The Latina/o Oral Histories of Northeast Ohio Project is an ongoing collaboration between Oberlin College students, staff and faculty and Latina/o residents and community organizations to document to histories and contemporary experiences of Latinas/os throughout Northeast Ohio. Oral history is a useful way to capture and share the diverse experiences of people and communities, and the goal of this project is to create a space to acknowledge and celebrate these experiences.
In Spring 2016 students in the course Latina/o Oral History will work develop oral history projects through their work in the Comparative American Studies Program at Oberlin College. In this class, students will read about the history of Puerto Rican and Mexican migration to Lorain and throughout the Midwest and deepen their understandings of immigration, community building and political economy in Northeast Ohio. Students will also be introduced to the practice of oral history, including careful attention to ethics, methods and methodology. Students will reflect on their intellectual journey through their individual student blogs that will appear on this website.
Throughout the semester, students will conduct at least two hour-long interviews that they will transcribe and that will serve as the basis for their oral history project. The final projects will include audio and visual components that will accompany the stories or cuentos that reflect the oral history interview transcript and will be featured on this website.
When I sat down to interview Anabel, one of their first things she told me was that “life has been a little bit like a roller coaster for me.” Anabel, a resident of Lorain, Ohio for nineteen years, a parishioner at Sacred Heart Chapel, an undocumented mother of four US citizen kids, a powerful immigration activist; her life has been quite the roller coaster.
I first met Anabel in the spring of 2017 when she came to Oberlin College to talk with a group of students about volunteering with El Centro de Servicios Sociales, a social services organization in Lorain where Oberlin students had been helping lead English and citizenship classes. Since meeting Anabel, I have wanted to know more about her, her community organizing and life in Lorain. Now, a year later in the spring of 2018, I have had the privilege of interviewing Anabel and hearing more about her story. Anabel and I met twice to create this piece of oral history: once informally over several hours of dinner conversation at Lupita’s Mexican Restaurant in Oberlin, and once a week later on April 12th during a video recorded interview session at Sacred Heart Chapel in Lorain.
Throughout the interview process, Anabel and I kept in touch about the topics she wanted to discuss. As someone with an already public story who has been interviewed in the past for this very project, I wanted to provide a platform for Anabel to share whatever stories she thought most relevant, most important at this moment of her life. In constructing this narrative, I tried to present Anabel’s words while sometimes adding my own commentary on the larger sociopolitical context of her experiences. Therefore, I don’t wish to present an ‘objective’ or all encompassing account of Anabel’s life, but rather one depiction of her experiences with family, Lorain, Sacred Heart, political turmoil, and community organizing.
Home and Lorain
A Transnational Childhood
Although Anabel was born in Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, Mexico on August 29th, 1980, when I asked her where she considered home growing up, she laughed and told me:
“I’m laughing because I really don’t know what to answer to that one. Because growing up, [Pause] home was the United States, at that time it was San Antonio, Texas, but also my hometown, because I was living in both countries. I would come here and my mom would live here for a year and then go back. So basically growing up I didn’t really have the best friend because I was moving frequently from country to country, from between Mexico and the United States.”
Given the choice, Anabel would not have opted for a childhood marked by constant movement, one between different schools and without long lasting childhood friendships. Although she doesn’t blame her mom for moving so regularly, the experience really affected Anabel, and she still gets jealous when she sees others on social media going to class reunions. Because of moving so much as a kid, once Anabel moved to Lorain at nineteen years old, she stayed put, rooting herself in the community even after her sister moved back to Georgia a year after Anabel’s arrival.
“Now I try not to move, not even from houses, because I don’t want my kids to have this. I want my kids to have the elementary school friend to high school. I want them to be able to have memories. I do have memories, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not memories that I wish I’d had.”
“I Fell in Love with Lorain”
When Anabel first moved to Lorain, she remembers the culture shock of moving from Texas and Georgia to the friendly, small Midwestern town. Even when just in the grocery store, Anabel remembers how complete strangers would greet her with big smiles or come up and compliment her daughter’s hair.
“And I was like oh my God this is beautiful! [Laughter] So I fell in love with Lorain. Lorain, it was beautiful, well it still is beautiful, but it needs to be changed, I know. [Laughter]”
Anabel settled into Lorain and started her family, three out of four of her kids born in local hospitals and all of them baptized at Sacred Heart. Despite her love for the city, life in Lorain has also proved challenging.
“Raising my kids here in Lorain in the past was a struggle to be honest. Because with my ex-partner, with the father of my kids, I didn’t work at that time, so we had all our kids and he was a construction worker, that’s why we moved here. But in the winter, he didn’t work at all and he couldn’t claim unemployment; so we were on a very tight budget and there were times that we didn’t have nothing to eat. But in the summer we would do ok to be honest. I was a stay at home mom, so basically I didn’t do much other than coming here [Sacred Heart] and volunteering while my kids were in school… But no I mean God provided for us. There were times, like I say, only beans and tortillas, but we were eating something.”
As time went on, Anabel separated from her partner, but unlike more difficult times in the past, for the first time in her life Anabel had some savings. After taking a job doing laundry for teenage hockey players, Anabel’s new income allowed her to independently support her four kids. She started living a completely different lifestyle, saving up to take her kids to the zoo, Cedar Point, and other family trips. When reflecting on her experience in Lorain more broadly, Anabel recounts:
“So really it’s just been, it has been a struggle, yes. My life has been a struggle, not Lorain. Lorain no, Lorain has given me everything, my family, the good and bad times have happened here in Lorain. So this is home, this is my home. And just to have this community at your back, like know that you’re not alone, I don’t think I would have this in any other place.”
Faith and Sacred Heart
Growing up Catholic
For Anabel, religion and church played a large role in her life growing up. Anabel’s mother “was a Catholic– she was a Catholic, like Catholic Catholic, like you call that Catholic. [Laughter]”. Every Sunday morning Anabel’s mom would wake up her and her siblings, promising ice cream after the 7am services to help coax them out of bed.
