Four stories of immigrant mothers who braved hard work, perilous journeys, even separation to raise their children as U.S. citizens 

American Dreamers

American Dreamers

On a sunny Saturday at Hillcrest United Methodist Church, smiling volunteers greet a teenage boy. His dad says something almost inaudible as he glances down at the folder in his hand, but one word is clear.

"Papeles," he says.

A volunteer directs the pair to the church gymnasium. They arrive to find tables full of parents and kids, while a young woman gives instructions in Spanish. The majority of the people assembled here are from Latin America, though a few are from Europe and Asia. What they all have in common is that they want to be Americans.

Most live in southeast Nashville and Antioch, though some have traveled from outlying counties like Coffee, Sumner, Bedford and Rutherford. The woman slides a page into a projector, and the image of a blank white form illuminates the dark gym. Together, the families begin filling in the blanks.

By the time the day is over, they will have filled out daunting amounts of paperwork. For the young people assembled, these papers hold a new world of potential — a ticket to U.S. residency, a green card ... a future. And for many of the immigrant parents who brought them, this bureaucratic gauntlet will be just the latest hardship they've braved in order to raise their children as American citizens.

Once a month, the Methodist-based nonprofit organization Justice for Our Neighbors of Tennessee holds a free legal clinic for Tennessee immigrants seeking a path to lawful residency in the United States. On these Saturdays, the organization's staff attorney and the lawyers who volunteer their expertise meet with prospective clients, many of whom have no idea how to navigate the legal labyrinth that awaits them. (See "First Steps," the final section of this story.)

Kathryn Spry, a retiree and volunteer, has run these Saturday clinics every month since the Tennessee JFON chapter started five years ago, one link in a national network. "There's usually nervousness," she says, recalling the mornings she's had to cajole families into the building, reassuring them that the clinic wasn't an Immigration and Customs Enforcement sting.

But as a grandmother herself, Spry says she admires the parents who exit the shadows and risk deportation to help secure their children's futures. Tennessee JFON volunteer board president Kaki Friskics-Warren seconds her thoughts.

"For these parents to say, 'We're going to take this risk with you,' " Friskics-Warren says, "it's an act of incredible love."

In the following pages, you'll find stories of both risk and incredible love. You'll find immigrant mothers who took horrific risks to improve their kids' lot in life, and raised those kids by doing hard jobs in a foreign land. You'll find mothers who gambled what little they'd won by carrying folders of documents to a JFON legal clinic, braving deportation so their own children would never know that threat.

A child's face, free from worry, is a Mother's Day gift no brunch or bouquet could equal. Meet four women — in person and in one tragic instance, in memory — who hope to obliterate a single participle that has defined their children's lives and narrowed their prospects: undocumented.


click to enlarge PHOTO: ERIC ENGLAND
  • Photo: Eric England

Mother and Dreamer

Albina's daughter Naomi, doctors told her, was growing too fast.

In the part of Mexico where Naomi was born, doctors had never seen early-onset puberty before. The little girl was only 8 when she started showing the signs. Doctors told Albina that if she didn't get monthly injections to slow her daughter's development, she'd end up an adult in a stunted, childlike body.

The injections cost four times what Albina made every month.

Albina's sisters urged her to come to Nashville. She could do the same kind of child care work she did in Mexico, they said, but make enough money to pay for Naomi's medical treatments.

When Albina left to find work in the States, her husband told her, the girl would look at her mother's empty clothes and cry. Albina sent her daughter long-distance hugs on the telephone. But the separation, she says, "was really, really difficult." She hoped to save enough money to keep Naomi healthy, and then go home.

As Albina asked people she met about her daughter's diagnosis, she began to suspect that Naomi's doctors were wrong — that early puberty was common enough, and that she didn't need the expensive treatments. She was relieved, but she started thinking: What if the family came here? If Naomi learned English, so much the better for her future.

Naomi started school in Smyrna on her 11th birthday. Once she had a firm grasp of English, the family thought, they'd go home to Mexico. That time seemed to be nearing as she started high school — a guidance counselor told the teen that she shouldn't bother with the ACT or SAT because she wouldn't be able to go to college anyway.

"She kept telling me, 'You can't go to school here,' " recalls Naomi. " 'You are illegal.' "

Her quiet voice barely wavers as she recalls the moment, but her mom isn't fooled by her composure. She rubs Naomi's shoulder as her daughter talks about this and other disappointments — unkind words from peers about "illegals" (an epithet, to her mind) in a class debate; a dismissive counselor; a little girl's linguistic and cultural isolation. "That's when my journey began, of trying to find out what to do," Naomi says.

The family considered returning to Mexico, so Naomi could go to university there. But Albina's parents warned them that San Luis Potosí had become unsafe, lawless. Their home was raided twice by robbers, and a man for whom Albina once worked had been kidnapped. "It's too dangerous for her," Naomi's grandparents said.

Meanwhile, Naomi searched for alternate routes to the education she craved. She learned about a NASA program at TSU called SEMAA (Science, Engineering, Mathematics, and Aerospace Academy). Inspired, she started making the weekly two-hour bus ride to TSU to learn about science — and later, to Lipscomb as a robotics camp counselor. The language of numbers, gears and bolts, she says, is the same everywhere.

