Thursday, May 9, 2019
Janeth Valenzuela is a community activist particularly focused on improving school programs for immigrants and their children, and in maintaining an affordable neighborhood environment. Originally from Bolivia, she lives in Columbia Heights West.
I came to the United States from La Paz, Bolivia in December 1988. I had no family here when I arrived, just a friend of my mother’s. I had been studying journalism back home. When I finished I needed to do my thesis. I told my father that I wanted to go to Nicaragua during the Civil War. My father's family has a lot of journalists in it, and one of them went to Nicaragua and got shot. My father said, "I don't want you to come back like that, plus you are too young to go." But I was very relentless to go. Ever since I was young I was sort of like a revolutionary in my country. I did a lot of things back home to help other people. My father probably saw that if he said no I was going to keep pushing. Then he said, "I have a friend in the US. I want you to meet her and talk to her, then I want to ask her if you can go and visit her for a few months. If you like it, then you can stay. If you don't like it, when you come back I will sign the permissions for you to go to Nicaragua." I said, "Fine. Deal." In the meantime, though, I was working on the newspaper Hoy, in La Paz. I got a visa through them, and came here in December, in winter. The snow was really hard. I got here and I liked it. I said I don't want to go back home with nothing, I wanted to learn English at least.
I saw that everybody here in the US has to work to start eating, to survive. So I started working at Chevy Chase Country Club in Maryland. I would commute all the way to Chevy Chase from Arlington by Metro and bus until I learned how to drive. I started as a dishwasher and then they saw that I was very friendly, that I learn fast, so they offered me a job as a waitress. From there I started going up. I was very happy there for five years until I got into an accident. I wasn't able to work, and I ended up in a wheelchair. It was very sad. After the accident I was in a lot of treatments. It took me almost ten years to get better. I had to fire my doctors from Georgetown Hospital and John Hopkins. I found another neurologist, that was new in the area. She explained a new treatment to me. For a year her treatment went really well and I started standing on crutches, and then walked along with a cane, and then without the crutches. She is not only my doctor, she became my friend. Every time that I got depressed because of the pains that I went through, she taught me, she helped me to do something that gave me the meaning to keep going. Fortunately for me, my husband works in the computer field and makes good money to support the family, so my husband told me to focus on my son. My son Marcelo is our only child and I want to give him the best education possible. Because of him I started helping at schools. Even before we had our son we lived in Arlington Mills. I was already helping the parents. I used to teach computers and typing to the adults in the community center.
My goal was to go to school myself, but I never had a chance to go and properly learn English. But I love to read and write, so I start reading newspapers, I start reading books that were written in English. Sometimes I didn't understand, but I was still reading. My husband used to tell me to watch TV. Kids stuff, cartoons, because the English is more phonetic and clearer. I sort of taught myself English, with the help of my husband. I got tired of asking my husband to write things for me, so one day I said, "I'm going to start writing." I got up with that attitude, and I started practicing, though I still have mistakes. It's not my first language. But at least I have plenty to communicate.
We are here in this country. I came here for my own reasons, but many of the immigrants came to give a different future to their own kids. They already pay a price here by suffering at jobs that pay very badly, the wages are not the same as other people earn. They leave everything behind back home so they have to start with nothing here. So I said I will help give them their voice, I will help them to navigate the education system, so their kids can have a better future.
