In Mamacita's Shoes by Natasha Samreny
Mamacita and I have lived very different lives. Granted, lately my mom says my Grandmother Frances and I should hit the road together. Mostly because of all the stories she tells.
But she’s always had star quality — Ecuadorian Elizabeth Taylor. With that gorgeous smile and impossible waist, she could have been an actress, or a doctor at least. Frances had the smarts, charisma and do whatever she wanted.
She’s older now and Time is taking back much of the mind and memory it lent. The endings are changing to her favorite stories. And sometimes I wonder how her story might have actually played out if certain people and systems had stepped out of the way. Or at least taken their feet off of her neck.
The distance between
Me at 16. Do I jump in the pool? It’s my pool party. But no one’s swimming, and it’s raining. Oh good, Adam jumped in first.
Frances at 16. Why is my she making me marry this man? I hardly know him. My mother’s friend. He used to watch me jump hopscotch outside the door.
Me at 21. Graduated from college. Full ride, no debt. Living at home, working a dream job.
Frances at 21. Divorced, 5 children. Growing debt. Shamed by her family for leaving an abusive marriage. Lost in a new country, she works tirelessly to reunite her little family 5,000 miles away.
In the winter of 1960, she lands in Illinois at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Her eldest daughter and a couple of suitcases in tow, all she wants is the chance to scrape build a new life — a safe life.
To scrape together the money for one passage is nearly impossible to begin with. Already in debt, the young mother has four other children waiting tentatively in the house of her somewhat estranged parents back in Quito, Ecuador.
It’s 1960, three years before the Equal Pay Act is passed in America. On average, women can make up to 60% of their male counterparts. That’s if you’re allowed to apply in the first place.
Frances measures every ticket, every meal, the next opportunity to see her children in wages worked.
“When she had to pay for something,” recounts my Mom, “It was always ‘Well that will take me half a day. She worked her butt off — didn’t drink water, didn’t eat.”
She gets a job sewing piece work at Hollywood Vasarette’s lingerie factory in Chicago. Every piece she places in her pile is cash. And people will steal from a pile of unattended cash.
Frances quickly learns to never leave her sewing machine, or work table unattended.
Racing against the clock, workers avoid leave their stations. They don’t eat or even drink water for hours at time, just to avoid getting up to go to the bathroom.
In Chicago summers, warehouse temps can surpass 110 degrees. But she has a job, a little money coming in for rent, food, a living wage. Back in Ecuador, her family and society all but deny her a regular wage. And since her parents pulled her from school a year before graduation, she doesn’t have a high school degree.
In the early 60s, some Ecuadorian policies are not dissimilar to American law. They reflect deep-seated societal values of the time — including post-colonial, patriarchal, heteronormative and religious traditions.
This greatly influences and restricts who can or will hire women and other minorities. Marital status is even listed on civic identity cards in big letters.
Single? We don’t hire single women. Only for very specific jobs.
Married? Then your husband must work. He’ll want you at home. We’ll need to talk to him.
Divorced? There’s nothing for you here.
“There had never, in the history of the family been a divorce,” Mom explains.
It doesn’t matter that a young woman is forced into marriage. Or that her marido will get her pregnant, go missing for weeks at a time, and then leave her at the steps of a welfare hospital to have the baby, so he can go to his girlfriend’s house.
In the eyes of Family, Society and the System, women and children are the responsibility of the man. Therefore, all financial decisions must go through him.
But the system is broken.
The heartbreaking details of Mamacita’s first marriage are not mine to tell. But there is one very telling moment that my own mother shares, that sheds light on the precarious situation Frances must navigate daily, just to protect her sanity and kids.
She is 20 maybe, and her husband (whom I refuse to name) has disappeared again, leaving them destitute. Somehow, her parents let them back in the house for now.
Frances convinces them to let her take evening coursework towards nursing. A straight-A student, she loves learning. With enough education, perhaps she can catch up for lost time, get a job as a nurse’s assistant, build a better life.
One evening, she misses the last bus home before her father’s curfew. He meets her at the door and has it out. How dare you bring shame on this family? What kind of woman walks alone at night? You are not my daughter.
First yelling, then hitting, amid tears and desperate apologies. Then barring her from taking any more classes while under his roof.
Sometimes, I try to imagine myself in Mamacita’s shoes. What would I have done?
