The Opportunity of a Lifetime
Gloria Martinez’s 1979 move to the United States from Medellín, Colombia to build a better future.
essay written by Lisa Yardley
Gloria Martinez, a woman who grew up in the beautiful but violent nation of Colombia, came to America in 1979. The transition from the strongly Catholic, Spanish speaking nation to the English speaking land of religious freedom was quite difficult; however with her strong determination she was able to overcome the odds and make America her home. This transition allowed her to grow in new ways and changed her life for the better, giving her opportunities she would never have had in Colombia.
Growing up in a violent and corrupt nation without the protection of parents, Gloria Martinez quickly became a strong and independent young woman. Her experience supporting herself and her younger brother helped her see the positive potential in every situation, and to take every opportunity as a chance to improve her life in the future, because she “knew that [she] had to [improve] her future, no one was going to do it for [her].”1 With her hard work and determination, Mrs. Martinez was able to find a job in America and took her chance to immigrate and turn her life in the right direction. Mrs. Martinez did everything in her power to quickly assimilate into the American culture and create a future that would be most beneficial to herself and those around her.
Colombia, a country torn by violent “civil wars, [and] drug cartel wars,”2 was the homeland of Gloria Martinez. When Mrs. Martinez was a young girl, her mother passed away and her father wanted nothing to do with the family. As a result, Mrs. Martinez essentially grew up without parents, always on the move between family members who would keep her for an indeterminate amount of time, “three months, six months, [or] only until the end of the school year.”3 The families did not provide her with food or tuition money; they simply provided her “a place to stay,”4 and she was considered “second class”5 they had their own children to worry about. Because she constantly moved around, it was difficult for Mrs. Martinez since at each house she had to adjust to a new set of rules and a different family. Mrs. Martinez was very close to her younger brother because he always moved with her. However, she worked a lot more than he did, and ended up supporting him more than he supported himself. The rough situations motivated Mrs. Martinez and gave her strength, while her brother became embittered towards the unfair situations and lacked the drive to change them.
Schools in Colombia differed greatly from those in America; In Colombia all schools are Catholic private schools with tuitions. At the schools, “everything is uniform, very strict, run by…catholic nuns,”6 and in session six days a week – there is class on Saturdays, but it starts at 8:00a.m. and finishes at 1:30p.m. Once a week, the children are also forced to attend a full catholic mass as part of their education process. Since she was an orphan with no parents to support her, Mrs. Martinez had to pay for her own schooling, which cost about “250 pesos, [the] equivalent of …10 dollars.”7 Although she was constantly moving between families, Mrs. Martinez maintained attendance at the same school from elementary through high school. The school tuition increased through the years, so Mrs. Martinez was forced to work more. Her jobs included serving the nuns, and cleaning her neighbors’ houses and yards. The all-girls school was 45 minutes away from her house and transportation was an additional cost. When she came up short, Mrs. Martinez was forced to take the public bus to school. Getting to school by the bus took “3 hours to… instead of [her] school bus which [took] 45 minutes.”8 Although these obstacles posed a significant challenge to Mrs. Martinez they made her appreciate the little things in life. As a result, she was able to see maintain an optimistic outlook even when performing menial tasks.
As a young student, Mrs. Martinez received copious amounts of homework. Her daily routine consisted of waking up at 5:30 in the morning and preparing for school which began at 7:30 am. As is the case with most schools, the classes were hard and became increasingly difficult over the years. In elementary school, the “nuns were [her] teachers, [but] by high school [they] started to have some regular teachers that were not nuns.”9 It was at this time that Mrs. Martinez began to earn her tuition by working in the kitchens and serving the nuns their breakfast to earn more money to cover the increased tuition. This was a good opportunity for her, as it gave her a chance to see the nuns’ house on the school campus. It was also a source of pride for her, since she was privy things that other girls would never see in the school like the kitchens.