Beyond church itself, religion and faith wove their way into Anabel’s life in other ways.
“Every day we prayed the rosary. At the moment I started like dating, having a boyfriend, she [Anabel’s mother] would not let me go out to see my boyfriend unless we finished praying the rosary, OK. And that was my life: you’re not going out until you pray the rosary; and that was the whole family together, that was not just me. She would sit all of my brothers and sisters and herself and we would pray the rosary. And if you ask me the rosary I know it by heart, I mean I’ve been praying it for so long! [Laughter]”
When reflecting on growing up religiously, Anabel told me that when you are young, you go to church because your parents take you; you don’t know what God is. However, since her childhood, her faith has grown, transforming into her own belief.
“I know what religion is, because that was passed on to me, but now that I’m grown and I can make my own decisions I finally have that relationship with God, I finally feel that I have a connection, that it’s not religion anymore, it is faith what I have.”
Sacred Heart church plays an important role in Anabel’s life, how she has continued developing her faith and formed community. For her, Sacred Heart’s Hispanic origins and deeply rooted Latino community initially brought her to the church and remains an important part of her experience.
“Sacred Heart Chapel was the first church I that came to in the US. I mean, other than San Antonio Texas. And basically in San Antonio, I mean every church that you go to they speak Spanish. But I chose Sacred Heart Chapel because it was the only in Lorain county that had service in Spanish, a Catholic Church, I would say.”
Since first arriving, Anabel volunteered in the church kitchen and on different retreats, grounding herself in the church community. From the beginning, Anabel remembers the parishioner’s warmth and how right away she felt like she had a family.
“When you come here you feel welcome. I have been going to other churches to do outreach in the community about immigration issues, for example, La Sagrada Familia in Cleveland, Our Lady of Lourdes in Cleveland as well. And they don’t have what we have. I mean, this is going to sound funny, but every Sunday after mass, people are greeting you and telling you to stop by and buy pastelillos, and then they have a lot of Hispanic food. So you just have to walk to the gym, and buy your meal, and eat with your, I call them my neighbors because this is what it is, my family, my neighbors, and everyone says hi to everyone.”
“I Have Been Supported by Them in My Worst Times”
The strong community Anabel built through Sacred Heart became critically important when she was pulled over for speeding in 2013 and threatened with deportation. Detained and in deportation proceedings, without an immigration lawyer, Anabel turned first to Sacred Heart the following Sunday.
“I asked Sister Cathy, Father Bill wasn’t here, so I asked Sister Cathy, to let me talk in front of all the parishioners. And she asked me why and I explained to her what I wanted: I wanted some letters of recommendation so they could stop my deportation at the time. So during the three masses on Sunday, the 8am, 10am, and noon mass I went to the podium, and I shared my story with the parishioners, and I asked them to support me and I asked them to support my kids. So, especially the 10 o’clock mass, it was funny. Everyone was like very fancy, makeup, and the moment I walked out, everyone was with makeup, they were like black all over. [Gestures to face to mimic makeup running down her cheeks] [Laughter]”
What happened next moved Anabel powerfully.
“I didn’t think that the church would have that reaction towards me. Because after I finished talking there was a line of people, all the way here [outside the chapel], just to give me a hug. And the following Sunday I came back, and I collected more than a hundred letters to support my stay of removal application. These people saw me volunteering and see me here, but I never thought they were going to take the time in more than a hundred. And they were coming to the office and dropping off the letters. I was amazed.”
After this first moment of help, Anabel has found support through the church time and time again. Whether parishioners called to check in or brought her kids Christmas presents, the church community has provided, ongoing, critical support for Anabel throughout her worst times. When reflecting again on her deportation proceedings, Anabel told me with a low voice:
“I don’t know what they [those threatening her with deportation] did to me, but they took out the beast that I have inside. Because for me, I was not feeling like a criminal. I mean probably a lot of people will not like what I’m saying right now, but really I have to speak up, I am here just to give my version. But in a way [Pause] I know the feeling. [Pause] I know the sleepless nights. I know you can have depression without knowing. And especially in the Hispanic community they don’t believe the mental health conditions or illnesses; that’s how you grow up. And I didn’t know until my depression was very severe. It was taking a lot of me, taking a lot of time from my kids away, like I didn’t want to play with them. So knowing, living this life, the fear of being deported, for years I live under the shadows, so I know the life as well. And knowing that the moment I came out and asked for help here, that was my first step, here in Sacred Heart.”
Anabel’s experience with Sacred Heart parallels a larger sanctuary movement present throughout the United States. Starting in the 1980s, churches played a central role in supporting Central American refugees fleeing civil war and unstable political conditions, much of which can be traced to US intervention throughout the Cold War. Today, a resurgent sanctuary movement uses churches and other sensitive and sacred locations to support undocumented immigrants and resist unjust deportation. As of April 2018, churches like First Church in Oberlin have joined the sanctuary movement in the efforts to keep Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from separating families like Anabel’s. Although Anabel has not needed this specific kind of sanctuary, the role of her church community shows the kind of solidarity work US citizens can engage in to support undocumented people in our communities.
Faith and Community Organizing
In her own life, Anabel recognizes the importance of faith for community organizing. Anabel holds onto a faith in justice, a faith that not all laws protect people’s lives, and an understanding that faith promotes action and change.
“If you don’t like what is happening in your community, all you can do is stand up and educate people. And educate them about their rights, help them, guide them through any process, this is not just immigration because I do more than immigration. But just to have the welcoming face, someone to tell them what to do and where to go. And just have compassion, and if you don’t have compassion I don’t know what kind of human you are.
Anabel links her own compassion to her faith, telling me:
If you don’t have faith, if you don’t believe in a higher power- it doesn’t have to be God- [Laughter] [Pause] you are not going to have compassion for others.”
Family Roots of Compassion
When further reflecting on compassion and faith, Anabel remembers the influence of her mom, how her mother’s compassion has influenced her life today.
