For my HERstory project I interviewed Laura Silvia Ojeda, a Mexican woman in her fifties, who came to the states twenty one years ago. She moved to New York after marrying a New York native. She has had to face various challenges in this big city because she is Latina. We spoke about her past and the present while she very generously served me some enchiladas suizas. This is her story.
Being a Latina
One of the first questions I asked Laura during her interview was what being a Latina meant to her. She responded with a look of confusion and said “Any woman who was born in a Hispanic country for example Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Central and South America”. This answer is sumple and this may be because Laura herself is a very simple woman. She is a housewife and devotes her entire life to taking care of her kids and husband. She takes pleasure in cooking and keeping her house clean. When she wakes up in the morning she has a routine. First, make sure her kids get to school on time and make sure they do not leave on an empty stomach. Second, put the laundry in and wash the dishes. As she waits for the laundry, she calls her family in Mexico: her mom, then her five sisters, then her two brothers.
Even though Laura spends most of her days in the comfort of her own home, she is not oblivious to what goes on in the media. She knows that in America, there is a certain stereotype of what Latinas should look like. She says: “If you watch American Television, Latinas are usually seen as housewives but still take very good care of there looks.” And if you watch ABC, Desperate Housewives might be the perfect example of this. The only Latina on the show, Gabby (played by Eva Longoria), is the only one of the housewives, up until now that doesn’t have a job. She relies solely on her husband’s income and stays at home to cook and take care of her two daughters. Eva Longoria’s character also fits in with the curvy and sexy body image stereotype as well. This is how most primetime television shows portray the Latina women.
This is a shame, however Laura brought up a good point. It depends on what channels you watch. Just a few days ago, Univision was showing that Time Magazine appointed only three Latinas in the top 100 list of influential people. After briefly discussing the differences between American and Mexican television, I asked Laura if she saw any bias in who they cast as Latinas in movies and television. She responded by saying what I also see as the truth. “The media always looks for pretty people, not just when it comes to Latinas. You just can’t not be attractive in Hollywood. There’s no way.”
Growing Up in Mexico
Moving on to a topic she is more familiar with, I questioned Laura about her childhood and adolescence. Growing up with 7 siblings, it is safe to say she did not get much time to herself. She never really minded much though. Love and respect for her whole family, especially her parents, was definitely stressed. There was to be no debating or challenging of elders, there was just no other option. You could not say to them.
As far as adolescence goes, she never had any serious boyfriends. She was very centered on getting good grades and ending up with a nice career- which in her case was in the field of accounting. To her parents, they never really pressured her to go to college like most parents pressure their children here in the United States. But they never disliked the idea either.
From what she was telling me, it seemed like her parents were the most lenient when it came to going to school. A lot of her friends were more pressured to learn how to cook, organize and clean before anything else. “I had a friend whose mom would yell at her because she couldn’t make cakes like her, or sew or iron” she told me. The only families who cared about their daughter getting a higher education were the upper-class families. Lawyers wanted to their daughters to become lawyers and they of course also had to marry lawyers. It was like the circle of life. You couldn’t get in and it was hard to get out if you were born into it (money).
Being a Mexican in America
Upon arriving to New York, Laura expected what she had seen in the movies. Tall buildings, dirty streets and good pizza. She got all of that plus a lot of racist comments along the way. She was told that she was ignorant because she couldn’t fluently speak the language. “People made me feel like I swam across the border illegally, but I didn’t. I had and have every right to be here.” she said almost with tears in her eyes.
She told me about one of the first time she ever stopped into a department store, a security guard followed her because he thought she was going to steal something. That same week she heard someone scream out “Go back to your country!” as she was passing by. It made her feel insulted, she got depressed and felt as if she was being abused everyday when she walked outside.
Getting a Job
When Laura was still living in Mexico, she had a full-time accounting job with a great salary because she finished at the top of her university graduating class. This being the case, she thought it was going to be easier to find a job in New York. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. Once she finally managed to find a part-time job, she found out she was being paid three times less than an American would be getting paid doing the same exact job. Here are her thoughts on the subject: “They just don’t give you a chance if you don’t go to school here. And it would have been too much money for me to go back to college here”.
There were times when Laura didn’t want to give up on getting a real job here in the city. However it wasn’t easy when people didn’t take her seriously when she would tell them that she was already a professional. They would laugh in her face and told her that if she had an accent and didn’t look the part, she wasn’t eligible for a real job.
While on the subject of jobs, we got into a conversation about immigration. She and I both agree that these days the hardest jobs involving manual labor and unsafe working conditions are taken by immigrants. Illegal or not, they are exposed to dangerous work places and are at risk for getting into life threatening accidents. This is never in the news and what is worse is that they aren’t even provided with health insurance. Therefore if something happens, they can say goodbye to their job and sometimes even their life.
Marrying an American
“I love my husband and I love all of the opportunities that my children have because they live in America” she starts off. But she does notice that she is treated differently when she is by herself than when she is with her husband. “I even have to wait more to eat at restaurants when I’m by myself” she says.
This constant suffering from racism may hurt Laura’s self-esteem, but family does and has always come first in her life. It’s just the way she was brought up, learning to face hardships so that her family can succeed, and hopefully one day Laura will succeed too.