My mom arrived to Chicago from Bogota, Colombia in the mid 1970’s seeking opportunity and a better life. She knew no English, arrived by herself, and did not have clear plans for her future. All she knew was that America was a country of promise and she came to find it.
She stayed with some friends that she knew and they helped her find work in an office. Her inability to speak English caused difficulties at work, but she stuck it out because she needed some kind of income for basic necessities. Her friends weren’t able to support her completely. After a few months in an office setting she found work through an acquaintance as a live-in nanny in Northbrook, IL. This woman fortunately spoke Spanish which made communication much easier although the work was still difficult. She was responsible for maintaining the home as well as taking care of the children when their parents were busy. The work was constant and tiring. Thankfully through great trial and error she began to learn a few words and phrases in English. Although definitely not proficient she began to feel a greater sense of comfort with the language.
Homesickness was a continual battle. Her parents, siblings, and close friends were almost 3000 miles away. It was only a 7-8 hour trip by plane, but it might as well have been a world away. There was no getting home easily no matter how badly she felt.
After about a year she received news from home no person, let alone one thousands of miles away, wants to hear. “Your dad is sick. He has cancer. There is not much time left so we need you to come home.” My mom saved to buy a plane ticket and traveled back to Colombia. She arrived in time to spend quality moments with her father and her family before he passed. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer and it progressed quite rapidly. It was a difficult time as the family adjusted to life without him. As the oldest child in the family, my mother felt a responsibility to care for her siblings in their time of grief and she did for a while.
Although grieving the loss of her father, my mom never forgot the dreams of a better life she still had for living in the United States. After a few months with her family, she left them and all that she knew to start again in Chicago. Upon her return to the United States she began to attend some parties with her friends and it was there that she fell in love with the man who would be by father.
My dad arrived in America a few years earlier after fighting in the Vietnam War. He wasn’t an American citizen when he enlisted to fight, but he felt he was doing what was right. After the war, he too came to the United States seeking a better future and a new start. His plan was to study architecture and go to college here. He learned English earlier in life so his opportunities for success were greater than most.
Love didn’t come easily at first. My mom tells me that she and my dad did not get along when they initially met and that for a time she couldn’t stand him. Slowly, it seems like they grew on each other. My dad had a great sense of humor, was smart, and seemed to have a direction for his life. My mom was tough, tenacious, and beautiful. Although opposites in many ways they could not keep separated and were married in 1977.
My parents went through so much and risked everything for an opportunity for a future in this country. They left behind family, friends, and home. I wouldn’t consider them highly skilled workers or people with much education. At first glance it may not seem like they had much to offer and their hope for a future was dim.
But like many immigrants that come to this country they left their mark in positive ways. My dad eventually got a job with the Hughes Aircraft Company working on electronic products for the U.S. government. My mother raised me and my sister through some very difficult times and supported us as we went to college; something she was never able to do.
I can’t even imagine what my parents went through all in the name of opportunity and a better future. They made me who I am and without them I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today. Their sacrifices paved the way for the success I enjoy.
I’m grateful they had an opportunity to come into this country even with minimal education and little English language ability. The chance they received enabled me to have my chance and changed the trajectory of an entire family for the better.