“My mom would take her shoes off, take it off and give it to the person without shoes. In my hometown, Dolores Hidalgo, there were people, like sometimes indigenous, coming to the town and selling like cactus. Oh I love cactus [Laughter]. So they would have these buckets filled with cactus and they would sell it so they can have money. And I remember one time, this lady knocking on our door, and she didn’t have no shoes at all; she was barefoot. She had her baby on her back and then the bucket of cactus. So my mom, the first thing that she did, she pulled her in, into the house, fed her and the baby, and she took her shoes off and gave them to this lady. And my mom was a person that only owned a pair of shoes at a time, she would never have like two pairs of shoes, she was only having only one. She would wear them out and then buy new ones. Not me, you go to my house I have like eighty pairs. [Laughter]. But that was my mom. So I remember seeing her example helping others that were in need.”
“I can tell you about another story about my mom. There was this neighbor that her son passed away during the night. They never knew what happen, he just, I guess she just woke up and he was dead, they found him dead, it was an infant, he only had like four months old. And they didn’t have no money for the funeral. OK, they said it was a natural death, but they didn’t have no money for a funeral. So what they did, they put it, they put him on a table, on the kitchen table, and just with regular clothes, and just a candle, flame. That was his funeral. So my mom saw that and she asked me to go all the neighborhood with her, knocking at the doors of people asking for money to buy him, buy the infant a casket. I remember like, come on this is not your kid, stop, let’s go. She was walking, walking until she had enough money for the casket, and even in the funeral they had mariachis playing for the little infant. So, because of my mom’s faith, because of my mom’s [Pause] personality, I guess that yes, that was something that was passed on to me. And yes, faith has a lot to do with what I do.”
Anabel remembers these two stories like they were yesterday, her mom’s compassion staying with her and guiding her in her life today. From growing up to present day, faith, community, and now Scared Heart have played influential roles in Anabel’s life.
Political Climate and Community Organizing
Being Publicly Undocumented
When the police first arrested Anabel in 2013, she had to act fast in order to stay in the country. After the initial threat of immediate deportation upon her arrest, Anabel built her case with an immigration lawyer. Under the Obama administration, Anabel realized that the more public her story, the safer she was, so she did a series of interviews, catapulting her previously low profile life into the public gaze. When I asked Anabel what it felt like to have her story so public, she told me:
“I don’t even know what I feel to be honest with you. I didn’t have a choice at that time. I remember my lawyer saying to me, “Anabel, what are you willing to do to stay with your kids?” That was a one-hundred-dollar question, a thousand-dollar question. And I was like, anything.”
After committing herself to gaining visibility, on her lawyer’s advice, Anabel went to a local reporter and had her first interview. She answered each of the reporter’s questions honestly, but after the interview was published, Anabel met intense backlash.
“That first article was very heartbreaking for me. Because a lot of people were, in the comments, when you go online, in the comments there were horrible comments. Against my kids and against myself, and I was not prepared for that.”
But as she knows all too well, Anabel did not have a choice on whether on not to share her story, so she went on to do further interviews, in a way becoming famous. Although she dreamed of being famous as a young girl, asking God to be in a magazine, Anabel never expected to find fame through sharing her story of being undocumented. Since her first interview Anabel has appeared in local news stories all the way to full-length articles in magazines like Elle.
Community Organizing Work
Since stepping forward with her story, Anabel has become a fierce advocate for immigration rights in Lorain and across the country. When she realized just how little people know about the lives and struggles undocumented immigrants face, Anabel used her publicity to start conversations.
“People were saying ‘this is not happening, we don’t have undocumented immigrants in our community’, yes you do. Even the mayor, the mayor from Lorain was saying that he didn’t– because she [an interviewer] did the interview with me and then she went to his office and asked him: ‘do you know that you have undocumented families in Lorain?’ And he said no, he said no and I was like oh my God, this guy needs to meet me. So [Pause] Anna arranged a meeting between the mayor and myself to meet each other. And the moment I walked into his office she was there and I said ‘you don’t want to see it, but you have more than 3,000 undocumented families in Lorain, and I’m one of them.’ And he was like, he couldn’t believe it. ‘So, so where you at?’ I was like ‘here!’ [Gestures by opening up her arms] [Laughter] So, that was eye opening for everyone.”
Once publicly visible, Anabel began advocating for others in situations similar to hers. El Centro quickly hired her as a caseworker, and although she admits that when she first started she didn’t have a clue what she was doing, her fellow colleagues empowered her and gave her the confidence to believe in herself. Additionally, Anabel joined the Lorain Ohio Immigrant Rights Association (LOIRA) and has dedicated countless hours towards fighting for the rights of undocumented people in Lorain and across the country.
Fear in the Undocumented Community
Anabel’s story shows great power and strength, incredible resilience in the face of hardship and oppression. Yet it would be too simplistic to paint Anabel’s immigration story as one of relative success, because her story continues into the modern political climate. After president Trump won the election, Anabel noticed a cultural shift towards aggression and hostility in her daily life.
“I can feel it. There was, in Obama’s administration, the undocumented community were feeling more free. I can’t say they were feeling unafraid, but with this one, nobody wants to go and do nothing. Like they would like you to go and do yourself for them, I mean, they’re afraid, they are terrified. They don’t want to go to the stores because you see more racism in the streets. And that happens to me. I was in the grocery store shopping and I was with my daughter, and there’s times that I would speak to her in Spanish, because that’s my native language. So I was just like- she doesn’t speak Spanish, but she understands it- so I just talk to her like ‘pick the strawberries’, but I said it in Spanish. [Pause]. And this guy was just looking at me like I was an alien. You can see his face change and he was like red and he said ‘lady you speak English.’ And I said, ‘excuse me, I speak any language that I want. I am a bilingual person, if you don’t like it sorry for you.’ But like, I wasn’t even talking to him! And that never happened in the past, never. But I mean people are more aggressive, they have this feeling that they’re entitled to this country. And really no one, I mean and this is probably very repetitive of what you are seeing in the media, but unless you are a native of American, [Pause] you are an immigrant. Ok, so I really don’t understand this white supremacy. And I’m sorry but I just have to put it a name, it is what it is.”
