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The 'journey' continues for Latina women living in Owensboro

Cass Herrington

Many immigration stories reveal what someone gains in their new life in another country, but one local professor is sharing what several women lost on their journeys to the United States.

Gloria Matías decided to leave her village in Toluca, about 40 miles outside Mexico City, after she found out her son was seriously ill.

Gloria didn’t want to leave behind her home and family, but she couldn’t afford treatment in Mexico. Doctors said her son would never walk if he didn’t receive surgery and therapy.

“His little body looked like it was hard to walk, but I didn't know what he had. Then his dad and I separated, so we were alone," Gloria said. "In Mexico, it's hard because there's no money, so I decided to bring him back here to cure him here to see what he had."

So Gloria paid someone to carry her son to the United States. Meanwhile, she crossed the border alone, traveling for three days in the desert -- risking arrest, starvation and violent drug cartels.

That journey was six years ago.

Her son is now 15-years-old, with muscular dystrophy, but overall, he’s a healthy middle school-er who considers Owensboro, Ky. his home.

"But I was disappointed when they diagnosed him with muscular dystrophy, which doesn't have a cure. It was a very hard and sad moment," Gloria said.

Gloria Matías’ story is one of several in a series about Latina women in Owensboro. The project is called Crónicas, which means “journey” in Greek.

Arcea Zapata de Astón, a professor of Spanish and Literature at Kentucky Wesleyan College and the founder of Educa, started Crónicas. The project, a joint project with the Centro Latino in Owensboro, received grant funding from the Kentucky Women Foundation.

Arcea is recording journeys, like Gloria’s, and compiling them into a documentary and published essay. In addition to creating a collection of stories, she's hosting literacy programs, writing workshops and parenting classes for the women.

“These women all went through difficult, difficult times," Arcea said. "It's hard to comprehend that somebody will walk for days in the desert with people they don't know, exposing themselves to rape, all kinds of abuse.”

Zapata de Astón collected the stories of 20 women so far, who gave up their families and culture to go after the Sueño Americano, or American Dream.

That dream, or fantasy, may offer security and economic stability, but it destroys identity and familial ties along the way, Arcea said. She calls it the next wave of colonization, where these women separate themselves from what is most cherished in Hispanic culture -- the family.  

“When the colonists or conquistadores came to the Americas, they destroyed our culture. They destroyed the advanced, rich civilizations of the Aztecas, the Incas, the Mayas," Arcea said. "I feel these women, when they come here, they see the American Dream the same way...beautiful...but what they don't know is that they're destroying their base, their families... and it will never be the same.”

Arcea knows this, because it’s a struggle she witnessed in her own life, when she moved here from Colombia.

“I've done a lot, my kids are bilingual, they love my country, love my culture, but it's still hard,” Arcea said. "In the Latino culture, family is important..That doesn't mean that in the Anglo or U.S. culture that family isn't important... it means that for us, it's number one."

A tiny shack with your family is more valued than a castle filled with gold, she said.

That precious connection to family is most apparent in Arceli Alfaro-Garcia’s story. She’s rocking her four-month-old baby girl when I enter her nearly unfurnished, two-room apartment.

This mother of three has a broken heart because she’s aching to be at home with her own Mom.

"It's not the same talking on the phone than talking in person," Arceli said. "She wants to hug me."

Arceli left Mexico, ten years ago to be with her boyfriend, who came here to find work. Two months after she became pregnant, her partner became abusive, she said.

“One time he tried to cut my finger with a knife, and another time he hit my eye. He left me all bruised," Arceli said. "I don't know why I tolerated him...I don't know how to read, I don't know how to write, so I would feel useless."

He threatened to kill her if she tried to leave, Arceli said. She was essentially a slave in her own home, with no one to talk to.

“I don't know why I tolerated so much, but my life with him was hell," Arceli said.

She wants to go home, but her oldest son Adrian’s documents are printed with his abusive father’s last name. That means, the father has to sign the papers, but he has since moved back to Mexico.

“But what hurts me the most is that he told me I was going to be here for the rest of my life...that I was never going to see my mom," Arceli said.

In addition to sharing these sometimes painful stories, Arcea Zapata de Aston has been able to identify the needs of the Hispanic community and connect them to resources, like the Mexican consulate.

Which brings us back to Arceli Alfaro Garcia, whose “Cronica” is not yet finished.

Arcea put her in contact with an immigration lawyer in Owensboro. The lawyer found that Arceli had already been awarded sole custody of her son, due to the father’s abusive behavior.

Last month, Arceli got her son’s documents approved, so next year, Adrian will be able to embrace his grandmother in Mexico.

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