Immigrant women contribute much to the U.S. During these years of contributing, there are stories of triumph and transformation. Here’s one story about a mother in Apopka.
APOPKA, Fla. — When Rosa Serrano remembers her first months in the United States, she thinks of feelings tinged with fear and isolation. She arrived in 2004 to live with her husband Mario, who had been traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico for 11 years as a migrant farmworker. Unlike many immigrants from working-class backgrounds, Rosa had the fortune of entering the U.S. with papers. But her transition to life in the country was far from easy.
Rosa grew up in Irapuato, Mexico, where she spent most of her youth working in agriculture, growing produce, including strawberries, pumpkins and onions. She was the 10th of 13 children, and she left school in fourth grade to work to support her family.
When she was 22, she married her husband and moved to another town about 30 minutes away from Irapuato. They started a family, and her husband spent long years working in the U.S. to send home money and petition for his family to come live with him. After about 10 years of living mostly separately, Rosa’s husband met his wife and five children at the border in El Paso. They drove them to their new home in Apopka, about 20 miles northwest of Orlando.
Her first years in the United States were difficult. Even though she arrived with documents, she faced major barriers: a new language, a foreign culture and her own shyness. “My shyness was because I was afraid to go out.” In her husband’s town in Mexico, she always had family to accompany her on outings and help her with her children. In Apopka, everything was new and unfamiliar.
Like many immigrant parents, Rosa made some of her first contact with new people through her children. Some of the first people she met were the nuns of Hope CommUnity Center: “[My sons] Sergio and Mario told me they were going somewhere with the nuns, and later [my husband] Mario realized that they were the same nuns who had helped him when he came [to Apopka as a teenager]…”
These nuns were Sisters of Notre Dame Ann Kendrick, Gail Grimes and Cathy Gorman, who founded the Office for Farmworker Ministry in 1971 to work with farmworkers and working poor people in Central Florida. Over the decades, the ministry partnered with residents and local groups to address social problems such as illiteracy, lack of access to health care and economic injustices.
By 2007, the Office for Farmworker Ministry officially opened its first building, Hope CommUnity Center. Shortly thereafter, the nuns started to invite Rosa and her husband to community meetings with other immigrant families to discuss issues, plan events and enjoy time together. Rosa appreciated the invitations, “but it was hard for me because…they invited me but I didn’t want to go because I didn’t know how to be with people. It made me feel embarrassed. I couldn’t talk. When someone spoke to me, my face turned red and I didn’t want to talk.”
Rosa’s confidence began to grow when she started attending Hope’s MOMS classes. MOMS is an acronym for “Making Ongoing Meaningful Steps.” The program was started about eight years ago as a basic literacy and English class for the immigrant homemaker mothers of high school students who belonged to Hope’s Sin Fronteras Youth Group.
Like many immigrant women in the U.S., Rosa was unable to complete her formal education in Mexico due to her family’s lack of financial resources. In the U.S., many immigrants of similar backgrounds face extreme barriers to finding educational programs for adults that meet their unique needs. These barriers are multiplied for women and mothers, who often lack access to transportation and child care. In MOMS class, Rosa found a community of learners who shared similar stories.
“I started to gain confidence, and I started in the MOMS group. We started to talk, and there we talked about our problems. And that’s where I started to get out of my shell, and I liked it. I started to go regularly to the MOMS class and [volunteer to help with things at Hope].”
Communication with teachers and staff members at her children’s school also was a stressful challenge at the beginning of her life in the U.S. Teachers and administrators regularly send home letters and forms for parents to read, and school systems expect parents to take a role in advocating and supporting their children with academic work. While these expectations are admirable, they can be discouraging and intimidating for immigrant parents of differing educational backgrounds who are learning English, or who may not know how to read or write.
When her son Juan was in elementary school learning English, Rosa says that “[the school] sent me these papers but I didn’t know what they meant. First, they were in English, and there were no people in the [school] office who spoke Spanish. But I told [Juan], I don’t want to see this letter because I thought it was that they wanted to send him to another school, that they were going to send him and take him away from me. But I never, never asked anyone anything.”
As it turned out, the letters from the school that she was afraid to read were recommending Juan for advanced classes. Juan knew that he needed his mother to respond to the school so that he could take advantage of the opportunity. He encouraged her to go to the school and have a meeting with his teacher. “[The teacher] said that it was because Juan was doing really well, and that she wanted him in those classes…and so I started to go to the meetings [at the school]. And that’s when [Juan] started to advance more.”
Rosa’s courage in facing her fears and taking that first step to have a meeting with Juan’s teacher more than 10 years ago put her son on a long-term path to success. In August, he will begin his undergraduate studies at Rice University in Texas. He is receiving a full scholarship.
For Rosa, the prospect of her children growing up and moving away is difficult. In Mexico, children often stay close to their parents. But her husband and sisters encourage her to “be proud, because they are going away for good things.” Rosa says, “I have to let them go, not cut their wings. I have to let them fly.”
In the meantime, Rosa is learning to do something revolutionary. She is learning to take time for herself. In doing so, she is going against the grain of the cultural judgements she has heard all her life: “Before a woman gets married, her parents tell her, ‘When you get married…you have to attend to your family—you are the woman of the house. You have to attend to the family and you have to attend to the kids.’ This gets in a person’s head.”
As her children get older, she is beginning to see the importance of taking better care of herself and valuing her own interests and hobbies. Instead of spending most of her time cleaning the house, she knits or goes for walks. She also continues to attend MOMS classes, which have grown over the years to a group of 30 women. Now, Rosa can read, write and speak some English. She encourages other mothers to come to the class and find their voices.
“Sometimes the very young women will say, ‘Oh, I didn’t come because I barely learn anything, and I leave a lot of things [unfinished] in the house [when I go to class].’ I tell them, ‘Never make that mistake, because sometimes you think you won’t learn, but now that you are young, don’t stop coming.’ I tell them, ‘No, don’t be afraid, and even if you have your baby [with you], come because you will learn, and yes, it helps people a lot.’”
Elizabeth Ortel is a Hope CommUnity Center (HCC) staff member, who works on academic issues. Ivis Rodriguez, a HCC staff member who works on K-12 education issues, and Alex Saunders, HCC director of communications and media, assisted with the interview. Isabella Jaramillo-Betancourt transcribed the interview. Ortel and Saunders also provided editing assistance. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America.