As told by Anabel, since President Trump’s election, the country has experience a surge in antagonism and racist violence. From his promises to build a border wall to comparing undocumented immigrants to animals, the current administration creates an atmosphere of fear and hostility that infects the everyday lives of our communities, but especially the lives of undocumented immigrants like Anabel.
This intense atmosphere of hate and xenophobia threatens Anabel’s safety and the safety of others in the undocumented community, and because of this, Anabel told me that she has chosen to take a step back from her community organizing work.
“Speaking up right now, you will get persecuted. [Pause] Yeah they are telling us, in Washington DC, that if you’re an activist and you have an immigration case, they’re going to go against you, they will make you wait, your process will be delayed. So the recommendation from lawyers that work on the national level for me was to step down a little. Because if you speak up you’re going to get [Pause] you are going to get to know this administration.”
Although she feels she is being selfish, Anabel recognizes the importance of taking a step back. She laments the ways her organizing work has taken time away from her kids, how for the last six years the work has consumed much of her life. When reflecting on her kids’ lives Anabel told me:
“The whole reason that I did what I did and that I do what I do is for them. For me to be able to stay, but I’m neglecting them, not spending time with them.”
By taking a step back, Anabel hopes to find a better balance between her family and activism.
In addition to family, Anabel’s chance at citizenship grows closer, and for the first time ever, Anabel has a relative time frame of when she might attain citizenship. Although that possibility is still years away, by engaging in activist work under the umbrella of others, Anabel protects herself and her chances at staying in the country.
Although Anabel has chosen to take a step back, she does not plan to stop her work as an activist and community organizer. She understands that her job does not include telling people what to do and how to live their lives, but she wants to convey the message that staying in the shadows won’t last forever. Instead of hiding, Anabel wants to provide options for those in her community.
“Right now hiding is not an option. There’s a lot of things that we can do, and not necessarily rallies and protesting. Educating your neighbors, educating your kids for they are US citizens. Getting out to vote, so we can take this man out of the white house. So there’s a lot of things that you can do without getting in risk of being deported.”
For Anabel and for all of us working to create another possible world, the struggle continues, la lucha sigue.
“You have to continue the fight. [Pause] We have to continue being the face for immigration. There’s no going back. And it’s ok to step down for a little bit, but that doesn’t mean that we are going to stop.”
Community Through Disaster
Anabel continues fighting for what she believes in partly through supporting Puerto Rican refugees from Hurricane Maria. Due to Lorain’s deeply rooted Puerto Rican and Mexican community, after Hurricane Maria, Lorain suddenly needed to accommodate refugees coming from the island. Anabel describes the event as incredibly impactful on Lorain County.
“They have come because of friends, family, or just FEMA put them in hotels here. [Exhale]. And it has been a long wait on the housing department on the benefits and everything right now. But Lorain is well known as the international city, so, and especially here where Sacred Heart is located in South Lorain, I would say majority of the population is Puerto Rican. And if you go down to Pearl Village, they call it little Puerto Rico; you go there at nights and there’s people with tables playing dominoes, playing old Puerto Rican music. So, definitely Hurricane Maria has marked Lorain [Pause] because of the [Pause] families being placed in this community.”
Through her work at El Centro, Anabel has organized with others to welcome refugees into the city. However, she urges the Lorain community to step up because there is still a lot of need. Although people may say that at least conditions are better in Lorain than in Puerto Rico, Anabel hopes to provide refugees with housing, jobs to pay rent, and a sense of stability, home, and community.
“But this is people who has been through a dramatic, very dramatic event. They need mental health services; they have been though a lot. And just living with anything, just imagine, just one day you wake up and you have to leave your house, your clothes, your properties, your belongings, whatever you have, and just walk with whatever you have on. I don’t know, I don’t know how they do it. But yes, and I’m telling you this because I work at El Centro, so I have worked with those families. I remember applying for housing for people since October, and they haven’t had an interview yet. So this community needs to step up and do something for them.”
Almost back to back with the Hurricane Maria, Mexico also suffered a tremendous disaster: a powerful earthquake in Mexico City on anniversary of Mexico City’s 1985 earthquake. Anabel told me about her fearful stress upon hearing the news:
“I was in a restaurant in a meeting, when all the TVs turned on and they were talking about the Mexican earthquake. And I remember getting very frustrated and wanting to talk to my dad; my dad is eighty-five years old and he is in Mexico with Alzheimer’s. So, and my sister, my sister is with him, so I still have family there, and I was like oh God please don’t. I wasn’t able to communicate with them until the next day because all the phone lines went down. But they were OK, they did feel a little bit shaken.”
Anabel luckily did not suffer any losses, but one parishioner, Rosa Cromer lost her nephew to the earthquake. The church community has since put together money to send with Rosa to Mexico to help those suffering losses.
In the face of both disasters, the Puerto Rican community and Mexican community have grown stronger supporting each other. I asked Anabel about this specifically, if she felt tied to a larger Hispanic community after the disasters, because during our first meeting she had told me about distance and tension between the Mexican and the Puerto Rican community. Anabel remembers conflicts over who speaks better Spanish, cultural differences, and some Puerto Ricans who would flaunt their American citizenship at her undocumented status. Although doesn’t see these gaps as completely closed, over the years she has felt a shift towards mutual respect and support, especially in the face of these disasters.
“How can I not be compassionate to the Puerto Rican community after seeing so many videos that people were, clients were showing me. And I guess, this is not about niceties, this is about being a human. [Pause] I know Mexico suffered a lot of losses, especially those kids, [Exhale] but, Puerto Rico was worse. And maybe I’m saying this because I didn’t loose anyone in the earthquake, but I know that Puerto Rico, the entire island got wiped out. And Mexico City was just a little, not a little, but a few houses like that. [Pause] More failure structure. So, that’s why. But I mean, I would say that the Puerto Rican community supports the fundraiser and the Mexico community has supported the Maria efforts, the hurricane Maria efforts to welcome this community, these families to our community. So, that’s the way that I see it, I don’t know if someone else has something else different to say. But now it’s like a family, OK. We’re all together in this”
Strength Looking Forward
After over an hour and a half of talking with Anabel and listening to her stories, I wanted to know where she finds strength throughout the course of her roller coaster life. Her answer provides insight and inspiration to those managing our own roller coasters and continuing the struggle for a just world.
