Across the street and across the divide

By Story of America Team

I used to have it all, and by “all” I mean a house, because that is what I don’t have now. I also have a law degree, a master’s, and an Ivy League undergraduate degree, fluency in several languages, a personality that makes it easy for me to get along with people (and thus get what I want), a supportive upper-middle class family, and a tall white body. I still have everything but the house.

Kay and her daughters

A year after I had twins — the expensive way, through multiple rounds of in vitro fertilization — my husband said he wanted a divorce, and my daughters and I moved three blocks away from our old house, where he continued to live. The three block divide was enormous.

Now we live in an apartment building with all the amenities except a dishwasher (and with paid laundry in the basement). Whenever I get down about my situation, I look out the window.

Across the street is El Salvador, kind of. It is an apartment building built at the same time as my own, and with an identical layout. The ownership is different, though, and that makes all the difference. It is a tenement. The people who live there are mostly undocumented immigrant families from El Salvador, though there are a couple African American adults who live only on disability checks. Everyone there is really, really nice. They are really, really good people.

From the moment I moved in, lots of my neighbors realized I was different than other gringas because I was speaking Spanish to my toddler daughters. Because I spoke Spanish, I was able — I think — to be the first white person that some of the Salvadorans had ever spoken to. We definitely had a lively social life outside; it was like a bilingual Sesame Street.

After I had been here a year a woman approached me on the sidewalk. I had seen her lots but never had a conversation with her. With eyes down, she said that her sons, aged 9 and 11, were coming up from El Salvador soon and did I have any clothes they could use. I said that I didn’t, but that I would get some. Within 24 hours, having asked for donations from Freecycle and my local moms listserve, I had three garbage bags full of clothes, shoes, PJs, books, toys, and gift cards. Some moms started dropping off food. The only explanation my new friend, Amelia (name changed) had for it was that God had finally answered her prayers. The explanation I had for it was that Amelia had just tapped into the life of the enfranchised.

When Amelia’s sons got here, they had a harrowing tale to tell. A “very nice” woman had smuggled them across the two borders that they had to cross to get to their mom and dad, whom they had not seen in 5 years, about half their lives. They rode hidden in the back of a truck, with no stops, peeing into a jar along the way. When they got here they faced a new school, a new (citizen) baby sister, parents they did not know but resented for having left them for so many years, a new language, and a place where they didn’t have the freedom to run free in a rural setting. Here they could play soccer in the park, but there were nasty notices from the landlord that there would be no soccer in the back yard, and that if any windows got broken, the families would pay for full-price replacement windows. The boys had a hard time adjusting. It was only mildly annoying to them that they had become the idols and love-interests of my two- and then three-year old daughters. What humiliation for a tween boy!

To be able to bring the family together and pay for such luxury accomodations as they have (5 people in two bedrooms, plus a boarder who slept on the couch), Amelia works around the clock. She is the main breadwinner because she has a steady job at a dry cleaners pressing clothing. Her husband is a day laborer and does not always get a job for the day. Amelia works 60 hours a week, 6 days a week, and earns $400 cash for that time.

One day I saw her with a huge bandage covering her forearm. She had burned her whole forearm on the press. None of her co-workers would attest to what had happened because they were afraid for their jobs. Her employers said they didn’t pay for lost wages or hospital bills, and if she wanted to keep her job she would come right back to work. She made it back in 4 days, out $200 for her time away and dreading the arrival of the emergency room bill. I bought her some burn cream and talked to my boss about how we could make her company pay her expenses— but no matter what we thought of, it always came back to the fact that she was completely interchangeable with lots of other undocumented women, and she had no bargaining power at all. All she had was a fear of losing her job and a fear of being deported.

One day this spring my girls and I were headed out to the park when we saw Amelia and her family going in the same direction. She invited us to a birthday party she was invited to herself. In a municipal picnic area with covered tables, a concrete floor, and barbeque grills, our neighbors had set up a fantastic party with tons of Salvadoran food, music, balloons and decorations, and a few piñatas. My girls were in heaven. They drank about 5 little bottles of neon-colored “juice” and had diaper overflows onto the forgiving floor. They ate cake (I believe they “helped” the birthday girl blow out the candles on her princess cake). They took the first swings at the mermaid piñata. In short, our neighbors who had not even really invited us treated us like royalty — like they would any stranger who had the good fortune of meeting them or stumbling upon a gathering.

I am trying to teach my girls Spanish because I want them to be able to bridge the divide that different languages and cultures force between us. I want them to be able to treat every person they meet as an individual, not as a different kind of being who is indistinguishable from the next guy and with whom there can be no communication. As my girls learn to talk at preschool they are only speaking English, and it is hard to keep up the energy and focus it takes to respond in my second language all the time. So I have been speaking more and more English back. It is disheartening, but at least they still understand everything that is said to them in Spanish.

Regardless of what languages they do and don’t end up having proficiency in, I hope to teach them the one underlying concept: that these differences are not insurmountable. The chasms are much easier for us educated white girls to cross than vice versa, and for that reason it is our duty to do it.

If we can train our next generation in the ways and benefits of lessening this divide, we will all be so much richer. We can smash up those beautiful piñatas together and candy can rain down upon us all.

(Kay is a mother, lawyer, and artist in Northern Virginia.  Her twin daughters will be four next month and are taking the world by storm.)