My son went Carlin Springs Elementary School and then went to Kenmore Middle School, and now he's about to finish at Washington-Lee High. He's looking into colleges now. At Carlin Springs I created a mother's group of volunteers every Wednesday, and the group started growing during the years. We became a big group. We were helping the school and the teachers in different activities. We did things like cutting paper, sending information to parents, putting folders together for the kids. We made programs for the parents, for the kids’ afterschool activities. Those were my six years and they wanted to hire me a couple times. I saw though, that if I worked for an institution I would have to be loyal to the institution and I wouldn’t be able to have the same independent voice that I have right now, to advocate for the parents. I did a lot of things with the moms. I went to Capitol Hill twice to ask for money for Carlin Springs School and to talk about family engagements and the school's community engagements. My dream since I was little was to meet any of the Kennedys, at least one Kennedy. When I went to Capitol Hill the second time I met Kennedy Shriver and then Jennifer Garner the actress, who was there because she's a big supporter of reading., too. We talked to them and Congressman Hoyer and another senator about the schools and the community. The second time was different than the first. The first time we were sitting on the back, just being part of the audience, but this time there were a lot of journalists and we were actually on the podium. I spoke about how important it is to collaborate with each other and give a voice to the parents, to help the kids to achieve their dreams... I don't know what else I said but at the end there was an ovation. Standing and applauding. So at that time they gave $1 million for the Title I schools community schools.
When my son moved to Kenmore I said I'm going to take a break, but the principal then, Dr. Word said, " I was expecting you to move to Kenmore," and I said I want to rest a little bit, I didn't want to have a headache. But Principal Word called me and I said, "Okay, I will come." He said, "I want you to help me build a bridge between the Hispanic community and the schools. I have tried to do this for so long, but I couldn't do it. The parents don't come to the school." So I presented a plan, and we started to put it in practice. For the first three months of that plan we had many parents attending the monthly Saturday meetings, and then we kept it going.
We created the Wednesday Moms group. They came from different schools. First, it was only Kenmore, but after seeing that we're doing good community service, Dr. Word said, "Let's invite other parents from other schools." We said let's embrace all the parents whose kids go to Campbell, Carlin Springs, Randolph, Barcroft, and Barrett schools. It turned out to be great because now we embrace many schools, many parents. When we need to do something or to talk about what we need for our kids, we all get together through WhatsApp I created WhatsApp groups for Washington-Lee and Kenmore. I'm a also a founder of ASPHA, the Arlington School Parents Hispanic Association, an organization that helps parents that have kids in school.
All of this changed the way the parents viewed the schools. I'm a friendly person, I'm not afraid of things, but when my son started Kenmore, I couldn't go inside. The walls are different and I didn't know the people. I said, I don't want other parents to feel that way, to be afraid to talk and meet the people who are working around their kids. I said, " We have to change this," so that parents can go in and out of Kenmore. We began to recruit parents. If I knew a parent, then that parent would invite another parent. That parent would invite others and explain what we do. There was a lot of networking.
The issues that come up are still the same, but it's easier now to navigate. What are the steps to communicate with teachers, what should I say if I have a problem, or what's the chain of command that I have to go through for them to hear my voice? Now, since the parents visit the school they know everybody. We have meetings where we have guests that come and speak on different topics. If a parent said I want to hear about special education, I will find an expert on special education to come and talk to the parents. And those parents are going to take that back into their communities. They're going to say, "Do you know that you can do this to help your kid?" so they put everything together and then they invite another parent. We try to service everybody.
The challenge and the biggest problem is that the people within the school system, either the staff or the teachers, aren’t always accepting of parents being in the schools. There will be people that don't like us to be there. It's hard to fight against. They're employees of APS, we are just volunteers.. But we have Mr. McBride's support, who is the principal, which is a great help. He supports us 200%. He's excellent. But not every school has that luxury.
When I came here I experienced some discrimination as a Latina woman. It’s happened in different places that I went. Sometimes in a store in a mall, like the old Hecht’s. Sometimes when I used to go pay for something, used to wait in line, and then if somebody else was behind me like a white person, the cashier would take them first, then me. But I always fought it. You know, I never stay quiet. I said, "It's my turn." I'm still like that because I was born a fighter, I never let people discriminate. One time I was parking and a lady came up while I was waiting for a parking spot where somebody was coming out. This other person came and just parked in front of me. I said, "I was waiting for the parking spot," and she came out and said, "Why are you waiting? You have to go back to your country, you do not belong here." And then I said, "You're don’t belong here, either. If you are Native American, then you have the right to say that, but you're not." And then she said, "Go back to your country," and I said, "Go back to your country, too." I have often had encounters like that but I always had the strength to fight against it.