“Oh my family, that has been my strength all the time. And most important God. And I’m not going to lie, [Laughter] there’s times that I’m like come on God, you’ve got to stop with me. [Exhale]. But I look at my kids, and now my grandkids, and it’s like OK, just one hug, a kiss is worth it. I can have the biggest day of work or doing community organizing and I just go home and they give me a kiss and it’s just like OK. And my strength is also my community and believing in work and believing what you are doing is right. Because if I don’t believe in this movement I wouldn’t have done it, OK. I don’t think I’m doing nothing that is illegal, as they like to call me. I believe that I have rights as a human being and I probably didn’t follow the laws, but there’s a lot of laws that are not meant to be followed, so if you want to change them you have to do something about it. And that’s my strength.”
Mary Santiago does not like being in the spotlight. Although multiple people from the Sacred Heart Chapel community nominated her as an important leader to be included in this history project, she was hesitant about the prospect of being interviewed. She said she couldn’t be at the church the day we had planned. I was intending to interview a different community member when I came to Sacred Heart Chapel on a rainy spring morning. But as I walked in, Professor Perez, one of the leaders of this project, told me she had bumped into Mary doing some organizing for the church’s annual Steak Fry, and she had spontaneously agreed, after all, to go forth with the interview. Even though she was still under the weather, here she was, bright and early, working on planning an event for the church.
Mary Santiago is an active community leader and businesswomen in Lorain. She currently serves on the Ohio Commission of Latino Affairs, where her objective is, “To serve and make a positive difference in my community by assisting community organizations that provide services to the underprivileged and Latino Communities” (Ohcla.ohio.gov)
She has been a board member of over ten organizations, including Grassroots Leadership of Lorain County, United Way Foundation of Lorain County, Cleveland Museum of Art’s, and Sacred Heart Chapel. She has coordinated events and festivals in Lorain, such as The Latino Del Norte Music & Arts Festival and Fiesta Patronales.
She has also managed G & S Market, which was a family business that she eventually took over with her husband and Island Restaurant.
Despite her numerous achievements, Mary does not typically like to be highlighted for her work. She barely agrees to do interviews, and always prefers to work from the background. When asked about why she prefers not being in the spotlight, Mary said,
I meet with the people to make a difference and get it done, and those that need to be in front are in front. I’m more like a little foot soldier. I don’t mind doing the work… I tried to cancel this interview how many times! And this is the first one I’ve actually given. So that’s God saying you’re gonna be there whether you like it or not.”
I think this represents who Mary Santiago is, someone who avoids the spotlight, but works tirelessly to support and lift up her community. Although she might have been too tired to give an interview, she was never too tired to come in to church and help put together an event that would bring together the community. And when God sends her a sign, she doesn’t turn away. Mary Santiago’s tireless commitment to her community, family, and faith has made her a leader in Lorain and Sacred Heart, and she deserves to be celebrated as such!
This narrative was written based off of an oral history conducted with Mary Santiago on March 29th at Sacred Heart Chapel. It is divided into 5 sections, describing themes that were woven through our interview.
Early Life: “In Campito, Everyone Was Family.” Page 2.
Church:“Sacred Heart Is My Heart.” Page 3.
Family: “It just gives you another portion to a heart you didn’t think you had.” Page 4.
Politics and Organizing: “Food and prayer will bring everyone together, that’s for sure!” Page 5.
Looking Forward:“Stay involved. Get educated. Know what you’re talking about.” Page 6.
I would like to thank Adrian Bautista, Gina Perez, and Sacred Heart Chapel for all the support during the organizing and interviewing process. This is such an important project, and I am so honored that I was able to help showcase Mary Santiago. Thank you so much to Mary for sharing your story and your time!
When introduced with the idea of having to conduct an interview with a member of Sacred Heart I knew that I wanted to talk to someone who had personally emigrated from a Spanish speaking country or had a member of his or her family do so. As for their profession I wanted someone either in the medical or business field. I am the type of person who learns best when I can relate to topics personally and these both related to my academic interests and my family history. I was presented with interviewee Ana Amador. I first met Ana at Sacred Heart where we exchanged a quick introduction. After she received the formal invitation for the project we had our preliminary phone conversation. During this conversation I discussed with her what the project was about and why I was interested in interviewing her. We agreed to meet at Sacred Heart on Thursday April 12th at 10 am.
Ana Amador is a 74-year-old member of the Sacred Heart parish. She was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico in January of the year 1944. She is the oldest of 4 siblings; she has two sisters and a brother. When she was younger and living in Puerto Rico her father came to Lorain, Ohio to work in the steel mill and save up enough money to send back to the family so that they could all move to Lorain and be reunited.
After about a year of work he was able to send enough money back for Ana, her mother, and her brother. They settled down in a little house on 28th street where they lived for five years. Once in Lorain, the family welcomed the two younger daughters, Miriam and Lydia.
After graduating from high school, Ana did not go straight to college; instead she took an exam to be an LPN and after doing well went back to school to be an RN. This allowed her to achieve her dream of being a nurse, which she balanced with raising a family. She is happily married today, is a proud mother and grandmother, and now that she is retired, keeps busy volunteering in the church as well as taking time to travel and spend on her hobbies.
La transición dejando Ponce y viviendo en Lorain
Once leaving Puerto Rico, her immediate family was all that Ana had once they arrived in Lorain. Growing up in the 50’s, her and her siblings played outside a lot, went to church, and attended family gatherings. Because they left their connections in Puerto Rico, the closest thing they had to extended family in Lorain was the people and the families that her father had first come with from their same town of Ponce. The couple families that her parents had known when they left Puerto Rico were their friends here and the people that they spend time with and had family gatherings with.
