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Pacific Northwest | September 19, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineAugust 8, home
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As a certified home health-care worker and Spanish interpreter for patients seeking medical help, Lorane West of Seattle has come to know immigrants from Central and South America in uniquely personal ways. She's heard their stories of dreams and disappointments, of small triumphs, huge sacrifices and abiding loneliness. In "Color: Latino Voices in the Pacific Northwest" (WSU Press, $19.95), she gives those stories a home, drawing from years of conversations to create small, intimate portraits of the immigrant life. While the stories are fiction, they remain true to the experiences of real people. West, a daughter and wife of immigrants who also has lived in Nicaragua and El Salvador, claims not to speak on anyone's behalf but rather to honor those whom she served.



People always talk about how they know we all came from here for a better life, but they don't understand. It's not that simple. We are just as poor here, but in a different way. It's not all so much better. But because of the cash, the dollar, the whole money thing, we get caught up in it, and it's hard to stop and say, enough is enough. Let's go home. By the time we've saved money, we've changed. We can't leave until they make us leave, until they deport us.

I'm from Jalisco, and we were poor. Mexican poor. But we never went hungry. We always had enough to eat. We had a strong, united family. We had a lot of fun together. We ate well. We had parties. We danced. We had big meals, like barbecues and picnics and celebrations. People wore their best clothes, made by a local tailor, and the ladies felt good about their one good dress. We wore the same dress to parties until it was worn to threads.

We got hungry — well, there was always beans and rice, plenty of corn.

We had company — well, you don't go to the store; you just catch a chicken and make a meal that way. Even people who didn't have a good crop, or didn't keep animals, they would just go up into the hills and come back down with big bags of nopal, a kind of cactus. It can be eaten in a bunch of ways, and it's free — all over the hills. Here, you buy a tiny little glass jar of nopal, and it's $4.59 at the Mexican store. It just tastes like broccoli, has no flavor left. You can't do anything with it; you just eat it for sentimental reasons. It doesn't have any flavor.

Here in Seattle, we're United States poor, you know what I mean? We don't have our family around. We don't have our traditional foods. The beans, the rice, they taste different. You can't get good tortillas, and you can't always get good masa, the fresh-ground corn, to make them from scratch, and you don't have time anyway.

Time, we are time poor now.

I work full-time, out of the home, so I am gone 11 hours, five days a week. My husband works 60 or 70 hours a week in two restaurants. My kids are in school, then they come home and do homework, and my daughter has to start the evening meal, since I will be so late. But then she complains about it; she says, Mami, I don't have any time!

Finally, I told her, 'Listen, honey, you want time, you go back to Jalisco. You'll have plenty of time there.' 'No, I like it here, I just want more time,' she told me. I told her, 'Well, you're never going to get it here; time is just what nobody has in this country. They trade it all for money and then buy things they don't really need. You want time,' I told my daughter, 'you go to Jalisco.'

But she won't, you see, not until they catch us and deport us.



Since I can remember, probably since I was a kid, I used to sit around in Cuba and think about living in the United States.

I used to sit and think I would trade it all for money, you know what I mean? Trade everything I had. We never had enough. We always had to be so careful. We never ate in a restaurant. We never had new clothes. We never had a car. We didn't even always have a fridge that worked, and we never had a washer of our own.

I heard about a lot of people who left, people we knew, and they would travel back to visit us, through Mexico, and I would see what they had. New clothes, all brand new. New everything; even their suitcases were new. Pictures of their places in the States, their cars, their everything nice. And I put myself in that picture. My own little North American Dream.

So I moved here. I traded everything, so to speak, and moved to Seattle.

And I worked two jobs, working my ass off, but loving it. I wasn't raised to be afraid of hard work; I was raised to work! So everybody loved me at both my jobs, and I made a lot of money. And for the first time in my life, I had money. I had more money than I had ever thought I would. I had extra money, money I didn't need for anything. And I had credit, and credit cards.