I think I came by that strength because of how my father raised me. He used to tell me you are like the Queen of England. You only need the crown, but you are equal. Everybody is equal. Everybody has two hands, two feet, two eyes; you're not more than anybody and nobody is less than you. So my self-esteem was always strong enough to walk around the world. I still run into the discrimination, though for a long time it got less and less. In the past year though, it has actually increased, with the change of the national government. But, thank God that I know more and I can speak clearly now. Maybe not perfectly, but I can let them hear my voice. I'm always going be fighting for the right things.
I'm also board member of this condominium. We hired the Arlington Police Department as the security on our complex. One day recently, my husband was coming home from work and there were bunch of police cars here, so I went to look what happened. I was just observing, and then my husband arrived and he saw me. He started walking towards me, but the police stopped him and said, "you are the suspect we are looking for." My husband had a white shirt and black pants on, and they only had the description of a Hispanic person with black pants and white shirt, so they held my husband as a suspect. They were about to handcuff him, but I approached them and said, "What's going on?" They told me, "you're not supposed to be here." These were two Latino police officers. Then I said, ""Why are you arresting him?" And one said, "He's a suspect." I asked "Are you sure he's your suspect?" "Yeah, he's wearing black pants and white shirt." They told me again, " You're not supposed to be here. Go home!" Then I said, "No, I'm a board member of this condo association, and I'm supposed to be here because he's my husband and he just got home from work. "I want you right now to give me your cards, and I'm going to call Sergeant Tabibi,” who is the officer in charge of them at their station. Then they got scared, they let my husband go and apologized. I said, "You're not supposed to treat people like that. That's discrimination." Later I talked to Sergeant Tabibi and then he talked to them and they apologized to me and my husband. They said they were rookies. I said you should learn better. You have to keep doing education.
I became part of a lot of things because I think by being a board member, it gives me some power. I don't use the power for myself. I use the power to help people. If you don't have any power, you're not going to be able to help other people. That's the way it is in this country. Maybe in other countries too. Because I'm the president of Hispanic parents at Kenmore, Washington Lee, that gave me some power to go places and represent them.
There are some special needs that Latino families have. The first needs and barriers are the language and the communication. Some people who come here speak Spanish, but it's sometimes hard to understand them, because they're coming from very remote areas in their country and they may not even know how to read or write. One thing I keep saying to the parents, is that in our original countries we see people who are in higher positions, who rule our lives, like priests, like teachers. We believe in them, we trust them. That's part of our culture. I teach the new people that here it's not the same as back where we came from. Everybody here is equals, it's not like you have to respect this person just for their position and you have to be afraid. You have to be respectful, sure, but you don't have to be afraid of whatever they might do to you. If you're not advocating for your kid because you're afraid of this person, that is not right. You have the right to complain about things that you don't like if it's happening in the schools or in your community. I see that people are afraid to call the police when they have issues. They call me to call the police. They’re afraid they're going to be asked their names, their address. They are afraid of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). That's the most fearful thing for them. They are really afraid of ICE.
For that reason I made two workshops at school with Captain Benson of the police department. He came and explained that there is nothing to be afraid right now because the Arlington Police don't work with ICE. If the police are looking for somebody that may have committed crimes, that's different, they will go and look for that person. But others shouldn't be afraid. But that's not enough for many people, because if they go to court, even though the judge is not going to call the ICE, as soon as they step out of the courthouse, ICE is there. Even in Arlington, our police actually can't control that. So people are getting deported.
I help parents get in touch and go to Dr. Emma Violand-Sanchez’s Dreamers programs. There were a lot of Dreamers here, but this year the numbers of students enrolled went low, actually. Since the government changed, a lot of things have occurred. Somebody spread the rumor that if you ask for help, they're going to come and get you. These things go neighbor to neighbor. People tell other people and they start refusing services. They're afraid to say they're Dreamers, or that they used to receive food stamps or maybe care for their kids, or free lunch or reduced school lunch. This year, many parents didn't ask for it. They're afraid that those lists with names and addresses will go to ICE somehow, and that agents will go and look for them. So who's affected by that? The kids.