Ana discussed how she doesn’t remember much from Ponce considering she was only five when they moved over. She said that she personally did not and does not have family or friend in Ponce that she keeps in touch with. Ana said that the biggest change for her when moving to Lorain was the snow. She remembers distinctly how much of an adjustment it was to get used to the snow, but remembers the cute little snowsuits that her and her brother wore when it came time to play in the snow. Once in Lorain, Ana began going to school and she remembers having to walk there every day. This is why she remembers the cold so vividly because she had to walk there in the biting cold weather.
As for language, Ana spoke only Spanish while living in Ponce. When she arrived she remembers being sent to Lincoln School to learn English.
“I do have lots of memories of like when I was in first grade and I was 5, 6, years old. And I was sent to Lincoln School to learn English. And i came back to my regular classroom and I picked up English right away because my mother knew English. So she would help us at home, and so they, I was, you know, they give the little rewards and I was the best reader for that period and I remember getting in front of the class and being presented as the best reader, I also remember at that time, my sister was born and they had put something on the chalkboard and they had me go in front of the class and announce to them that I had a new sister.” When back in Ponce, Ana’s mother worked with the census department, which involved her recording births and deaths, along with name changes that people had. Because her mother had this career she knew how to speak English which was a big help to Ana when it came to her learning English.
The most recent time Ana went back to Ponce was with her sister Lydia, which was a special experience that they both got to share especially because it was Lydia’s first time traveling there. When talking about the experience they shared and her other sister, Miriam’s experience Ana said, “I hadn’t been there in 55 years, my sister Lydia had never been and so that was a wonderful vacation and we got to see a lot of the island, and it just felt like your home kind of again, like my sister Miriam, the youngest one, she had been previously a couple times. She loved it so much she had been back every year. But the first time she just said she felt home, “oh this is where I am from, this is where my family is from” you know, and so that was a memorable one because I got to share my sister’s first time with my going back.” Although Ana was so young when her family left and has no memories of living there, and her two younger sisters had never lived there, they all felt a sense of home and community upon their return.
La importancia de la Familia
Through out the entire interview, the conversation kept coming back to Ana’s family and what a vital role they played in her life. She herself is the oldest of four siblings. She has a brother, Eric, who is one year younger than her, a sister Lydia who is six years younger than her, and Miriam who is seven years younger. They had another sister who was born while the family still lived in Ponce, who unfortunately passed away while Ana’s father was in Lorain saving up money to bring the family over. Although she is close to her brother she said that she is closest to the two sisters because “of course girls, you know”. Her sister Lydia currently lives in Texas where her two sons work and her other sister Miriam lives in Brunswick so they are still able to see each other all of the time.
Ana remembers that when she was younger her dad always wanted to have the latest gadgets. This included a television, phones, and cars. She remembers that people in the neighborhood would come to their house to use their phone or their TV because they were the only ones that had them. As for traditions she one that stood out to her was the Sunday car rides that her father would take the family on in his 1949 Dodge Desoto. As well as the family holiday traditions such as Christmas where her whole family would get together and have pasteles and penillo, which her mom was really big on maintaining. Although her father passed away young, Ana was still very close to him and her mother, who lived 19 years after her father’s passing.
Ana talked about her own family, her son Michael and her daughter Terry and the grandkids that she has. She talked about the joy that being both a mother and a grandmother has brought to her life and how much it has taught her. She stated, “It’s not idyllic like you see on TV, you know perfect families and perfect babies, perfect this and perfect that, it was adjusting, it’s a lot of work and responsibility to be a parent.” Although it was hard at times, she is proud of her children and grandchildren and all the work that they are doing and have done. Ana spends as much time as possible being with her grandkids. In the past year, she flew to Texas three times to be with the ones that live there.
Ana’s husband, Frank, comes from a large family with 11 children. Although they are Mexican and at the time Mexican and Puerto Ricans did not mix, his family accepted her into theirs immediately. When I asked her if she was close to her husband’s family she responded, “Very close, because I had no family of my own either, and they accepted me from day, well nope, from day one, they did. No, the reason I hesitated was because at that time, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans didn’t usually mix. So me being Puerto Rican and my husband being Mexican, ehh, kind of. But once I met them and they met me, we clicked. I loved his grandma, I never had a grandmother that I could relate to, so his grandmother was like my grandmother, and his mom was great. And I always say my husband came from a family of 11 kids and I can honestly tell you that from day one, never had a harsh word with them, never had an argument with them, they always treated me wonderfully and to this day, and I’ve been in this family for 52 years.” Since Ana only moved to Lorain with her small immediate family, she did not have a large family to grow up in like her husband did. She mentioned that when her family had whole family gatherings they were always intimate and when one sibling did not show up, it was apparent, and they were missed greatly during the event. She laughed when she compared her family gatherings to those of Frank’s family. She said that with eleven siblings, and their children, it’s a lot more chaotic, and less noticeable when a family member isn’t able to attend. Having her husband’s family around has been nice for Ana since her parents passed away and her siblings aren’t all still in Lorain because she still gets to experience that sense of love and warmth that only a family can provide.
Her and her husband vacation with his siblings, they cook together, have large family outings together. Ana stressed the importance of traveling in her life, because her and her husband both love it so much. They have done many cross-country road trips with their children as well as trips to places like Disney World where they took their granddaughters. “When I went back to work as an RN, we were able to afford to take our kids on vacation, we made it a point that every year we would take them somewhere. So our first year we went to Washington DC with the kids. And then one year we drove to California. Every 8 hours we would stop, explore where we were at, and we went to Tijuana, and we drove back another route so they were able to see the US. When they were teenagers we would go to Myrtle Beach, every two years we would take them and their friends or whatever, then it became my extended family, my husband’s family would go and then we would go, by that time the kids were on their own. We’ve gone on vacation with our grandchildren or granddaughters, you know, Disney and what have you.” She expressed that it is one of her favorite pass times and one of her favorite ways to stay close to her family and be able to share experiences with them.