I sent my mother all the money she asked for, whatever she needed. I bought myself a car, a brand-new one, no money down and just make payments. I started going out to eat, buying nice clothes. I got myself a really nice apartment and bought nice furniture, and then guess what?

I finally had everything I always thought I wanted, and I found out it isn't that great.

My apartment, my new car, my clothes, my everything I bought. It just wasn't worth it. I finally realized I had traded everything, traded every single thing in my life, for money.

My mother, my sisters and brothers, my neighbors, my childhood friends, my house, my yard, my town, my food, my plants and flowers, my ocean, my weather, my education, my language. My culture. My island. My life.

I had traded it all, every single bit of it, for money. And with all that money, I couldn't buy back a single thing of all the things I had traded away. Things of value have no price, as I found out. But it was too late, and now I can't go back.

That's when I got depressed and lost one of my jobs and got behind on the rent and built up that credit-card debt and defaulted on the car loan.

I'm still driving the car; they can't repossess it because they can't find me, since I lost my apartment. Isn't that ironic? I traded everything for money, and now I don't have any money.

Welcome to the North American Dream. And everyone here thinks things are bad in Cuba. They just don't know. I didn't.



I've been driving a school bus for 15 years now, mostly on the same route. The parents and teachers seem to like me, since they send notes and ask for me to be the bus driver for the following school year.

I go to a special-education center with preschool kids who are disabled. They are always scared when they start, but I try to be extra kind and gentle with them, and after a while, they get excited and happy when they see me driving up in the bus.

Most of them can't talk at all, even when they are 5; they are called nonverbal kids. But they will make noises like little animals, and I can see in their faces and gestures if they are happy or sad.

I have learned some sign language to talk to them as well — just a few things like thanks and goodbye. I'd like to learn more words, like scared and curious, but I just pick it up from the kids, so my sign language is pretty basic. It's still good to be able to say a few things.

It's the most beautiful program, this special education. Sometimes I get to go into the viewing area with a one-way glass mirror, and I can't help admiring this program. The children have wonderful toys and activities, and there are lots of nice young people, like teaching and nursing students, who play with them and cheer them on as they make their accomplishments.

A lot of the children use wheelchairs, and I carry them onto the bus and make sure they are safely fastened.

One boy who wasn't in a wheelchair kept unbuckling himself, and then I had to pull the bus over. So an aide rode with him for a while, and they told his mother, look, your kid is too much trouble. He yells and screams and bangs his head, and he won't stay seated. He isn't what you call appropriate for our program. They gave him a week or two to improve or leave.

I had this feeling he was just scared, and that's why he was trying to get off, so I talked to him. I looked right in his face and told him a lot of things about the program and how great it is and how nice everyone is. I went ahead and told him in Spanish, since I think disabled kids understand from your face and your tone of voice what you mean anyway.

And he still screamed for a few days and rocked his head, but he didn't unbuckle himself, and they let him stay. Now he's doing fine. He's really improved a lot. I think this school is the best thing for him.

Starting this fall, the Seattle School District laid off my company and hired a nonunion shop to save money. They might hire me, for less pay, but they said they can't give me my same route.

I'm going to miss those special kids. I hope the new guy will be patient, because that's important with disabled kids. Believe it or not, some of the school-bus drivers don't like kids. I don't understand that. How can you not like kids? They're all so wonderful.



I know he doesn't mean any harm, but the doctor hurt my feelings when I told him I was lonely, and he suggested I could meet someone at the bus stop. I can only imagine that as a successful professional, he doesn't have many occasions to take the bus, otherwise he would know that most of the Latino men at the downtown bus stop where I transfer are alcoholics and street people with mental-health problems.

Is that what he thinks of me? I hope not.

