When you meet Irma Valdez, you hear in her voice an excitement about the opportunities that her children now have, about a commitment to her country and community, and about appreciation, adulation for a father who more than 20 years ago courageously left the fields of Veracruz, Mexico coming to the United States in search of a better life for his family.
You listen as Irma talks of the struggles of her father, Irineo, and her mother, Francisca, as they were forced from school in their early years, working as 11-year-olds in the fields to help earn enough money for their families to put food on the table, to have a roof overhead.
“Life was tough,” said Irma, who was seven when her father left for the United States and eight a year later when his family joined him in Rhode Island.
The Mexico that Irineo left in 1998 was one suffering from severe drought, preventing hundreds of thousands of day laborers from working, a country that was in political turmoil.
“Once here (United States) he realized it would be so much better for us to come here,” Irma said.
When Irma thinks of what life might have been like had they not left Mexico, she envisions hardship and a life influenced by the powerful Cartels.
“In Mexico, without an education, you would end up falling in the mix of the Cartels,” she said. “It’s very very sad. Very sad. I feel blessed to be have both worlds. The Cartels are making our (Mexico) country not safe.”
Instead, today her father is a craftsman, a welder, Irma works in Westerly’s Springbrook Elementary School as a parent liaison, where her two children, Luz and Lily are pupils. She’s married, and her husband, Adrian, also from Mexico, works at Westerly Packing. He came to America at 18, after finishing high school in Mexico.
This is what President George H.W. Bush envisioned when, upon passage of immigration legislation, he said “Immigration isn’t just a link to America’s past, it’s also a bridge to America’s future.”
For Irma, her parents and sister, coming to the United States has meant “opportunity” for education, for employment, for a future for the children.
In Mexico, Irma attended kindergarten, but went no further. After arriving in Westerly, she was enrolled in the public schools, battled through language barriers and found her footing when she began making friendships.
She would graduate Westerly High School and enroll in a Medical, Billing and Coding program, only to have the school close when she was just 12 days short of graduation. “One day they were open,” she said, “and the next day a sign on the door and no more.”
She became a recess aid at Westerly’s Springbrook Elementary School, and when a parent liaison job opened, she applied and was hired. She helps connect parents and teachers, spearheads various programs, some multi-cultural and some to just reinforce community.
Irma’s excited about the job, about making a difference for the kids and their families. And now aspires to become a teacher assistant.
She believes in the children, knowing that by building kindness and love they will help lead everyone to a better world.
“We need to show our kids we love them and appreciate them,” she said. “I think that’s what’s missing from the world. Besides all the immigration issues, we need love in this word.”
While she said she hasn’t experienced discrimination herself, Irma said her parents and nephews have.
“In the Middle School sometimes I hear comments from older kids about immigrants and the president,” Irma said. “It’s so sad because I think kids that age only repeat what they hear at home…a lot of these kids don’t even know what they’re saying… I think us parents should be a little more cautious … everyone is entitled to their positions … (but) we shouldn’t involve our kids because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We should just keep the kids out of it.”
Listen to Irma, as she talks about discrimination, and her hope for the future.
“When you go out to the store or anywhere and you see someone that looks different or speaks a different language, just approach them and say hello, make them feel welcome, make them feel like they’re human and it’s ok they live in a country in which they weren’t born. Let’s just be more open to others.
“If we teach our kids we have to stay away from certain people and we can only talk to people and be around people that look a certain way, that just plants that negativity in their heart and I don’t think we should do that.”
And what she hopes for her children, perhaps what everyone should hope for their children is “they grow up proud of who they are, proud of their background, and that they remain good people, not expecting anything back”