As a teenager supporting herself, Mrs. Martinez was able to receive some special privileges. Half of her tuition was covered because of her good grades in school, which meant that she had to dedicate almost all her free time to studying. Since her strongest subjects were English, history and geography, Mrs. Martinez had to focus the most on math and science, as they did not come naturally to her. School would get out at 1:30 but for the rest of the night, Mrs. Martinez would study and do her homework until around “9, [or] 10 pm,” 9 when she would sleep only to wake up and repeat the pattern the next day. Her hard work paid off, and she was able maintain good grades. The grades in Colombia are not simply sent home – a parent is required to come in and pick up his or her child’s grades. Mrs. Martinez, having no parents of her own, would ask her friends to have their parents retrieve her report cards and pass them along to her. This gave Mrs. Martinez full control over her grades; she was independent from the families with whom she lived. She relied on others only for housing, but in all the other aspects of her life she was the one in control. On the rare occasions Mrs. Martinez would have free time, she would read books, mostly adventure stories about sea-fairing explorers. These books provided her with an escape from the hardships she faced and another perspective of the world.
After high school graduation, Mrs. Martinez was determined to continue her education through college. She enrolled and completed her first quarter in college when she was presented with the opportunity to go to America. Mrs. Martinez had moved in with her grandmother who was paying for her college education; however, her grandmother’s funds were limited and Mrs. Martinez realized it would be impossible for her grandmother to put her through college long enough for her to obtain a degree. Mrs. Martinez was concerned for her future and she desperately searched for an opportunity to change her situation. Then one night, while she was lying in bed reading, Mrs. Martinez overheard a conversation her grandmother was having with her niece. The young woman was telling her grandmother that there was a family in America in need of a permanent nanny. Upon hearing this, Mrs. Martinez “jumped out of [her] bed and …ran to the living room and … said [she] could do that, [but her] grandma said ‘are you listening to my conversation? You’d better go back to your room, that’s not polite at all.’”10 Although she was forced to retreat to her room without any way to contact the family, Mrs. Martinez still hopeful that any chance to come to the United States would be a worthwhile venture and was filled with hope after seeing an opportunity.
Her grandmother’s niece who had come over that night happened to live close by, so one day, when she was sent to the store to purchase milk; Mrs. Martinez took a detour down the street and asked the young woman for the American family’s address. Upon being given the address, Mrs. Martinez promptly proceeded to write a letter to the family informing them who she was and that she was willing to help them. A response came “a month later [along with] a letter to [her] grandmother asking permission.”11 Mrs. Martinez obtained permission from her grandmother, despite her grandmother’s protests that she would not make it because she had been too spoiled in Colombia. Having been granted permission to leave, Mrs. Martinez was overjoyed; she began to imagine the possibility of an education in America, and thought she would be prepared for the transition because her entire education had been at a bilingual school. Although she was unsure of what to expect, she knew things would be better for her in America and that she would be able to make something of herself, now that she had the chance.
In order to come to the Untied States, Mrs. Martinez had to obtain a visa. When she went to the embassy, she knew that there would be little or no hope for her to get one, but she was going to try anyways. Applying for “a spring break… visa for… 16 days,”12 Mrs. Martinez was asked by the ambassador if she was going to stay in America. When she assured him she was not, he reluctantly stamped her passport – giving her the approval to come to America. Mrs. Martinez could not believe her luck. The family paid for her airline ticket and she went to Los Angeles immediately. Mrs. Martinez was picked up at the airport by the family when her flight arrived, and it was clear from the beginning that this was “a job contract”13 and that she would be cared for but the main concern was the children and that she would need to put them first. The family explained to her what was to be expected of her and what tasks she would be asked to complete on a regular basis. The standards seemed high, but Mrs. Martinez was ready to face the challenges ahead in order to create the better life she had been dreaming about.
When Mrs. Martinez first came to America, she was overwhelmed by everything it had to offer; she could instantly tell that things would be different here, and much better. The first thing she noticed was that the people drove very quickly and even recalls that she “was very scared about the freeways,”14 a fears that she would quickly overcome since one of her tasks was to drive the children to school and their various activities. Mrs. Martinez knew that American society was very different, and that the family relationships were quite different – “there’s a lot of support from the families no matter what,”15 unlike the ones in Colombia. She noticed that even if the family could not care adequately for the individual, the government was prepared to step in and help through programs such as welfare, meaning that people who struggled did so because they were not willing to reach out for the available help. Such a change in culture opened her eyes to new ideas that, although they differed greatly from those held in Colombia, were very practical.
