, the challenges of being raised by her grandparents, the lack of opportunities she saw for herself in her home country as a pregnant teenager, and her determination to find a different path for herself.
“This is my home. Yuma gave me the opportunity because they supported me. They trusted me. They believed in me. So this is my home.”
“I was born in 1982 in El Salvador during the civil war. [The rebels killed my uncle] and my mom had to migrate to the U.S. My grandma came first and then she sent the money to bring my mom and eventually all her kids. But still, she lose one of them, which was my uncle. He was killed. He was betrayed by his people and they killed him.
So when my mom decided to come here, she left me with my grandparents, the father of my dad and my dad. It was hard decision for her. I’m very sure that it was hard because she left one kid behind and she bring my older sister when she was around four years.
She say that she had to try it three times. The first time she tried, she tried just by herself and Mexican Immigration got her and deport her back. And I’m not sure what happened on the second time, but on her third time, she decided to bring my older sister and luckily they were able to go through. I don’t ask sometimes too many questions because it’s very emotional for her, but I just pay attention and can take whatever when she is able to open it up.
I don’t blame her, but sometimes, you know, people question, why do you leave your kids? Or why do you do this? But to be honest, I do have kids. I have four kids and I’ve been an immigrant and not having education, do not know the language, I’ve been put in that situation where I have to left my kids with my mom, for example, for a short period of time, so I can start having a better job. So I’m sure that she had to go through all of that. And it’s very emotional to her, even remembering, because she didn’t have her daughter for 17 years. I met her when I was 17.
I wanted to migrate to U.S. because one of the things that you heard in the U.S., there is a better opportunity and I wanted to be a scientist.
I was pregnant with my first daughter. It was scary. Especially because I had my belly and I have to jump in on that airplane and people used to tell me, Oh, pregnant people, a woman, they do not allow to get in the plane like that.
At the airport you have to go through immigration, they were asking me questions. I was so afraid because people were saying, Oh, they going to ask you this, this and I was so afraid. Lucky for me, the immigration officer was very nice. He just looked through the paperwork. I have my right paperwork.
[after the birth of her daughter]
I started packing the lettuce on the field. Your day is started around 4:00 a.m. Your work periods for your paycheck, start about 8:00 a.m. or depending if the lettuce is not frosting. During the winter time, sometimes you will start about 11:00 a.m. because the lettuce is frozen and you cannot pick it up while it is frosting. You need to let it defrost. Otherwise the lettuce is going to bruise and it’s going to ruin. So for us immigrant workers, it is not very convenient economically because no one pays you from 4:00 a.m. all the way to 8:00 or to 11:00, because your actual work is at that moment that you put your feet on the field and you actually start carrying. So it’s very intense. Sometimes you have to work the whole day until late afternoon in order for you to supply all the demands and as well to get your paycheck. You have a family to support.
I went back in 2000 to Texas again, and I left my daughter with my mom for about 8 month. And I started with no money. I knew I couldn’t bring my daughter with me. And my mom, she support me. And she took care of my daughter. I went one time at the bus station and they were giving up some application to work for a chicken, a slaughter house company. I don’t remember the name. And I just jumped in the bus. I just jump in the bus and I ended up in Arkansas near to Little Rock.
I don’t remember the name of the town, but I worked there a couple months. And then I moved to Illinois. To another slaughter house, but in this location it was pork. And I worked there for a couple years, maybe two years, maybe one year. I don’t even remember.
It is hard, intense work. But I, I was determined that I needed to do something, make money and get my daughter. Around September in 2000, I went back to bring my daughter with me. And then we, I never separated with any of my other kids, but my first one, she suffered that.
I met my first husband in Illinois and we get married. He helped me a lot because he helped me to see in my soul, to what I was aiming and looking for. My potential. He collaborate with me and he supported me in everything. I decided to study nursing. CNA was my first career or a certificate that I get. And I didn’t even speak English by then, but he supported me all the way.
The United States is what I needed, what I imagined. But you have to work hard. The idea that many people have back in my country is that you came to the U.S. and you just opened your hands and the dollars came through your hand. You know what I mean? It’s not true, but if you work hard…you have to make those sacrifice. And after a while, for me it took eight years, but after eight years, I know that I have what I was looking for.
It took me eight years of my education to be where I am right now. It took me 21 years to be here since I came to the U.S. But definitely, it is worth it. At the beginning, it’s like, “Oh, this is harder than what I thought.” But my priorities helped me, I think, to understand and to reach where I needed to go.”
-What is the biggest risk you have ever taken? The biggest sacrifice you have ever made?
-Have you ever felt like you have no opportunities in your current situation?
-What would you be willing to do to change that?
-How do you view the idea of the American Dream?
-Have you ever lived in a place where you don’t know the language?
-Have you ever had to be away from your children to make ends meet?
-What is the hardest job you have ever worked?
-Have you children watched you sacrifice? How do they understand and appreciate it?
-Have you ever considered the working conditions of the laborers who harvest your produce?
-What was your dream as a child? Were you able to pursue it? Did your community support you?