Being born in America, most of us take many of the rights and freedoms we have for advantage. But a lot of our parents had to come from a less privileged background and had to endure many hardships in order to journey to the land of freedom we so often take for granted.
My mother, Teresa De Pena, was one of those less fortunate people. She came from a home in Nicaragua where war was rampant and fear of losing basic rights was an everyday reality of living. The kinds of things that occurred were reminiscent of tyrant-driven countries today. Boys were stolen from their families to build military force, and kidnapped girls were stripped of their freedom in order to serve as slaves in the cotton-picking industry or some other line of work. Food and living supplies were rationed in incredibly stingy amounts. A family of four might only be allowed 2-3 lbs of rice for any given amount of time. The government was virtually in control of everything. Things just weren’t the same as the past, and her parents generally feared for her life and her future.
Teresa was around 13 or 14 when her aunt had left with her and her cousins for what she assumed was a family reunion. Little did she know that they were sneaking her cousins, Mariana and Roberto, out of the country. They packed up cookies, cheese, and other treats for her brothers that were already across the border in Honduras. Once they had safely arrived, my mother had decided to stay with her brothers in hiding rather than go back to Nicaragua with her mother. She hadn’t initially planned on immigrating but she seized the opportunity when it came to her. While in hiding, she recalls having to eat “countryside food”: things like beans, garden veggies, and home-ground coffee. “Plain coffee was horrible,” she complained to me. Sugared coffee was more her lane.
Sadly, living in Honduras was no walk in the park either. She was under the care of an alien father and had the responsibility of caring for her nephew after her brother had a falling out with a Honduran woman. She says, “In Honduras it was a tough life. All this responsibility was really hard.”
Thankfully, her mother had already started life in the States and was sending the means for her father to help bring their daughter to safety and solace. But the journey to freedom wasn’t an easy one. She was forced to leave with only the clothes on her back. Rumors of terrible things like rape and murder happening to other escapees circulated. Bitter cold topped onto traveling mainly in the dark left my mother bruised and battered.
But she wasn’t alone. Teresa had an early start in religion and had already built a trust in God that kept her feeling safe. “God was protecting me the whole time.”
She also had her father traveling with her as a physical guardian, although sometimes he wasn’t a very friendly travel partner and would scold her for complaining about their situation (like any normal teenager would.) Nonetheless, he certainly kept her safe as best he could throughout their journey.
Once she had reached the land of Freedom and entered California after the ordeal of immigration, my mother had more huge problems to tackle. The most difficult one was definitely the language barrier. She says, “I didn’t even know no (in Spanish) meant no (in English)!” so she was much too shy to speak. For her, it was horrible to say the least. On top of this, she had to start high school again. Having been taught high discipline and respect in her mother country, seeing the students in New York classrooms was a culture shock. She recalls having to keep a knife in her bag at all times in case a worst case scenario came into play. But, regardless of the environment she was in, Teresa kept to her senses and ended up graduating one of the top 10 students in her class of 400+ teens.
When questioned on her outlook of immigration and whether it was all worth it in the end, she says, “Yeah-we went through a lot of hardships but we have freedom. Freedom is worth everything.”