Marlena has been here for a decade and every day she copes with the challenges that come with the language and cultural barriers of her adopted homeland. But though she relies on the help of a translator, Sam Ley, her obstacles here may pale next to what she had to go through to get to the United States. Initially there was her life in El Salvador, her home country where she spent her first 25 years. Like many of the countries south of our border, El Salavador’s economic system is in constant ruin. “Es una situacion muy critica,” Marlena says. Even though she had a fairly good job there as an office assistant, she was only making $5 a day.
“A lot of people—especially in her case—have come here to make a better life for themselves,” Ley says, translating again. “And also for their parents, to make a better life for the family that is still there.”
“Muy terrible,” Marlena adds. She is sitting on a couch across from us in an apartment that she shares with a husband who works construction and a son who attends the local middle school. When she followed her husband here from El Salvador 10 years ago, it was without documents. Like most “illegals,” she paid a “coyote” to get her across the border and eventually to Charlottesville where she joined her husband in an area trailer park.
“Her husband was here first and had a lot of friends he hung out with, but then she came and said no more of this trailer park business,” Ley says, as Marlena smiles. For a while after that, they lived in an apartment near K-Mart, but then through tragedy received an extraordinary benefit.
In early 2001, two earthquakes in her home country killed over 1,000 people and destroyed much of their housing. As a result, the federal government granted work permits to all Salvadorans then in the U.S. so that they could help with their country’s economic revival by sending money back.
Relatively overnight, Marlena was legal, and with a Social Security number, able to move into public housing. It also helped her find better work. For the last few years, she has cleaned sorority houses and dormitories at UVA for $12.50 an hour, employment that was only available with her newly obtained documentation. “She’s really happy with her job,” says Ley. Marlena sits across from us on her couch, grinning with her mouth and eyes. “It’s a lot more than she might be making at a hotel or a restaurant.”
While the work permit has meant a better quality of life, it has done little to diminish her feeling that she is an outsider, and possibly unwanted. “Yo no soy de los Estados Unidos,” Marlena says.
“I don’t want to say I’m from the United States because some Americans might not like that,” Ley translates for me, then switching from first person to third. “If she had permanent residence she could say, ‘Yes, I’m from here,’ and it would be better.”