Thread of Courage
By Sonia Landman
Photo: John Hoagland, Usulután, El Salvador, 1980–83
I was born in El Salvador on July 23, 1962, the youngest of two girls born thirteen months apart. Soon after my mother married my father, during her pregnancy with me, she discovered that he was having an affair. Although her culture accepts men having affairs during marriage, it was not the kind of life my mother wanted for herself, or for my sister and I. She divorced my father after two years, but she knew that as a single mother she would not be able to provide for our basic needs. It was this knowledge that pushed her to join a movement in El Salvador at that time, where women decided they would lift their children out of poverty by immigrating to the United States. These women found sponsors in the United States who provided them with a legal work visa in exchange for working as nannies, cooks, cleaning ladies, et cetera. She left El Salvador in March 1964, leaving my sister and I, aged 2 and 3, in the care of her mother who was 62 at the time and also raising her two other grandchildren, my cousins, boys aged 5 and 7. My mother’s intention was to eventually reunite with my sister and I in the USA, working hard to save and send money to support all five of us in the meantime.
Following my mother’s departure, my father’s only involvement in our lives was to meet with us once per month for about 20 minutes in the parking lot of his employment, where he would give us a small monthly allowance. After he remarried, his new wife prohibited him from being involved in our lives any more.
Throughout my childhood in El Salvador, my sister and I longed for the day when my mother would come get us to live with her in the USA. We were told by my grandmother and other relatives to work very hard academically so that when we came to the United States we would be able to attend college. So we poured all our energies into academics and excelled, always on the top of our class.
My mother’s first visit to El Salvador after she left for the USA was 3 years later, when I was 5 years old. Since immigrating, she had sent monthly letters and made occasional phone calls to keep in touch, mailed checks to support us, and sent gifts for our birthdays and for special holidays like Easter and Christmas. Needless to say, my bond to her was not strong. I loved my grandmother who was raising us, and so was relieved when she informed us during this visit that she wasn’t ready to immigrate us back with her at that time. She saw our strong bond to my grandmother and felt it would have been detrimental to separate us. In the USA we would be in childcare all day. My mother worked for a family near Sacramento, California, 7 days per week, and was not given any time off, even to attend church on Sundays. She took care of their children, cleaned, cooked, and took care of the elderly in that home. It wasn’t until years later, after I was an adult, that I learned my mother was exploited and treated like a slave. She shared with me that one day she couldn’t take it anymore as she was exhausted from all the work she did for the family, so in the middle of the night she escaped and went to a homeless shelter. At the shelter, she was provided with assistance for getting other employment. She found work picking fruits and vegetables in the field, and eventually got a job as a seamstress working for a dry cleaner. Sewing was a skill she learned as a teenager, at the age of 14, in El Salvador to help to support herself.
Back in El Salvador, when I was 7 years old, another of my aunt’s children, the 9-month old brother to my cousins, came to live with us when my aunt passed away of an illness. The money my mom sent was barely enough to meet the physical needs of everyone, so all of us children helped my grandmother by selling cooking wood or plastic dishes out of of our home. As I got older my resentment toward my mother for taking so long to come to get us grew. I felt she didn’t love us enough. Life in El Salvador was difficult as we struggled to meet our basic needs for food and shelter, though my elderly grandmother tried her best to raise us. I developed anxiety and depression coping with these stressors. These feelings led to my first suicide attempt at the age of 15, where I ingested a bottle of my grandmother’s sleeping pills, but my sister told my grandmother about it and she gave me black coffee so I’d throw them up. After that incident I was warned by my grandmother that another suicide attempt would change my mother’s wish to bring me to the USA, so I made no more attempts, but my anxiety and depression continued into adulthood.
In 1978, when I was 16 years old, my mother was finally ready to immigrate us to the United States. She had remarried, had a stable home for us, and the political situation in El Salvador was very dangerous as the country was on the brink of a civil war. There were many protests on the streets, killings and kidnappings of anyone that opposed the government, schools and universities closing, and there was a lot of fear for everyone’s safety.
My sister and I arrived to the United States on June 30, 1978. We came to live with my mother and stepfather, leaving behind my grandmother and my cousins with the intention of immigrating them at a later date. Needless to say, the transition of being in a new country and culture was difficult for my sister and I. This difficulty had the added layer of not knowing or having a bond to my mother or knowing my stepfather. It was also difficult for my mother as she lacked the skills to deal with teenagers and had to work all day. Since it was summertime and the school year had not begun, my mother enrolled us in ESL classes in the afternoons while we went to work with her during the day, or accompanied my stepfather to his job as an electrician. We also joined the Mormon Church, which provided a social support system for us. That summer my depression and anxiety grew as I grieved my family in El Salvador, and struggled to find a connection to my new life in the USA.
In September, my sister and I enrolled at Highlands High School and we were placed in 10th grade. Academically, it was a very challenging transition, as the high school lacked the resources to deal with students like us who did not speak English. They placed us in special education classes where nobody spoke Spanish, so we were left feeling very lost and disconnected from our peers and teachers, not understanding the academic material. We attended the entire first year with some of the teachers not even knowing that we didn’t speak English so were give D’s and F’s in our final grades.
