What is a strong woman? I often ask myself that question. Our individualistic society seems to only focus on the successful business woman, the scientist, the politician, the attorney, the scholar, but neglects to see women behind the scenes. Our society fails to see the successful mothers, the homemakers, the immigrant women who ran an entire family while neglecting themselves.
I was raised by many of these unrecognized successful women. I watched them look out windows in deep thought holding an entire universe of wishes within their soft-spoken demeanors. Day dreaming of an alternate universe where they blossomed into the women they thought they’d become. An ocean of women marked submissive by their country’s society left them only to live that reality in a golden cage surrounded by opportunities they would never have access to and a taste of freedom they would never fully experience.
My own life has been complicated, but I had an education. I grew up having to work, but still had time for a “hobby,” for thought, for love, and the space to get to know myself. I was far too entangled in my own life to realize that my mother had sacrificed herself to push me to the front, as many mothers do. It is heavy on my mind that these unrecognized women deserved better love stories, better success stories, and the right to bring their dormant wishes into fruition. I now realize and weep.
American society overlooks the most vulnerable of women, impoverished, working class and women of color, because their daily tasks are seen as a means for survival. There is no time for dreams, purpose, and passion when life must be lived for others. It becomes a privilege for these women to live life on their own terms. Happiness is postponed when there are hungry mouths to feed, rent to be paid, food to be cooked. Dawns turn into dusk in hope of passing on a dream to daughters and sons. It is this silent battle within these women that they fight. The monotony of getting by is second nature.
My mother is one of these women. Like many, she left her native town when she married my father. As a bright-eyed 19 year old she immigrated to the United States. In her town, she dreamed of being a psychologist, she considered herself a lifetime student, and to this day I know it was her calling. Instead, she worked in the hot steam of a dry cleaner/laundromat, burning her hands on the clothes of the shops’ clients. She wore me on her hip, her small frame walking miles back and forth from work, only to work an extra shift at the house.
Aunts, older cousins, and most women I met who had left their countries in various parts of Latin America lived behind this same glass wall, one where they could only watch the lives of others through pink colored lenses, while losing themselves to the hustle of having to stay on their feet. My family lived to work, and that was all they did. Work was their accomplishment and their sense of pride.
How many women do we know who live lives like this? Who will be responsible for re-writing the narrative of women whose very existence became a vicarious breath through their children, partners, or even a complete stranger? What systems are set in place that oppress and differentiate the livelihood and self-preservation of immigrant women?
The legacy of pushing forward without questioning despair or traumatic life experiences ripples as a direct effect into the lives of generations to come when people are too busy to stop and think, maybe I don’t deserve this. Though I cannot speak for the experiences of other women, I can see the direct impact of “pushing forward” and minimizing an experience. Often I hear so and so had it worse. Sometimes the phrase is “you are still alive and things could be worse.” I have watched time and time again cycles repeat themselves because of the lives that our community faces upon arrival to a new country and the lives they brought with them from their homelands.
The women in my family lead busy lives in order to stay sane, to stay alive under conditions that they knew in their hearts they did not want, but had to accept in order to prevail. They live the lives of Cinderellas with no happy ending.
During Latinx Heritage month and every other day of the year, I want people to empathize with experiences that may not be theirs. I’d like others to share the understanding that sometimes people want to stay in their countries, but they no longer can and that it is hard to fight for yourself and to say no sometimes, especially when it is the seed of sacrifice that is planted in someone’s soul. They know no other way.
Though altruistic, I speak this from my depths. I want to see women live. I want to see them live the nine lives cats have been granted and to create each one on their own terms. I want brown and black women, immigrant women, to be celebrated in books where they are seen as the true warriors. For they are the ones who swam, walked and nearly drowned in sadness to make way for themselves and their loved ones. Let us re-write the narrative so they are the heroes of their own lives. That is the glory they deserve.
Valery Arevalo is a Mexican – NC native, a farm worker’s rights advocate and co-founder of Aliadas, a women led initiative. She is passionate about the performing arts & owes her outspoken upbringing to her family’s experience growing up in the South.