Courage of Immigrants

Don Harris | April 2012

I have talked with some Spaniards within our La Tienda community who tell us how they are building new lives in America. Still more tell stories about their grandparents, parents, uncles or aunts who left everything behind in Spain to take advantage of fresh opportunities for their families in America. Some of them were fishermen from Galicia, miners from Asturias and mountain people of the Basque Country. Their sense of adventure and perseverance is why their Spanish descendants prosper today in America.

A parallel drama is occurring here at La Tienda in Virginia, where our staff is composed of at least a dozen different nationalities from Latin America, Asia and Europe. Many, like the Spaniards of an earlier generation, have come from areas of civil war and poverty, and are determined to start a new life. 

Through La Tienda, our family tries the best we can to support them with health benefits and a great working environment. They are welcomed as one of us in the La Tienda family. In the long run, perhaps the most valuable resource we provide them is the opportunity to learn the English language. 

When Raúl, a husband and father, joined us, he could only sign his name with an “X”. He now uses English as his first written language, and is proud that he speaks his newly acquired language with growing fluency. Another worker, Evelyn, left behind her large family in El Salvador, and is working hard to support herself and her family as best she can. Her face lights up with a smile when she speaks to me in English.

Another of our employees, Lisseth, is a remarkable woman, inquisitive and full of energy. She is one who has prospered within the family of La Tienda workers. In fact, she has done so well that we have just promoted her to Line Supervisor in our warehouse. 

Lisseth Borrego and her husband were happily married for fourteen years when they decided to take the risk of leaving the familiar confines of Cuba in order to improve life for themselves and their children in the United States. They knew there would be major challenges as they tried to adapt to a new culture and way of life. One cannot anticipate all the bumps in the road. 

Because they spoke no English at all they knew this would be a major hurdle to climb. However, Lisseth had hoped that with a degree in elementary education from Cuba, there might be some slot for her, however humble, within the American school system. Unfortunately, it turned out that her skills were not marketable.

In an interview by Narille Living in the Williamsburg Neighbors Magazine, Lisseth said, “It was very hard the first two years I was here. I was nervous about going places because I wasn’t sure where it was safe and where it wasn’t. My husband and children were the only family I had here, so I didn’t even have anyone else to ask questions.” But Lisseth was undaunted. She was determined to learn to speak and read English, so that she would not spend her life being fearful, looking in from outside. 

Then she signed up for a job at La Tienda and proceeded to work diligently. To her delight, Lisseth soon discovered that La Tienda provided free classes for any employees who wanted to learn English. The tutors came to our work site because of our partnership with a wonderful local group called Literacy for Life, associated with the College of William & Mary, staffed largely by volunteers. Neighbors from the Williamsburg area give their time to meet with those new to the area who would like to learn English. 

Lisseth enthusiastically took advantage of this opportunity. Once a week for two hours she attended classes with some of her fellow employees. Wanting to progress as quickly as possible, she also signed up for sessions held after work. In September 2011, she passed her citizenship test, and a month later was sworn in as a United States citizen.

Now Lisseth is able to help fellow workers who do not understand as much English as she does. Although she does not know whether she could become a tutor herself, she encourages others to continue their efforts to learn. She has advice for those who might be struggling with learning the English language. “It’s hard, but if I can do it, you can do it,” she emphasizes. 

We are proud to offer help to these hard-working immigrants, and they have become part of our La Tienda family. But we know that they deserve the most credit, for their courage and determination to start a new life and their commitment to learn a new language and learn a new way of living. Like the immigrants from Spain, current and of generations past, they are seeking out a better life for their families, while still treasuring the culture and traditions of their own countries.  

Su amigo,