High school was also a very challenging transition socially. Peers often made fun of our attempts to speak English, and other girls sometimes bullied us in the PE locker. Fortunately we found a group of peers that felt compassion for us and often defended us from bullying. In particular, there was a girl named Terry who was over 6 feet tall and overweight, so she became like a bodyguard, walking with us around the campus.
All these issues continued to add to my anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideations as I had no tools to cope with such circumstances. Fortunately I trusted in my intellectual and academic abilities, so I continued to work very hard to master the English language. My sister and I spent countless hours after school in our room interpreting our homework into Spanish so we could understand it, and then translate it back to English. My sister and I also enrolled in a Spanish class at the high school, where we would tutor students in the Spanish language in exchange for their tutoring us in English. This was a very effective way to improve our English skills, and as our skills increased, our grades improved. By the end of our senior year, we both made it to the Honor Roll with A’s and B’s. I began to look forward to enrolling in college in spite of doubts by the school counselor that I could succeed. My sister opted for getting married after graduation at the age of 19 to a Mormon missionary.
At the end of my senior year in 1981, my grandmother who raised us in El Salvador finally came to live with us, along with my younger cousin Carlos, who was 12 years old. The civil war in El Salvador was in full gear and the government was drafting young boys like my cousin to be soldiers. My grandmother left with him in the middle of the night with only some clothes and their immigration papers because she heard that soldiers were coming in the middle of the night to take the young boys. Unfortunately I was so overwhelmed coping with my own adjustment to living in the USA that it was difficult for me to help them in theirs.
After graduating from high school, I enrolled at American River Community College and got a job working as a waitress at night and weekends so I could pay for the college expenses. Feelings of depression and anxiety continued to plague me as I continued to struggle with suicidal ideations. While attending classes at American River College, I saw a class titled “Suicide Prevention” where students would learn about this issue and volunteer their time working at the suicide prevention hotline. I enrolled in the class as a way to help myself, and as I learned about mental health issues and how to deal with them, I began to learn tools to deal with my own anxiety and depression. By counseling people at the hotline who were having the same feelings of pain and hopelessness that I was having, I began to believe that suicide was not an option, and heal. As I learned my own coping mechanisms, it helped to clarify that I could use this knowledge to pursue a career helping people with their mental health issues.
Upon completion of two years at American River College, I transferred to Sacramento State University where I decided to obtain my BA in Psychology with the goal of pursuing a Masters in the field. I continued to work as a waitress for the Mexican restaurant in order to fund my education, and while the work was hard because the pay was low and I was on my feet for long hours, it was also a good support system for me. The people in the restaurant were immigrant adults with families to support and they wanted me to succeed. They lived their dreams of an education through me.
Upon graduation with my BA, I got a letter from the Masters of Social Work program at Sacramento State expressing an interest in my enrollment as a Spanish-speaking social worker. I graduated with my MSW three years later in 1989. During the program, I learned the importance of knowing yourself and your issues, so I also sought therapy to deal with past trauma so it wouldn’t interfere with my ability to help the communities I wanted to serve. I continued in therapy off and on for many years, and by the time my mother passed away in December 2015, I had fully healed my relationship with her and developed a bond to her. I was able to understand and appreciate the magnitude of her love and sacrifice for my sister and I by immigrating to the United States to provide a better life for us.
My first job in social work was in Stockton for Child Protective Services, working with the Latinx community, some of who were migrant workers. I remained in this field for 28 years, working primarily with the Latinx foster children and their families, until retiring in January 2017. I married my husband Paul in 1991 and we have one daughter, Alicia, who is now pursuing her MSW at UC Berkeley also with the goal of working with the Latinx community. I remember when she was born making a commitment to myself that I would teach her the Spanish language and culture, as well as the importance of working with underserved communities. I spoke Spanish to her at home, read her books in Spanish at night, and enrolled her in a private school where Spanish was taught from preschool through high school. I also took her to community events to participate in serving the poor, homeless, and foster children. I now look at her and feel very fulfilled that I kept this commitment as I see her love for service and for the Latinx community.
As I retired from Child Protective Services, I had the goal of continuing to serve immigrant communities as a volunteer in some capacity. I joined a group called the Sacramento Kindness Campaign’s Project Refugee, where my husband and I delivered meals and put together welcome backpacks to newly arrived Muslim immigrants. Through this group, I met a family of two parents and four children from Afghanistan who arrived to the United States on November 1, 2016 to avoid harm to their family. The children are 7 months, 3,4, and 6 years old. It is a very fulfilling experience because I am helping a family adjust to a new country as immigrants just like my mother, sister, and I were. By supporting this family in any way I can, I have a better understanding of my mother’s journey, and a full appreciation of the gift she gave to my sister and I by immigrating to the USA.
Sonia Landman was born in San Salvador, El Salvador, Central America. She immigrated to the United States on June 30, 1978 and worked as a social worker with Child Protective Services in California for 28 years. Sonia is married and has a 24 year old daughter.