A hard worker from a very young age and a clandestine immigrant, one of the biggest regrets for Rosalia Delgado has been allowing her work to take away from the most special moments of her adolescence in Mexico and, again, those as a mother of four children in the United States.
In Tonalapa del Sur, a village of just 1,000 habitants in the Southern state of Guerrero in Mexico, Rosalia awakens and cautiously rolls out of a bed she shares with her eight younger siblings, trying not to wake them. She puts on a dress, handmade by her mother with second-hand swatches, which shapes her thin body, and without shoes makes her way to the kitchen. With the first sunrays of the morning, she starts her day preparing enough corn to make 3kg of dough. Then she begins making tortillas that will accompany the beans her family consumes daily. “Sometimes when we had enough money, we would go buy pork and jalapeño peppers. It wasn’t much, but for us it was the most delicious meal in the world,” recalls Rosalia.
Her parents never obligated her to work, but seeing the need at home, at the age of ten Rosalía began working as a housemaid in several villages in Mexico. “Despite the fact that I was so young, the families always gave me a lot of responsibilities. I would take care of three children, clean the house and cook the meals.” Upon completion of her duties, she’d rush to arrive on time for high school, which is where she met Fernando Delgado. “Rosalia frequently wore a white shirt with a drawing of a discolored chicken. I didn’t understand why, but I imagined it was one of her favorite shirts,” recalls Fernando. “Every time we’d talk and play, I realized that I liked her a lot. Towards the end of high school I gave her a note and she became my girlfriend.”
They did not have much time to enjoy their relationship. After finishing high school in 1978, 15-year-old Fernando moved to the United States with his family. Since 1955, Fernando’s father, Juan Delgado, had been employed in California through the Bracero Program, which helps distribute work visas to Mexican immigrants. In 1977, a year before reuniting with his family, Juan had moved to La Villita, a Mexican neighborhood in the south side of Chicago, with good friends that were willing to help.
Rosalía’s parents had no intentions of leaving their home. “My father was a mechanic, a working man, but very…irresponsible; he would drink a lot,” says Rosalia. In contrast, Rosalia explains that her mother, Julia, was a wonderful role model. “She always motivated me. Thanks to her I finished my studies and wanted to continue to get a career as a secretary. I wanted to be someone in life, so I registered for typewriting classes.” With her new job at the central bus station, a better salary and health insurance, it seemed that her goals could be achieved. “I tried to give my mother my first paycheck, but she refused to accept it. She told me to go buy new clothes instead, that the second paycheck would be for her.” However, her mother died in December of 1978 and never received the gift. Today, on a shelf covered with a white tablecloth in the dining room of Rosalia’s home is a black and white portrait of Julia, which remains accompanied by a lit candle and fresh flowers.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Fernando had begun working in a pillow factory. “There wasn’t a day that passed where I did not think of my girlfriend,” he says. Although separated by distance, the two were never separated by heart. During the separation, many letters were exchanged.
How are you? How I miss those warm, dark chocolate eyes… I cannot wait to have you in my arms again. I won’t give up. I will return for you. Wait for me, please.
Each letter ended with a heart that read in script, “Fer and Rosa,” surrounded by roses. And after two years of waiting, Fernando had finally saved enough money to return to her.
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It was January 2, 1981. The weather was cool and unstable. The moon struggled to shine through the thick clouds. Rosalia, who was then 18 years old, walked slowly, breathing heavily. She found herself surrounded by a lot of earth and trees. Her boyfriend, Fernando, led the way. Suddenly, the silence was broken. The wind swirled like a tornado as a helicopter hovered in the sky and illuminated the darkness with an intense light. Without hesitation, the couple quickly stumbled over sticks and rocks until they found a few bushes where they could hide. Although the journey from Guerrero to Tijuana had been long, the desperate Rosalia knew it was necessary. They waited until the area became clear before continuing on at a faster pace. They finally reached the highway and met their coyote, the person they had paid to take them secretely to Chicago.
Upon arrival to their new home, the couple faced few difficulties transitioning to their new lifestyle. Fernando, who nowadays works as a janitor in a factory of electrical components, would continue on as an employee in a pillow factory and later on at a cabinet-making facility. Rosalia quickly found employment as a machine operator in a candy factory. Fernando, Rosalia and two other families managed to pay the rent for a shared apartment. Nevertheless, not everything was easy. “The hardest thing was accepting my new life, as a big part of me had been left in Mexico,” says Rosalia. Throughout her 34 years in the United States, only once has Rosalia been able to return to her hometown to see her younger siblings.
Although their new country offered the opportunity to live a better life, the jobs offered to immigrants paid well below the minimum wage. Without enough money to support a family, Rosalia had to work double shifts to pay the bills. “One thing I have learned in life is to be positive, even in the most difficult times. I always say, ‘God squeezes but never chokes.’ I will find a solution,” she says. Even today, Rosalia continues to work overtime to support her family.
Rosalia’s priority is to make sure that her children have the same childhood as other kids, and strives to continue family traditions. “Each Easter she always bought us a new dress. She’d also hide eggs filled with chocolate and money for us to find. It was the best!” recalls her oldest daughter Guadalupe.
Despite her children’s understanding, Rosalia still regrets letting work take away from special moments as a mother. “Although I supplied money and food on the table, I know that I was not there for my children when they needed me the most. I never had the opportunity to get them ready for school, or to take them there and pick them up. Between the four of them, they helped themselves. While busy at work, I would ask God to keep them on the right path.”
Her oldest son Fernando responds, “I remember seeing the expressions of the other children when their parents picked them up from school. They were so excited. And it is true, we never had that moment, but we understood why.” •