The doctor is very nice, and he doesn't wear a wedding ring. He is the kind of man I would like to meet. I wish he could recognize that I am also an educated person, even if my English is not yet perfect. After all, I was a prosecuting attorney in South America. I only moved here due to the economic crisis. But the doctor appears to think all Latinos are Mexicans, and all of us are poor and uneducated. That's so misguided.

I am not allowed to practice law in the United States. I cannot even work as a paralegal, since I don't speak enough English yet. That is why I am working as a nanny. Can you imagine? I earn more money, with the devalued exchange rate, by changing diapers and feeding two babies than I earned as a prosecuting attorney at home. I can keep my son in college, but only by leaving my country and changing diapers for a living, not by practicing law.

Something is horribly wrong with the world economy when this can be true.

It is incredibly lonely here. I have heard there are many, many Latin professionals who moved to the United States, but I feel like I'm the only one in Seattle.

I just don't know how to find people. Working as a nanny, I meet no one at all. My apartment building doesn't have any Latino men. And the men I meet at church or in the streets, it would raise the hair on your arms!

I don't consider myself a snob, but I feel strongly that chains belong on pets, mainly dogs, not on men. I have met many men who think I would be impressed by their hairy chests, open-necked shirts and four or five gold chains. But all I can think of is putting them on a leash and taking them for a walk.

When this rich couple interviewed me, they never asked about my education. They don't even know I'm a lawyer. They think I'm from Mexico, too. They asked me things that were beyond humiliating, like would I know to wash my hands after changing diapers and before preparing food. I stayed cheerful, but the tears poured down my face when I left the house.

I wish people could see me, and know who I am. I am so alone, I feel like I'm disappearing.



I am a grown man, even if I am a young guy, and it must seem like I'm being a baby to cry about this, but we Mexicans like to be buried whole and complete.

You know, the Second Coming and all that? Well, we really believe it, and we want to die with all our parts. That way, when I do come back to face the Final Judgment, I won't be limping or incomplete.

You probably think it's silly, but it's just this big taboo for us to have missing parts, even it if is just my big toe.

I think it will be harder for me to, you know, marry and everything. I mean, there's nothing pretty about a guy with one arm; he might be a great guy, but he doesn't seem whole. He's missing something, and he couldn't protect a woman the same as a two-armed man. You might feel sorry for a one-armed man, but you wouldn't want to marry him.

I just moved to the U.S. to help my mom; she's been struggling to support us kids, and I wanted to help her out. I just got here and I heard about the Millionairs Club, and they have this work program. It's easy. You just go stand outside the club as early as you can, and you look like you're ready to work. Then people drive by, and they say, like, eight, and you know they mean eight dollars an hour. Then they say, like, all day, and you know they will have you work the whole day, which is good.

So this guy who owns a big warehouse, he picked me up for three days in a row to carry boxes around and load trucks and stuff. The first two days, they had a guy supervising who was Mexican, and I could understand him fine, of course. But today, they had an Asian guy giving orders, and he was new, too, and he was trying to speak English, and I was trying to understand his English, and it wasn't working.

He started lifting the platform we were standing on to load a truck, and it started to rise up into the air to the level of the truck bed, except my tennis shoe was caught in the crack by the toe, and my toe was caught and getting ripped off my foot.

No one could really understand right away, so my toe was mostly ripped off when they finally shut off the machine.

Sorry to be such a baby. It's momentary weakness. I understand this doctor; they could sew it back on, but since it's smashed up and pulled off, it could get gangrene or something, and I could lose a bigger chunk of foot, or even the leg.

So I'll try to be brave about it. I want to get back to work as soon as possible. I just hope I don't walk with a limp, because then it will be hard to get work. And hard to get married, someday. You use your big toe to walk, you know.

I know it probably seems like a toe is a small thing, but it is my big toe, and I'll miss it.

Susan Jouflas is The Seattle Times' assistant art director, graphics. Whitney Stensrud, Julie Notarianni, Paul Schmid and Michelle Kumata are Times news artists.

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