This is mostly Central American families. In South America to get a visa, you used to have to finish high school at least to get out of my country, because you were going to represent the country, and they wanted you to represent in a good way. It is different in Central America. They came here because of the civil wars they had. Everybody immigrated or was forced to immigrate. From El Salvador, Nicaragua. That's why there's many people who came here that didn’t know how to read or write. Now we all are blended, and others think, " all these Hispanic people, they don't know how to read or write." We are classified like we are illiterate, and that we are all Mexicans. There are some Mexicans in Arlington, but most of the people here are Central American or South American.
The South Americans are predominately from Bolivia, from Cochibamba. La Paz is different than Cochibamba. The people who came from Cochibamba often come from villages. One member of that village immigrates, and then this person helps more people come from their village, they start bringing their family and friends here to the United States. It works through communities. Spanish isn't even the first language of the people from rural parts of Bolivia and rural parts of Central America. Their native language is Quechua or Aymara. The Central Americans speak Maya and Miskito and all these other languages. Especially the Guatemalans, they have a hundred dialects. They have to communicate with other Latinos in Spanish, but that's not always what they speak at home. Some schools don't understand that. Many other people don't understand that even if you talk to them in Spanish, they're not going to grasp the actual meaning of what you're trying to say. So, thank God, people trust me, believe in me, that I can understand these issues and try to represent them the best way that I can. I try to meet their needs.
I am hoping my son goes to college. That's my dream, but we'll see how it goes. He's on the right path right now. He is going to meet all the requirements required for a diploma. My son had a learning disability in talking. When he was little he didn't want to speak. I talked to doctors, and then they said that you have to talk to him in English or Spanish only, he doesn't have the capacity to learn both languages. We decided to talk to him in English because he needed that for school, but he didn't want to talk until he was five. This experience actually gave me more strength to fight for the kids with disabilities.
At Washington-Lee High School we have monthly meetings every Thursday now. When I moved there we started with five parents, but now our meetings have no less than forty parents. Last night we had a meeting on transportation. I'm also vice chair on the transportation services, ACCT. At the first meeting, at Wakefield High School, eleven people who work at APS and four people at transportation came, plus me and the chair, but just one parent came. The second meeting was at Yorktown High. They told me there were just three parents over there. I said I would try to make something happen for Washington-Lee. I start sending messages to the parents. I tell them that we need to talk, that our voice is necessary, it's important, or otherwise we're going to lose the buses for our kids. So last night to my surprise, there were fifty-seven people in the meeting. The meeting was supposed to be in English, but they changed it to Spanish because there were so many Spanish parents and only five Anglo parents. They asked me, "How are you able to bring so many people?" I sent a message back that's because the Spanish-speaking parents trust me. I am very careful with what I do or what I say because I don't want the people who believe in me to later distrust me, or say she's not good. I have to be very careful with that.
To bring out fifty-seven parents, I send messages by WhatsApp and text. I have one hundred and fifty parents at Washington-Lee registered with my WhatsApp text. Same thing at Kenmore. Other parents at other schools have now create their own WhatsApp and share information with everybody. They network.
Right now I worry about Amazon's coming to Arlington. That will mess up the rent in Arlington, I believe, if they don't put any regulations or rent caps in place. I hear from parents that they're worried about their rents, especially people who live in Tyrol Hill Park here, and the Greenbrier down the street. I went to a meeting at APAH (Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing), and spoke about the situation at those places. I told them that everybody has kids in those units, but the managers of these buildings don't want the kids to go outside on the walking areas to play. When a kid goes there to play they charge the parents a fee. Seriously. They charge them a fee for letting kids go outside and play! They never give an explanation. I said, "That's not fair, why don't you parents say anything?" They said, "Because we're afraid they're going to tell us to leave." There's a lot of things happening. The rents are going up and up every year. Yesterday I found out that a mom in the building next door is paying an electrical bill of $280 a month for her two bedroom. I paid just seventy dollars for our three bedroom. As soon as the County approved that Amazon coming here, the rents went up 15%. I hear from people that they're afraid that they won't be able to be here. These immigrants and their kids are part of the schools. I'm a leader; I hear them and it hurts me for them to talk like that. They're going to start moving out of Arlington with the prices going up. I don't want this area to turn into another San Francisco or Seattle. People are worried about it. I started knocking on doors to have parents come on Friday to the park and talk about what we're going to do about rent, to put pressure on the County and not to make our Arlington an exclusive area for rich people, So, I start a new fight.