To have had one small evening away, distracted by hope. As soon as she realized her timing, she probably rode the bus home full of anxiety. Terrified her machismo father would throw her and her children out, no money, no job, nowhere to go.
Years later, my own mom told me Mamacita said that was her breaking point … one of them.
She considered ending it. Her choices were running thin.
Coming to America
Frances arrives in Chicago in December of 1960. Winter is at least 50 degrees colder than her temperate hometown of Quito, Ecuador.
“It took her three years to earn enough money to ask for us,” explains my Mom. “And then once she asked for us, she sent [my grandmother] the money for four tickets to get us up here. And she had to pay extra to send unescorted minors.”
The streets aren’t paved with gold. But at least Frances she can walk them to get to work.
There are no micro loans for women of color yet. In the 60s, some countries will start passing laws allowing women to have their own bank accounts. But right now, all she can do is work.
Frances walks 5 miles to her factory job for the first few weeks, wearing the only clothes she brought — dresses and heels. Her feet freeze in the windy streets and cold sleet. While awaiting her first paychecks, she and her daughter Maria stay at her brother’s apartment with his new American wife.
In return, Frances cooks meals, does their laundry, cleans housed and washes dishes. But when she uses their machine to wash her own clothes, the wife charges her extra.
Instead of money, the lady of the house helps herself to the young immigrant woman’s only liquid assets, jewelry. First, she claims her emerald gold earrings, then a ring, and an 18 carat necklace.
Frances and Maria move on as quickly as they can. With little money and nearly non-existent support network, they take it one day at a time.
Their first apartment is cramped and they share a bathroom with all-gender tenants. If Chicago winters freeze bootless feet, then Chicago summers melt skin.
For a tiny respite, mother and daughter change into swimsuits at night, and lock themselves in the bathroom, soaking in a tub by the open window.
One evening, a strange man watches them and tries to climb up the fire escape to jump in. A neighbor spots it and yells frantically. They shut the window and get away just in time.
They find a safer set-up in the city and move in. Frances scrubs filthy walls clean and stitches privacy curtains out of an old skirt.
But when she’s at work, the mother worries for her tween daughter’s safety. Especially after school, in the hours before she gets home.
Fortunately, the new landlady notices her handiwork turning. So they strike a deal. If Frances can transform the others and sew as needed, the landlady will help keep an eye on Maria.
The young seamstress’ skills are becoming expert, and her English is improving. At night, the mother-daughter duo do homework together, accelerating language retention.
Frances makes and mends their clothes. They cook together and make a home, saving every cent they get. Whatever doesn’t go to living expenses, or family in Ecuador, they take to the local Five & Ten store where they piece together place settings one plate or fork at a time.
Finally, the day comes where Frances has enough to pay her parents to their satisfaction, and to send for her four sons and daughters waiting in Quito. It has been 3 years since they’ve all been together.
But now, the grandmother isn’t ready to let all her grandchildren go. Over the years, she’s become accustomed to the extra cash. In the fall of 1963, three siblings board a plane for their first time to fly from South America to their new home in America. One sister kept behind.
After two more attempts, Frances finally contacts a lawyer. Don’t give your mother any more money. Just buy the ticket, and send it.
Four years can feel like a lifetime. Frances is now married to another man. He is a good man and a good father. There are still challenges down their road, but those are for another day.
If there is a chance to live this life over again, we would call Mamacita La Doctora.
La Doctora at 30. She stands in a neat, clean space of her very first practice. The room is white like her coat, but the curtains are bright and cheery. Three framed degrees hang proudly on a white wall: high school, college, medical school.
In her desk drawer, lies a small velvet case. It’s one of the gold medals she earned in grammar school when she finished at the top of her class. Her mother had it melted down and re- inscribed with her brother’s name. Because your brother should be top of the class. Men are meant to be doctors, not you.
But in La Doctora’s version, being a woman in America is not a problem. At least not as big of a problem. Even if women only make 83% of every dollar men make, it’s more than the 60% they made in her previous life.
Here, her world view, experience, education and talents have no limits. Her access to opportunities and capital is as clear and unobstructed as any other white man.
A picture of La Doctora’s firstborn smiles up at her. Maybe there are more, maybe not. Perhaps a loving partner, but not out of necessity. Frances may choose whom, if and when they marry.
Because in this life, she is writing her own story, and there are many chapters.