La vida de una enfermera y las cosas mas importantes en la vida
Growing up and while in school Ana always knew that she wanted to be an RN. It was hard for Ana to achieve this dream immediately because she didn’t feel that her high school catered to the Hispanic population as much as they did to other students. “And by catering I mean giving them options, scholarships, where you can apply, I mean people that really really worked with you. I mean a few of the people that I graduated with did go to college, but the majority did not. So when it came time to go to college, I didn’t have the funds to go. I had not applied for it because I was not encouraged to do so.” Although Ana did not go to college right away, after graduating, her friend encouraged her to take the LPN (licensed practicing nurse) exam and she did so well to the point that they let her start taking classes that following semester. She graduated from high school in June and by September was starting her courses. For 17 years she worked as an LPN and after she had kids and started her family, she decided to go back to school to be an RN. She went to LCC in 1976 and got her degree four years later in 1980. She was able to juggle having a job, take care of her family, and go to school and maintain a 4.0 GPA, which for her is her biggest accomplishment.
Ana remembers that when she first told her mom that she wanted to be a nurse her mom would mock her and tell her that she didn’t have the stomach for it. But while she was taking her classes her mom was constantly praying for her. “The hard work that had to go into it and you know, no one knows exactly what an individual goes through, you know, so the stresses, my mom would always, I had my mom hooked on, for her, Saint Jude was her go to saint. So I had a study group, it just so happened I said “mom we’re going to have this big exam tomorrow” and she prayed all the time, so I said keep us in prayer, so everybody asked for my mom to pray so my mom would pray for our group for almost two years, any time we had a test or an exam or anything. She’d light that candle and she was praying.”
When asked what her favorite part of being a nurse was Ana responded “I think it’s just connecting with people. You’re there and you can, for most patients you see them recover, you see the progress they’re making, you see them recover, go home, for those that don’t have such a good prognosis at least you’re there with them, you give them comfort, you can be their comfort for their families. I think it’s just that healing, that overall, that you’ve accomplished something and you’ve given them something that they need.” She felt a sense of happiness being able to help people in a way that not everyone can; happiness in healing people or being able to comfort them in a time of need.
Before getting married, Ana used to work in a hospital environment which is where she met her husband. He worked as an orderly in the psychiatric department, which was right above the unit that she worked in. One day, she was asked to cover one of her friend’s shifts on that floor and they met then. They met again at the hospital picnic because Ana knew some of his family who also worked in the hospital, as she put it, “they’re a very large group, they’re everywhere. You know, they’re the Amadors and they’re all related, they’re all wonderful people too, by the way.” After meeting, Ana and Frank started a relationship and have been married ever since, for 52 years. But after getting married and having children she worked in a nursing home because she was able to have a more flexible schedule, which helped her because she didn’t like relying on other people to watch her children. She mother and sister in laws were a big help but she didn’t want to impose too much on them and wanted to be as big of her children’s lives as possible. For the most part, her and her husband were able to align their schedules where one of the was always available for their children.
Una comunidad cambiando
When Ana first moved to Lorain, it was to a small house on 28th street around the same time that many families were moving to the area. The neighborhood they lived in was predominantly Puerto Rican but had a sense of diversity as well. “You know there was African Americans, there was Italians on the other side, and then when we moved to Central Lorain in 1995, it was very diverse, the whole block…” As a child she remembers being able to freely play around the neighborhood without any concern about dangers in the community. She would take her little sisters walking down the block, which had every resource that the family needed. “When I first moved I was 5 years old. I’m 74, I was 5 years old, I lived on 28th street, which is like a couple blocks down and I lived on the 1800 block and it was a wonderful place to live because I was a child so I wasn’t aware of any stresses anybody might have financially or otherwise. I was a kid, and I was enjoying being a kid. And my little friends and I, we could walk safely down the street no problem, I would take my little sisters walking down the block and then, you know, you can see the community deteriorating, the businesses, you could walk down Pearl, which this is Pearl here, and you could walk all the way down to the steel mill and you were able to find every resource that you needed right there. You had doctors, you had dentists, you had banks, pharmacies, you had a Spanish movie theater, you had another movie theater just a couple blocks down. You had all kinds of stores, grocery stores, drug stores, and it was a very vibrant business area. And you did not walk for anything, I mean, you did not have to have a car. You could easily walk to all these places. The school, my school at that time was on 31st so I had to walk from 28th street to 31st street. Everything was right there, where now there’s very few businesses there. At one time people really didn’t even feel safe there, because there were a couple bars that became you know, hotspot for maybe not good activity and so you did not feel safe there, where we felt safe. It breaks my heart when I go down 28th street to Broadway because, businesses are gone and they have a lot of junk car areas, it’s not a really attractive looking place for anybody coming into Lorain for the first time. ”
Now she says that this same vibrant place she grew up is deteriorating. She said it breaks her heart to walk down this same street now a day because it doesn’t have the same feeling as before and its not as attractive to look at for someone coming into it for the first time. After urban renewal they removed everything and put housing, but project type housing. People were bought out of their homes and they had to move further south into Lorain. The neighborhood was gone and so were many of the people that grew up there.