Todd Gary, who headed the SEMAA program for eight years, says Naomi stood out — for her determination to be there, and for her love of helping younger campers. "She has tremendous potential," Gary says.

Naomi dreamed of studying engineering. Things were falling into place: Lipscomb accepted her, and she won a national NASA Pioneer award for her mentorship at SEMAA. But after accepting the award in Washington, D.C., she got word that it (along with a scholarship) had been rescinded because she wasn't a U.S. citizen.

"It's just having some hope taken away,'" she says in that steady voice, her mom rubbing her shoulder. "And it took me several years to lift up my head and say, 'I am more than just an award.' "

Naomi, now 22, speaks formally and deliberately, as if she collects most of her words from books. She talks about the challenges of higher education for a first-generation immigrant: transportation, language, workload, money. After a few semesters at Lipscomb, she moved to Motlow State Community College to study mechatronics, a robotics-related field. And she's become a "dreamer," in a specific political sense: She's an advocate with "United We Dream," an organization that lobbies for the rights of undocumented students, and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.

"She told me one day," recalls Albina, " 'Mama, if they arrest me for doing this activism, it doesn't matter. I accept it!' "

"If one of us dreamers could benefit from the Dream Act because of our direct actions, then I would be OK with being arrested," explains Naomi.

"I'm proud that my daughter is a 'dreamer,' " adds Albina, smiling at Naomi. "That's what I think of you. That you're not afraid. That you are braver than me ... a mirror to me."

For the moment, Naomi has stopped translating, and she and her mother are facing each other. "I learned it from her," she says, returning her mom's smile.


click to enlarge PHOTO: ERIC ENGLAND
  • Photo: Eric England

María of Peace

When the Chinese restaurant where María de la Paz Chávez cooked chow mein and chop suey shut its doors, she knew it was time to leave El Salvador.

The single mom of two had seen her San Salvador neighborhood grow dangerous and crime-ridden. Gangs extracted protection money from business owners; many shops closed. She wondered whether her son, then 11, would one day fall in with the gangsters who lurked outside his school.

Chávez's own career hopes had dissolved — she dreamed of becoming a nurse — and she didn't want the same thing to happen to her kids.

"If you have children," says María, whose name means "Maria of Peace," "you want them to do better than you did." So she boarded a bus for Chiapas and paid a guide $7,000 to take her to Arizona.

"It was awful," she says, her eyes streaming. "We slept on a mountain ... walked three days and nights in the desert. There were snakes, coyotes, scorpions. We could hear people crying out at night. It sounded like they were about to die. We thought the same thing would happen to us."

Oddly, it was on her horrific odyssey through the rugged Mexican desert that Chávez's confidence took firm hold. The group waited in a safe house, exhausted and hungry. No one took action to get people fed. So she told the guide, "Let's go to the market." She cooked beef soup for the whole group, on Mother's Day of 2005.

That's when she realized that being able to do things gave her power and leverage. Even so, Chávez recalls, she didn't feel safe until she set eyes on her brothers in Nashville. She found a job at a Mexican restaurant, and another one cleaning buildings. With those, she started saving money to send for her kids. When her little girl's father joined her from Maryland and offered to help, she was overjoyed.

"But he wasn't the same person he used to be," she says. "I lost hope." They began to argue when he insisted she turn over her paychecks to him. And then one day, he hit her.

"I wasn't going to put up with that," she says firmly. She called the police and showed them the bruises. They promised to make an arrest.

When a domestic violence counselor at MNPD told Chávez that she might qualify for a U visa — available to victims of certain crimes who cooperate with police — she didn't believe it. "I thought, 'I'm undocumented,' " she recalls. " 'This won't work for me.' "

Chávez was lucky. She had two advantages: a domestic violence support group that assured her that yes, it would work; and a savvy brother who told her, "Keep your life in order." He advised her to always use her real name (so there'd be a record of her employment history, her cooperation with police, etc.); to keep a single job long term; and to pay her taxes every year.

Doing everything by the book helped Chávez immensely when she met with JFON attorneys and applied for the U visa. Even better, she learned that a U visa would extend legal status to her children too. She'd been away from them for more than seven years, saving money to bring them to the States safely — "not the way I came," she says, shaking her head.

When she picked up her 19-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter at the Nashville airport last fall, Chávez recalls, "it was beautiful." They hugged her and met their 4-year-old sister for the first time. And they begged her to take them out for pupusas, a Salvadoran specialty.

"I took them to Red Lobster instead," she grins. "I wanted to show them that it's different here."

These days, Chávez says she's thinking of opening her own restaurant in Nashville — a city that finally feels like home to her. She cooks scrambled eggs and beans for her husband and kids on Saturday mornings, and then they stroll the park with other moms and kids from her daughter's school. She loves hearing her little girls speak English with each other.

But she also wants them to remember where they came from. Some of her Salvadoran friends' kids, she says, act "superior" when they visit home, "like they're afraid to touch the dirt floor, because there's no carpet on it." She likes to remind her two oldest: "You were born there."

Chávez exudes a tranquil, gentle self-respect — evident in the way she called police at the first moment of violence at home, and in the way she raises her kids to see themselves as equal to everyone. She says it's a trait she learned from the grandmother who raised her.

"She taught me manners and how to cook," she smiles. "Knowing things gave me confidence. And she told me I didn't have to be afraid."

María de la Paz Chávez spoke through a translator.

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