The main struggle Mrs. Martinez faced while adjusting to life in America was the language barrier. Although she had felt that she would be prepared because she had always attended a bilingual school, Mrs. Martinez found upon that her vocabulary was more limited than she had imagined. About “2½ years later [she was] able to… open her mouth and have a [complete] conversation.”16 Initially, the only way she could learn English was through the children conversing with one another and sitting in on their classes; however, eventually she was able to enroll herself into some college English courses in hopes of mastering the language. First Mrs. Martinez had tried night classes for second language students, but she found that they were full of older people and they progressed too slowly. Since her desire was to learn English and to be with people her own age, Mrs. Martinez found classes at the college and took on the challenge despite the family’s protests that she was doing too much. While she was unable to speak English, she found life incredibly difficult, saying that it was “like [being] a baby again, not able to talk, not able to walk, because if you go on the streets you get lost and you panic.”17 The classes gave her confidence and she eventually began to branch out and take regular classes, such as health and interior design. These trained her ear toward English.
One of the best things she found in America was the food. America had many more dairy products, and she would stop at the grocery store to pick up creamy Jell-O pudding or cookies as a treat some days after work. She had quickly learned how to drive, and found that it was not as scary as she had previously imagined it to be. Mrs. Martinez also learned how difficult it was to be away from her family; leaving them behind was her only real choice, but she always missed them. At the beginning she “used to write [letters] and it would take [her] at least a month and a half to hear from them again.”18 Because it would take so long to get a response, Mrs. Martinez learned to live without them, and she was able to become even more independent because there was no one to take care of her. The duties of being a nanny were a great preparation for the rest of her life since she stayed with the family until her marriage.
After her marriage, Mrs. Martinez was finally able to leave the family and go out on her own. To her it was like being “single.”19 At the start of her marriage, Mrs. Martinez experienced something she had never known before; “someone [was] taking care of [her] … [she] didn’t have the burden like [she had] to work.”20 Four years after getting married, Mrs. Martinez had her first child, Johanna. The young family kept very little of their Colombian culture; they took Johanna to Colombia when she was nine months old, but have not been back since. However Mrs. Martinez does occasionally prepare Colombian food and her children enjoy it. Her second child, Daniel does not speak Spanish because of a learning disability, however, Johanna “is fluent.”21 The children have been raised as Christians and not Catholic. Mrs. Martinez’s family has had little to no contact with her children because her family is in Colombia while she leads her life here in America. Her children Johanna and Daniel are familiar with their father’s family because of regular family reunions, but they only know their uncle on their mother’s side since one of her sisters has passed away and the other is in Venezuela. However, the family is still very close, and plans to make a trip to Colombia to introduce the children to their relatives.
After her entire journey, Mrs. Martinez only regrets not being able to bring her family, especially her brother. To her, the best part of coming to America was becoming a Christian; she feels complete and now understands “the meaning of [her] life.”22 The circumstances through which she became a Christian were long and arduous and she realized that had she not come to America she would never have become a Christian. Her husband, who was saved “when he was 16 years old,” 23 was the one who converted her. When they got married, her husband Alfredo brought her to his church. Initially Mrs. Martinez was cold toward it and did not feel comfortable. Over time, they continued to attend that church and occasionally others as well. Through continual attendance, Mrs. Martinez’s heart was softened and she opened to the church. This change, however, did not occur until their oldest child was born, four years after their marriage. The lasting effects of her decision to become a Christian have been greatly beneficial since she has a lot more peace in her life and is able to enjoy it more. In the end, she is glad that things worked out the way they did. Mrs. Martinez feels that she grew up a lot in her time in America in ways that she would not have matured in Colombia.
Martinez, Gloria. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 4.
2. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 27.
3. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 19.
4. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 20.
5. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 20.
6. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 1.
7. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 2.
8. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 2.
9. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 24.
10. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 18.
11. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 19.
12. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 12.
13. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 3.
14. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 5.
15. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 26.
16. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 4.
17. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 4.
18. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 3.
19. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 9.
20. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 8, 9.
21. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 34.
22. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 31.
23. Martinez. Personal interview. 20 May 2009. 30.