La iglesia y la fe entre Sacred Heart
Religion and the church are something very important in Ana’s life. She was raised in a Catholic household her entire life because her mom was a devout Catholic. She remembers that when her family first moved to Lorain from Puerto Rico, they didn’t have a church that they felt a part of or could go to every weekend. They started out going to Old Saint John’s Francis Cabrini where Ana had her first communion and where her sisters were baptized. But once her family moved to South Lorain, they started going to Sacred Heart when she was about 10 years old. Sacred Heart felt like more of a community to Ana, the same people who she went to church with were some of the same she went to school with and grew up with outside of the parish as well. As a teenager, her and her friends were very involved in the church community. “So I belonged to the missionary senical when I was a teenager, we went out and it was mostly the hispanic community that we served. As a teenager I was involved in a social group, it was called, tropicanas, you know it’s an odd thing, I hadn’t thought about that in a long time, but we were like right out of high school, young adults, and it was a nice little social group, we always, once a month we had our little thing at church, and we wore our little uniforms, and processed in, it was really nice. I belonged to the hijas of Maria here at the church, and so after the kids were on their own, then I became involved more as an old, well not old, middle adult, with different various group, like I belong to the amigas, which is a health advocate group for the hispanic ladies breast health, to prevent breast cancer, I belong to parish nursing which is a faith based group of people and we went out in the community through the churches, I served with the hispanic churches, they, not necessarily all Catholic either, you know, any denomination, and that’s who we served. And now I belong to the welcoming committee here or the engagement committee with the church and like I said I did small church groups. And so we just had a nice big event for the Puerto Rican families that were displaced by Hurricane Maria and that just happened on Sunday, so we were a big part of that.” Ana’s mother had been really involved in the Sacred Heart community when Ana was growing up and this inspired Ana to get involved as well. She talked about how she loved doing community service and how Sacred Heart was somewhat of an anchor for that in the community. While growing up in the community, Ana taught catechism and belonged to different missionary groups. Ana said that what she loves most about Sacred Heart is “the close knit community, how everyone is family, when you come here, there’s no feeling to describe it. Because I’d gone to other churches and as welcoming as they might be, it is not the same. It is not the same… I think that the spirit moves in this church and you can feel it, you know, I’ve had many many people that did not belong to this church or do not belong come to visit and they love the experience that they have here.”
Now as an adult Ana belongs to the engagement committee at Sacred Heart. Recently they did an event for all the families that were displaced by Hurricane Maria. Ana said that the impact that the hurricane had was that it brought a wave of concern through the parish. Concern for family members and concern because people were not able to contact their loved ones back in Puerto Rico. Ana said that her herself does not have anyone in Puerto Rico that she is still connected to but was more than happy to help those who did. The engagement group itself she explains does the following: “Well in the church, what we do is, engage new members and keep the older ones engages. We register new members and provide an in letter outlet for them to be involved in the church and keep engaged in the group in the church. There’s different ministries, we connect them with whatever resources, we find out what their talents are, what their interests are, and kind of connect them and route them that way. And then this event that we had, we had to do something, Carmen Valenzas is our group leader, and we have a group of about 10 or 12 of us, and this is something we were really excited about doing. We had vendors, different resource people, you know, where I did my thing Sunday, tried to connect the vendors with their places. Tried to make sure it was okay, everybody had a role to play. From the greeters, to the MC, to the cooks, to people setting up, to people helping. We collected items and gave the out to the people, had some clothing, some miscellaneous stuff that they could help themselves to. But everybody had a got a nice big care package. We provided a meal so you know there were people to cook, people to serve, it’s a team effort. No one really can say, “I did this” we all did that. We all did. And it turned out well and we were all happy with it.” She was proud of the work that they were able to accomplish during this event and just as a group in general.
When our class went to Sacred Heart we noticed how at the end of mass they served food to the parish. Ana feels that the food at the end of mass is a cultural thing. She said that it provides a fellowship because people are taking their food back to tables and talking and networking with different people. It’s a big part of the church culture and a good way to keep people engaged, because who doesn’t like food.
When asked how she has seen Sacred Heart change over the years Ana responded that it has stayed steady and grown where she has noticed that other parishes have not. Her explanation for this was that they keep their parishioners involved and families come in generations. She sees parents bringing their children and they get to see these children grow up and bring their kids to the parish as well. She said that in order to keep the youth involved she felt that it was important for parents to bring their children to church and tell them that it was a weekly requirement instead of giving them the choice of whether or not they wanted to go. The parish as a whole has had a large impact on Ana’s life and she is continuing to give back to the community that has given so much to her.
Un mensaje importante para todos
At the end of the interview I asked Ana if she had any final thoughts or parts of her story that she felt were important to share that we had not touched on in the interview. Her exact words were,
“I think my story is that anything is possible for anyone and that I think that you have to have a good basic upbringing, that you should bring up your children in your faith whatever that might be. You should bring up your children to respect each other, respect themselves, and respect property. You should bring up your children to focus on education, to doing better for themselves you know, to taking care of their families, that family is important, and to stay connected and that anything that you want in life you can have but you have to work for it and work may not always be easy and that’s why they call it work. But it’s something that you can get rewarded with at the end; just stay focused. Like I tell my granddaughters, stay focused, keep your eye on the prize. While you’re doing it, it might seem like it’s the end of the world, whatever but when you get to that end, you will be every so happy that you did”.
During the interview Ana told me that her biggest accomplishment was being able to go back to school to become an RN and be able to juggle having a job as well as a family. She also stressed multiple times the importance that her mother placed on having an education and how she tells her granddaughters the same. “My mom, I have to tell you a little bit about her because she was in Puerto Rico, she was, she worked for the government, she worked in the census, doing vital statistics, so she registered the births and the deaths, and how people change names. You know, when they were using all the surnames. So that’s what she did. She did not get married until she was 29, which was considered old, and she didn’t have me, and I’m the oldest, until she was 33. So she was a career person so when she came here that was of course a big change for her, no longer working, was a mom and had two babies, it was cold. The one thing she had going for her was she knew English. But other than that, she did a lot to encourage us to go to school, to stay in school, get an education. And she was very proud. Her and my dad were very proud, that we were able to accomplish that.” Growing up, Ana was encouraged and supported by both of her parents to go to school and strive for her goals. Both of them worked hard to create a life and atmosphere to support their children, and this is something that has been instilled in Ana as well.
Ana’s biggest message was that it is important to not give up and to keep striving for your goals no matter how difficult things might seem in the moment. Ana wanted to emphasize that no matter what your background, no matter what hardships you have been through, that as long as you keep pushing towards your goals, you can achieve anything, just as she was proudly able to do herself.