Fortunately for us here it's different in my condo. I am on the condo association board. We have a lot of people from different countries, but I'm the liaison from the Hispanic community. The people who are board members are very diverse and they all embrace everybody. Even people who rent the units to other Spanish people don't discriminate, we accept everybody, and there is not the issue with the rent going up and up,. Mostly it's fixed because the manager told the owners that they rent the units here for $1700 per month, and then everybody asks you how much you renting the unit for, $1700. So it stays there, and people don't get picked on.
The diversity that we have in Arlington is what makes it a great community. We share different cultures, and it is teaching us to be better human beings because we're learning from everybody. I learn from the people that came from Guatemala, from El Salvador, different cultures, Ethiopians, Asians, Arab people, everybody. We all help each other by being friends. Everybody contributes a little bit to make this country a better place to live. Without the immigrants, this country is not going to be the country that is. Even the Native Americans were immigrants from Siberia. Everybody is an immigrant. For the past two years though, it's not what we would hope for.
The land belongs to those who they work, who love to be part of this country. Many people come to this country not because they wanted to. They were forced to come here because of political issues or monetary issues. Nobody wants to come and suffer here, because the language is hard, they're always going to suffer the communication part. Nobody likes to live in one apartment when in their home countries they have backyards or they have family. But they came here for a reason and purpose. To be better, to build a better future for their kids, or themselves. Nobody comes here with malice. If we all work together, we're going to create a better place for everybody. But unfortunately, some people don't understand that.
I have seen changes in the community. It has grown and increased in people from different countries. I used to see people from Somalia in this area, the predominate group here was the Somali refugees. There are people from more different countries now, and I feel like I'm home. I don't feel like isolated like before, it was like “oh one Spanish here, one in there.” We didn't have that communication. Now I've related myself to everybody because we all have the same dreams, we all have the same needs, and we all can fight for the better things. I love the diversity of so many kinds of people.
With Amazon coming, I am afraid the diversity may change. I want to start fighting so that does not change. But the price is going up on the rent. They are going to force the families to leave Arlington one day. When I moved here, I lost part of myself because I left my family back home. Now I’ve lived here so many years, I consider this my home. I would not like it if somebody's going to kick me out.
I’ve learned that small communities can create better countries, because they give everything they bring from their countries. Whatever they have suffered, they can teach you to not let this happen in this country. You see them as a part of a lesson; “let's not do this because the consequences will be this...” But it seems like this year, with whatever has happened in the government, has created more fear. I feel bad for the kids whose parents have decided not to ask for food stamps, Medicare. I feel that these kids are not going to have food on their tables, or the possibilities in life. Everyday they need to eat. But if their parents are scared and refuse the help because they're afraid they're going to get in trouble, who's going to give food to these kids? That makes me sad. My son is okay. He has food he has shelter, we fight for him, but these families? It's very hard.
I have a lot of feelings for the community. It is emotional for me. Working for these the people in the community has taught me a lot. I learn a lot from them and I'm here to help them within my power, too, to achieve anything they want to do. Because of the position that I have, I’ve learned so many things from them, good and bad. That’s enriched me; I have to respect these people, how I have to work with them. The things they suffer, the things they went through, the things they are going through, it makes me more sensitive. And then, like I said before, this country would not be the same without these people.
Photography and interviews by Lloyd Wolf.