I’m sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen as she moves about doing various chores. She’s telling me bits and pieces about her past, opening my mind to the resilience of her whole story. My grandma immigrated from Colombia in her 20s and raised two kids by herself until they were in their mid-teens. She is the classic story of the hustling immigrant woman who did what needed to be done for herself and her children. We have never had a formal conversation about it though, despite my growing curiosity. I decided I wanted to interview her about her past, growing up in Colombia, and what made her come to America. I also wanted to talk with her about what it is like to acclimate to a new culture and to raise American children.
Tahlia Torres-Cohen: What was your childhood like? Where did you grow up?
Lucia Torres: My childhood was wonderful, I had everything. I had a privileged childhood, with wonderful vacations.I had a dog. I grew up in Bogota, Colombia. Growing up, I went through all my schooling and everything that I wanted to study, I studied. I grew up in one school where we started in second grade and there were 25 students and the same 25 graduated from high school together, and I am still friends with them to this day. Whenever I take trips to Colombia, we see each other.
TTC: What was the main reason you immigrated?
LT: Ok, first I came to the United States as an exchange student because I needed to learn the language, and I went back to Colombia to finish my schooling, that was when I studied at the university to be a bilingual secretary and I got my degrees in philosophy and languages to prepare for the United States, so that I could get jobs easily. After that, I worked as a bilingual secretary in accounting and then I went on to work in the Canadian embassy and I saved my money to take my mother to Mexico and California, like on a vacation but the main reason was so that I could see California. I fell in love with California and I decided I wanted to live there. My mother was very heartbroken but it was what I wanted. I had always wanted to come to California.
TTC: What was the immigration process like?
LT: Well, after I came to California, I soon met Dennis, who is your grandfather. He was my boyfriend for a while and I married him. At that time, I was undocumented. Getting married made it very easy to get the green card after that. I didn't even have to pay! It was definitely a lot easier back then.
TTC: What troubles did you have acclimating to American culture?
LT: Well, I had an advantage and it was that I knew how to speak English, so in that respect, I didn't have much trouble. The biggest challenge for me though was that my husband didn't want me to drive or anything, so I was basically not allowed to leave the house. And then I had a baby and I became very isolated. The only thing I had was the TV, to really learn American culture. So I learned most about the culture from the soap operas because I never left the house. I also discovered, through the soap operas, that I was being abused; I was a “battered” woman. Other than that time in my life, I really enjoyed American life. Before I got my green card and before I met Dennis [husband], I lived with another Colombian woman and we had decided to learn how to drive, and then we went from there, looking for jobs together. I got a job teaching Spanish in San Francisco, while I lived in the mission. Then I met Dennis and I became a stay at home mom.
TTC: When did you get your citizenship?
LT: I got my citizenship after I got the divorce from Dennis. So, as soon as I got the divorce, I got the book that prepares you to get citizenship, and I studied it quickly. I was scared that man would try to do something terrible to my child and I if I didn’t. And before I even got my citizenship, I found a job at UC Berkeley, because I had a green card and when you have a green card you can work anywhere as long as you are eligible for the job.
TTC: What was it like raising children in America? Did you have difficulties that were caused by the culture, your citizenship status, being immigrant, etc?
LT: Raising children in America was very hard. I was by myself, I had no help. I didn't have my mother with me. I didn't have anybody so I had to do it all by myself and we were very very poor for a long time because I never received child support from the father and only had my salary. I honestly don't know how I did it but for some reason, we had a nice life. We didn’t have that much money but according to the kids we had everything. But in relation to being in America though, it was very hard, because in Colombia, for my mother, it was easy. In Colombia, you have a support system in the family and we had nannies. If you needed support, not only would you're family always be there for you, but it was also community based. The neighbors would take care of your kids and not many people had financial problems like I did in America.
TTC: Do you consider Colombia to still be your home?
LT: Oh yes, Colombia is my home. Going to Colombia is like going home because I have so many friends and family there. I grew up there, it is my home.
TTC: Would you ever consider moving back? If so, why?
LT: Well now that I’m getting older, I’ve been thinking a lot about it, I don’t know if I would be able to live there but I’m starting to check it out but it’s like I have so much family there but all my close family is here. I don't know though, because in Colombia you have so much support from family and your community.
TTC: What is your relationship with America and American culture?
LT: I love America, I feel more American than many Americans and because America has been so good to me, I have done a lot of volunteer work. When I was working at the University, I volunteered for 15 years for an organization for “battered women”, I did everything, I cleaned floors, I painted, I was on the board, I went to court for abused women, and I would do it again and again. This country has given me a lot of wonderful things, so it is like paying back.